By David Grunebaum
Special to DNAinfo
EAST HARLEM — A dozen girls lined up one behind another, stomping their tap-shoe-clad feet in unison. The faces of the 6 to 8-year-old dance students lit-up with smiles as they followed the lead of their 13-year-old instructor, Bobbi Middleton.
"I look at them and I see myself a few years ago," said Middleton, a member of the teen leadership committee at Groove With Me, a free dance program in East Harlem for girls from the neighborhood ages 4 to 18.
"I try to lead by example," she added. "Being part of the teen leadership committee helps give me a sense of accomplishment because I'm helping these younger kids."
Groove With Me was founded in 1996 by Abby McCreath as a non-profit program offering free dance classes to girls and teens from the community. It has since grown to include 35 volunteer teachers and 270 students, and offers dance classes at the school's studios on the second floor of 186 E. 123rd St. including modern, hip-hop, ballet and Afro-Caribbean styles. The program also supplies students with the specialized tap and ballet shoes they need for class.
"At Groove With Me we help girls build self esteem and the Teen Leadership Committee, which is for our older students, shows them ways to make positive contributions. We teach life lessons through dance lessons," McCreath said.
McCreath expanded her program to include the teen leadership committee last year, accepting eight teen volunteers to start teaching dance classes to younger girls while still continuing with their own dance lessons. All of the teen teachers lead a class of younger girls once a week, and the program has grown to have 11 volunteer teen teachers.
Parents of the younger students say the mentoring from older girls helps their daughters develop emotionally, as well as artistically.
"My 7-year-old daughter Ashley enjoys her class with Bobbi and really looks up to her," said Nebert Tomlinson, 48, a stay-at-home mom from Harlem.
But the teen teachers say the classes are as helpful to them as to their students, because they learn professional skills like responsibility and communication skills.
"We support one another and share ideas with each other, " said teen leader Chanel Jean-Michel, 16, of Harlem.
Jamali Corniel, one of Groove With Me's three full-time paid staff members, oversees the teen program and introduces the teen teachers to lessons on resume building and interviewing skills.
"We want to help them succeed in life outside of dancing," Corniel explained.
"My daughter comes here four times a week for these free dance lessons," said Tomlinson. "I can't afford to pay for after school activities. If it wasn't for Groove With Me, my daughter would just go straight home after school."