Other students who waited backstage bit their fingernails and chattered nervously, but Tim Dash looked just like he always did: confident and unbothered, almost apathetic.
The quarterback of the Glen Burnie High School football team, Dash had earned school-wide popularity for his unflappability. He reacted to jeers and cheers with similar indifference. During some Friday night football games, he suffered a half-dozen crushing hits from linebackers, only to walk through school halls Monday morning like he'd never been touched.
For almost four years, Dash had built his high school reputation on a simple philosophy: stay cool. He reminded himself of that mantra now, as he readied to dance to Aerosmith and Barry Manilow in a school production. Then the curtains slid open. The music started. A spotlight hit his face.
The quarterback felt, he said later, like throwing up.
"I've never been that nervous in my life," said Dash, who performed flawlessly nonetheless. "I couldn't help it. The crowd just got to me. Football never gave me anything like that."
It's a sensation that has practically become a rite of passage for athletes at Glen Burnie, a public high school in Anne Arundel County that has fused team sports and dance with unparalleled success. Each year, about 350 Glen Burnie students take "Dance for the Athlete," a class that teaches swing, Latin, hip-hop, ballroom and Broadway dancing before culminating each semester in a performance in front of 1,400 in the school auditorium. It is Glen Burnie's most popular class, but it's offered at only a few other schools -- and nowhere outside out of Anne Arundel.
Dance and boys' sports -- two activities once diametrically opposed in high schools -- are symbiotic at Glen Burnie. Athlete participation fuels the state's largest dance program; dance classes improve athletes' footwork, agility, balance and composure under pressure.
But Glen Burnie's program also is the latest manifestation of a shifting perception among male athletes at the school. Dancing, once taboo for macho sports stars, has become cool.
"These big jocks are figuring out that dancing is no girly activity," said Dianne Rosso, dance director at Glen Burnie. "This class makes even our best players better athletes and more confident performers. They can't get enough of it."
It's a popularity Rosso hardly anticipated when she wrote the curriculum for the first Dance for the Athlete class about a decade ago. Back then, Rosso said, dancing was so stigmatized that no boy signed up for her first class. Girls in the class combed schools halls, desperate to recruit male dance partners. Even then, they only found four.
"But those guys loved it," said Rosso, "and they spread the word to everyone."
What resulted at Glen Burnie became a demonstration in exponential mathematics. Eight boys signed up the next year. Then 20. Then almost 50. This year, Glen Burnie will offer 14 sections of Dance for the Athlete, each filled with about 25 students.
The class counts as an elective, and students are allowed to take it as often as they please, so long as they also fulfill their core requirements. Some students make the class a fixture of their schedules each semester, Rosso said. It's not uncommon, students said, to take multiple Dance for the Athlete classes during one term.
Grading revolves largely around attendance and improvement and, while students unanimously regard the class as fairly easy, everyone gets nervous for the final exam. The end-of-semester performance draws more people than the school's homecoming football game, at a cost of $7 per ticket.
Rosso hosted the last show on Jan. 12. The following day at school, administrators said, dozens of students went into the guidance office and begged counselors to change their schedules for the following semester. They all wanted into Dance for the Athlete.
Some students who don't get into the class decide to go anyway. Ricky Chilipko, the school's best soccer player, took the class this winter for no credit. Instead of going home at the end of his school day, Chilipko walked to the mirrored dance studio on the school's second floor and spent another 80 minutes in class.
"I've lost track of how many times I've taken it," Chilipko said. "It's definitely in the teens. You might think that sounds crazy, but all the big, popular guys at this school get in this class and love it. It's the coolest class here. It's not what you think of as dancing."
Chilipko usually shows up for class in sweat pants and a baggy Glen Burnie T-shirt. When he gets there, he dances to the type of music that he'd usually blast from his car speakers: Usher, Aerosmith and blink-182. For the most recent performance, Chilipko and four friends choreographed a dance to a song by boy-band *NSYNC.
Athletes who arrive suspicious at the beginning of the semester end up dancing without even knowing it. Rosso borrows moves from Glen Burnie sports practices -- side-to-side shuffles and cross-stepping agility drills -- and puts them to music. "Before you know it," senior basketball player Erika Jones said, "you're moving to the beat."
Progress happens like that, Rosso said -- in baby steps. The instructor turns good players into good dancers, she said, by forcing them to rely on the tenets of athletics: balance, coordination, agility, muscle memory and, yes, even endurance. In a typical Dance for the Athlete class, the group runs through a full song routine up to six times. By the time the bell rings, students said, half the class has collapsed on the floor.
"It gets you in amazing shape," said junior Kelly Leary, a pitcher on the softball team. "Out of all the sports I've played, this might be the best workout. After class, we can hardly move."
When they can move again, though, they do so more capably. Dash, the quarterback, said the class improved his balance, leaving him better able to recover from near tackles. Jones, the basketball player, improved her post-up moves, because a swing-step combination reminded her of a drop step.
TaRonce Stowes, a senior point guard, credits Dance for the Athlete with making him one of the best boys' basketball defenders in Anne Arundel. "I'm way better now at changing direction," Stowes said. "You know how people talk about breaking your ankles? Well, that doesn't happen to me anymore."
"That class really helped him," Glen Burnie basketball coach Mike Rudd said. "I tell all of my players, 'Get in that class.' It's something different than just regular [physical education]. The kids who do it come away with something pretty unique. Plus, they get a ton of confidence."
Since the show on Jan. 12, Stowes has heard about little other than swing dancing, he said. He walked into basketball practice a few days after the performance expecting some good-natured teasing from his teammates. Instead, they asked for an encore -- and group lessons.
Chilipko, the soccer player, has been overwhelmed with similar requests. He's repeated his *NSYNC routine "hundreds of times," he said. When people ask how he perfected it, he points them to Rosso's already overflowing class.
"I walk through the hall and people I don't even know are talking to me about that dance routine," Chilipko said. "I'm probably more known at this school for being a dancer than a soccer player. That's kind of scary to think about. But actually, I'm cool with it."