LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) " Reginald Larkins, winner of four national ballroom dance titles, barely resembles the boy who once struggled to make passing grades and could barely conjure a "hello."
Larkins, 19, said he was anti-social and timid when he started taking ballroom dance lessons in fifth grade at A.A. Nelson Elementary in 2009.
That year, children's advocacy group Whistle Stop began offering the lessons at area schools through its Dancing Classrooms program.
One day Larkins' teacher, impressed by his flair for performance, introduced him to Whistle Stop Director Nancy Vallee.
"She actually went and got him out of class so I could see him dance," Vallee said. "She said, 'He's a special-ed student, and he's going to struggle all his life. But he can really dance, and if he has this then I think he'll be all right.' Of course nobody knew how his gift was going to develop."
Vallee encouraged Larkins to join a new after-school program called DanceSport for students interested in competing. Since his parents worked in the afternoon, Vallee agreed to take him.
Larkins said he received positive feedback from teachers and gradually gained confidence. For the first time, he said, he felt he could understand what people were asking him to do.
"I guess that's why I kept doing it so long," Larkins said. "I didn't catch on like everybody else in math or English. It took me longer to learn it than others. But with dance I felt the opposite."
However, bullying became a problem in middle school. "Fifth grade through eighth I was picked on," he said. "I was picked on because I danced, because I was so different."
When he started high school, he said, he promised himself he would never be bullied again, so he made an effort to talk more and let down his guard.
Larkins' mother, Michelle, said that over the years her son went from being painfully shy to the "life of the party."
"He just opened up and started to have a lot of friends," she said. "His personality really came out."
She said other parents would approach her at competitions to gush about his talent. "When he starts dancing it's just perfect, and it's not just me," she said. "When he gets out there, he becomes Reginald the dancer."
Larkins said he has dabbled in hip-hop and other styles popular with people his age but didn't take to it like he did the rumba, cha-cha or swing.
Something about the smoothness and the partnership of ballroom dancing has kept him interested, he said.
"Ballroom just reminds me of home," Larkins said. "It's just something that will never leave me. This is something that I can always relate to or go back to if I ever needed something."
He said he loses himself a little each time he gets on stage. "When I dance I'm not the same person," Larkins said. "I feel like I leave my body and somebody else comes in and they do whatever they want to do."
After racking up awards in Baton Rouge, Larkins took home four national titles in various categories at the U.S. championship in Baltimore last year.
He started teaching at W.W. Lewis Middle School and DanceSport Academy during his junior year, then at Maplewood Middle and Barbe High his senior year.
After graduating from Sam Houston High in the spring, he became a full-time teacher in the DanceSport program.
Looking back, he said, it was Vallee who gave him the opportunity to reach his potential as a dancer. He said that without her he wouldn't have made it to class, let alone the national championship.
"I have matured so much in the past eight years in my life because of her," Larkins said. "Everything she has done for me has helped me with my personal skills and just myself. I really do care and love her for just never giving up on me."
Even now, she's still looking out for his future. The two are working on an application for Sowela Technical Community College and McNeese State University.
"A plan B," Vallee said with a smirk.