For years, I’ve heard people talking about the fun times to be had at the Rock Around the World party, but I’d never had a chance to attend. That all changed last Friday night. With years worth of buildup, I arrived with high hopes, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.

The annual bash filled the Italian Heritage Center with 300 people who came to enjoy a buffet of international cuisine and bid on more than 100 silent auction items. Hosted by the Portland Public Schools Multilingual & Multicultural Center, the party raised $7,000 for the center’s four-week intensive summer school program for kids learning English.

While the focus of the event was making sure all Portland students have the English skills they need to succeed, the highlight of the fundraiser was the series of international dances the attendees not only got to watch, but to try for themselves. These interactive performances – each led by one or two local experts – included dances from Afghanistan, China, Congo, Serbia and Brazil.

Many of the partygoers I spoke with told me the ability to learn new dance steps is why they come to the event.

“I love any excuse to dance,” Deb Sandler said. “My husband and I always get up and dance.”

The dance floor was packed until midnight – though there is a chance that the presence of me and my camera may have inhibited some of the potential dancers.

For instance, when I caught up with Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones, who was at the party with his wife, and Hall School principal Kelly Hasson, I asked Mavodones whether or not he’d be joining the dancers.

“I did last year,” he said. “But now that you’re here I don’t know.”

He said this with a laugh, but I couldn’t help but notice he was eyeing my camera suspiciously. I tried to reassure him by telling him I’d taken photos of Portland’s previous mayor Jill Duson dancing, but that didn’t seem to persuade him. I never did see him on the dance floor, but there’s always a chance he was able to do a little booty-shaking once I (and my camera) said goodbye for the night.

After talking with a number of teachers and school administrators, we determined this is the only swanky, after-hours fundraiser hosted by the Portland schools.

“There aren’t many celebrations like this” in the school community, said Ken Kunin, who’s the principal of Deering High. “It raises a lot of money for summer school.”

“This is totally put on by the schools, so the kids can have summer school because the district can’t afford it,” said Marge Sampson, who works at Portland High. “It’s a great thing and it’s fun.”

Sampson went on to explain that most students who are learning English can backslide when they’re out of school for more than two months. That’s why the summer school is so crucial. (Particularly when those pesky standardized tests that determine how much progress a school is making show up just as the students arrive back from summer break.)

It’s not as if these kids lack the smarts to pick up English.

As Virginia Stelk, who works for the Multilingual Center, pointed out, there’s a reason the school no longer calls the classes for non-native English speakers English as a Second Language.

“For most of our kids, English is their third or fourth language,” Stelk said.

Like all folks learning a new language, they just need regular immersion.

“We know so many kids who are new to the country who just need everybody to help them,” said Jody Capelluti, who attended the party with his wife, Vanessa.

“It’s a good event,” said Andy Charles, who owns Havens Candies. “It’s different every year.”

Charles is a fan of the party’s signature dance moves and when I caught up with him he was giving Pirun Sen a hard time for not having his well-regarded dance troupe in tow. Sen, who works as a parent and community liaison in the Multilingual Center, also heads a classical Cambodian dance troupe called the Samaki Ensemble.

“We have to perform tomorrow,” Sen said to explain the group’s absence. “I try to avoid scheduling back-to-back performances.”

We agreed this was a good excuse and decided it was okay to forgive the dancers’ absence. But that won’t stop us from looking for them at next year’s party.

Beth Stickney, who directs the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which is hosting its annual CeleSoiree fundraiser next Friday, showed up to support this event as well.

“It’s fun music, and it’s good to watch,” Stickney said.

Grace Valenzuela, the center’s director, was thrilled that the event raised more money than it did last year.

“It gets better every year,” Valenzuela said. “And this is the best so far.”

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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