Kris Powell felt like he'd pretty much hit rock bottom.
After nearly four years of studying at the New World School of the Arts, the Booker High graduate and Moving Ethos company dancer could not scrape together the money for a final tuition payment that would earn him his degree.
Discouraged, depressed and unable even to afford to remain in Miami, where he'd immersed himself in the hip hop culture, the 23-year-old moved back home with a heavy heart to look for a job outside his chosen field. That ended up being a part-time custodial position at Brentwood Elementary School.
"Coming back here was a shock," says Powell. "I hadn't planned to come back at all, and to be scrubbing toilets ... it was definitely hard."
When Brentwood's principal, John Weida, realized who his newest janitor was, his heart sank too.
"I was crushed," recalls Weida, who had been an assistant principal at Booker Middle School when Powell was a student there. "He said to me, 'Weida, this is my life now.' All I could think was, 'Oh Kris, I had such high hopes for you!'"
After all, it was Powell who had proven him wrong after he'd discouraged the middle-schooler from entering Booker High's VPA dance program, questioning his motives. (Correctly as it turns out; it was about the girls — at least initially.)
Weida remembered the first time he saw Powell do a pas de deux with a female ballet student and how breathtakingly beautiful it had been. After Powell earned a two-year scholarship from a national college dance festival, Weida assumed he'd be one of those students who manage to defy background and socio-economic status.
To find him scouring the Brentwood bathrooms was, well, disheartening.
Even as he tried to focus with optimism on the year ahead, Weida's mind kept returning to Powell's plight.
Then, quite out of the blue, he got an idea.
An idea that just might kill two birds with one stone.
A win-win solution
For the past year, Weida had been faced with a dilemma. In order to meet state requirements for physical education hours, he'd had to combine classes, often overwhelming the staff, which struggled to manage the sheer numbers.
Searching for a solution, he realized that — with a variance from the district — he might be able to take some of the income from his after-school care program to hire an aide for the P.E. classes.
The variance came through just as classes were set to begin in August, but by then, Weida had switched gears. He went on the Internet and researched the standards and options for elementary school P.E. classes. One of them was "movement."
"I thought, 'I've got it!'" Weida recalls. "Kris was already in the district. I could hire him on contract. It was perfect."
He headed for the bathrooms.
Once he'd found Powell, he said, "Here's the deal," and explained his plan. "Are you interested?"
Powell looked at him in total disbelief.
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "What do you think, Weida? I'm scrubbing toilets!"
When the principal called him a few days later to let him know the plan had been accepted and he could put down his scrub brush, a shocked Powell politely, but profusely, thanked him.
Then he hung up the phone and let loose.
Learning the wave
It's two weeks into the school year and the second graders are in their second "P.E. 3" rotation: Hip-hop class with Mr. Kris.
The heavy beat of "Gangnam Style," the pop single by the South Korean singer Psy floods a small carpeted classroom at Brentwood filled with two dozen energetic — some might say hyper — 7-year-olds.
At the front of the room stands the 6-foot-2-inch Powell, dressed in black and red Chicago Bulls basketball shorts and a white V-neck t-shirt, his braided shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail. He is teaching a "wave," a rippling movement that travels from one hand through the shoulder, the head, the other shoulder and down the other arm, like a cracked whip.
"Wrist, elbow, cheek, cheek, elbow, wrist out," Powell calls out the sequence, tweaking each body part as he speaks its name. "This style you are doing is called 'ticking," 'cause you're doing it, like, choppy."
"Ow, that hurts," one boy complains, while appearing to be enjoying himself immensely.
"Yes, I know," says Powell, with a corresponding grin. "It hurts so good!"
The "wave" is added to the rest of a routine the class has mastered in just two sessions. Powell calls out the steps as the dancers continually inch forward. No one wants to be in the back row.
"Slide to the left. Slide to the right. Hop-hop left. Hop-hop right. Five-six-seven-eight! Waaaaaave and waaaave, and nod your head, five-six-seven-eight! Make a box, close it, open it and look through — stick it!"
"How was that for you guys?" Powell asks after leading a formal bow, one arm bent at the waist in front, the other behind.
"Awesome!" says Joey Jackson, 7, who is missing his front teeth. "I like the wave because SpongeBob does that."
After several more run-throughs — "You can't forget this now, because next week we're going to add more" — — Powell leads a form of the old red light/green light game; dance when the music is on, "stick it," or freeze, when it stops. Periodically, he good-naturedly calls someone out.
"You are out, sir," he says politely to one boy, then adds, "but you danced very nicely."
Weida, watching from a corner of the room, shakes his head.
"He's never been a teacher before and I didn't know he could do such a great job," he says. "I told him, 'Kris, this is brilliant.' And all he said was, 'You think this is good, Weida? Just wait.'"
A Cinderella story
Powell sits in Weida's office — for all the right reasons — reveling at how his life has turned around.
"It was a dream come true," he says of his fairytale-like transformation from Cinderella drudgery to eight hours a day as the ultra-cool hip-hop teacher. "This is the first real job I've had and the kids have been so positive and accepting. It's so nice to be given a chance to do what I love."
He loves it now, anyway. But it wasn't always so. When Powell was accepted in third grade into the Sarasota Ballet's Dance the Next Generation outreach program for inner city kids, he considered it a joke. After all, he'd only applied because he thought the audition would get him out of math class for a day.
But once he was accepted into the (then) seven-year after-school program, which promised college tuition assistance for graduates, his mother forced him to stay. He slogged through the ballet classes, but never really got turned on to the idea until he was introduced to jazz in middle school.
"This guy came to perform for us and he did all this poppin' and breakin' and I thought, 'Now that's what I need to do!'" Powell remembers.
Still, when he approached Weida to sign up for the high school VPA dance program — one of the first boys ever do so — he met resistance. Weida, suspecting the adolescent Powell was more interested in girls than dancing ("Well, who wouldn't rather be with girls than a bunch of smelly guys in P.E.?" Powell protests), tried to talk him out of it.
"Little did I know this would become his thing," the principal says now.
Arts as essential
Weida admits he was "a fat kid." He still remembers what it felt like to be the last one to finish a run or be picked for a team.
Consequently, as an adult, he is "an obesity nut." Medals for various marathon runs decorate his office and the Run Club he started at Brentwood now boasts more than 40 participants. But he also knows that running — or football for that matter — isn't for everyone.
As a former drama scholarship recipient, he's also seen the way the arts can "literally save people's lives." That the performing arts aren't a part of the regular elementary school curriculum in Sarasota County he finds an unfortunate omission.
So now, to be leading the only school in the district to offer hip-hop to every one of the 600-plus students in his kindergarten through fifth grade classes, is a point of great pride.
Originally, he thought he'd let Powell test the concept with third to fifth graders. Powell convinced him otherwise, insisting he could handle even the hyperactive younger students and kindergarteners.
Weida acquiesced, then braced for eating crow. Instead, all he has heard is accolades, from students and parents alike.
"Over the weekend, a parent I used to work with at Booker said, 'Weida, you're a genius. My son hates P.E. and now he can't stop talking about how much he loves this class," the principal says. "One little girl was mad at her mom because she came to sign her out for a doctor's appointment and she said, 'But Mom, you can't! I have movement today!"
He never imagined the class would be so uniformly embraced.
"I thought the boys would be standing in the back with their arms crossed and the hyper kids would be off the wall," he says. "It's been a great validation to have so many people talking about it."
Last weekend, Kelly Ayrault, a Brentwood teacher, asked her 9-year-old daughter, Hailey, a Brentwood fourth-grader, what one special thing she would like to do by herself with Mommy while Daddy was out of town. Hailey said she wanted to teach her mom the hip-hop dance routine she'd learned.
Aryault's son, Cole, a kindergartner, is also on board.
"Hailey is more of a sporty girl and she didn't really think this was her cup of tea," Aryault says. "And Cole wasn't fond of the idea of a dance class at all. He thought that was for girls. But now they're constantly checking their schedules and asking, 'When is P.E.3? When is P.E.3?"
The enthusiasm appears to be across the board. Aryault says a "goal writing" exercise in her class drew multiple responses of "to get better at dancing."
With a new music teacher this year and another teacher who has previously taught drama, Weida is already thinking ahead to flashmobs and performances.
"And it's only been nine days!" he says happily. "We have the perfect storm brewing here at Brentwood Elementary."
The kids in the back row
When Powell faced his first class, he knew exactly what to say.
"'Who doesn't like dance?'" he remembers asking straight-away.
The students who raised their hands are the ones he keeps foremost in his mind when he assumes his larger-than-life personna as Mr. Kris.
"Because that's who I was at that age," he says. "I try to think back in my mind to what I enjoyed, what made me laugh and was fun. The ones who are instantly enthusiastic, that's great, but I never forget the kids in the back row."
Nor does he forget the years of foundational ballet classes he endured and what, ultimately, they gave him. A way out. A way back.
"I have this grand master plan to really hook 'em with hip hop and then slide some ballet in the back door," Powell says, laughing. "But I don't call it that. When they say, 'Is this ballet?' I say, 'No, it's just stretching."
At least once a day, Powell reminds himself of what a difference a day makes.
"You have no idea," he says when asked about assuming his new title. "Just saying it makes me warm inside."
As for Weida, by challenging the system he realizes he's managed to help all his "kids" — the tall one in the braids notwithstanding.
"I guess it's time to let go of all those old stereotypes we hold on to," he says. "This is the most enthusiasm, the quickest, I've ever seen. And that's what you want to see. Kids who are really excited about learning."