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York City dancers tap way to Cherry Blossom fest

Students from William Penn Senior High School's Performing Arts Institute will be part of the All Star Tap Team in the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

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Alizaya Santiago has always liked dancing. She danced in talent shows, mostly hip hop, and would copy the moves she watched on television.

This year, the sophomore started studying tap and ballet in the dance ensemble class at William Penn Senior High School, part of the revived Performing Arts Institute partnership with the Strand-Capitol. One recent afternoon at rehearsal, she struggled to find just the right words for why she likes to dance.

"It makes me feel good, like I can do something ... it makes me feel different," she said.

This weekend, Alizaya and three other students from William Penn will take their new tap skills on the road to dance with the All Star Tap Team in the National Cherry Blossom Festival. They'll head to Washington D.C. on Friday evening for a rehearsal, and on Saturday, they'll march in the festival parade and perform with other student dancers from around the country.

"It's fast," Alizaya, 15, said of the tap number to Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk." "But we got it down."

William Penn's performing arts program was a victim of York City School District budget cuts in 2011, and it was revived as a partnership with the Strand-Capitol in 2014. This school year, the slate of classes was expanded, and two full-time teachers for acting and music were hired to help stabilize previous issues with turnover.

The dance ensemble class, which focuses on tap and ballet, is new this year, said Cassie Rush, director of education for the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center and director of performing arts at William Penn. The students involved have all been dancing for years, but most had little formal training.

Rush wanted to find a way to draw attention to the students and their talent, she said, and so she applied for them to participate in the Cherry Blossom Festival.

"They've really been working very hard," she said.

La Quient Lewis, a sophomore, said he's both excited and nervous.

"I've never danced in front of so many people before," he said. He'd been dancing on his own, but just started classes this year at William Penn. He likes tap a little better than ballet — he's not too flexible — and he likes the chance to express himself through dance.

"Miss Cassie ... she made me realize my potential," he said.

Rush hopes to keep expanding the slate of performing arts classes. More students are now interested in tap dancing, she said. And more than 700 people attended the spring musical, "In the Heights," performed at the Strand-Capitol, which has school officials asking Rush for more.

"The direction everyone is saying is ... go bigger," Rush said.

At a glance

Four students from William Penn Senior High School will be dancing on the All Star Tap Dance Team in the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. this weekend.

The students are: Alizaya Santiago, La Quient Lewis, Kennard Watson and Shabreyah Smaw.

The parade runs from 10 a.m. to noon on Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. The parade will be shown live on local stations in D.C. and livestreamed online at, or you can watch later. The parade is slated to be shown on CBS 21 on April 30 at 1 p.m. Find more details at