Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dancing Classrooms


Dancing Classrooms Teaches Kids to Take a Bow
By Lisa Germinsky

The real-life inspiration behind Mad Hot Ballroom and Take the Lead teaches kids from the Bronx that ballroom dancing is more than a series of steps.

"Elegance! I have wonderful guests here watching. I need elegance!" This is what Pierre Dulaine, ballroom dancer extraordinaire, asks of students from MS 224 in the Bronx. And elegance he gets.

As he effortlessly steals the attention and respect of nearly 100 eighth-graders — not an easy thing for most adults to do — it's hard to imagine Pierre Dulaine as anything but entertaining and engaging. After all, Dulaine and his dancing partner, Yvonne Marceau, were world-renowned ballroom dancers long before the explosion of Dancing With The Stars brought ballroom into living rooms all across America. They are 4-time winners of the British Exhibition Championships. They created Dancing Classrooms, the program that has these 100 kids from the Bronx (and thousands internationally) locking arms with one another and moving, politely, to the music — a program that earned the pair the 2005 Americans for the Arts Award for Education. They even inspired two films: the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and the Antonio Banderas feature, Take the Lead.

However, when you ask the world-renowned Dulaine how it all began, he leads with, "I was shy ... can you believe that?"

No, actually.

He continues, "I picked up dancing when I was 14 years old … One of my friends went to [dance] school, then I started there and liked it very much." And as they say, the rest is history.

But the longer I watch him interact with these very respectful 13-year-olds, practicing the Waltz of all things, I begin to see the transformative powers of ballroom dancing.

Dulaine plays a few beats of a song and asks, "What's this?" Immediately and in unison the children respond, "Salsa!" He then gives them 10 seconds to get into formation and begins counting backwards. In under four seconds they are standing face-to-face with their partners in a very well-formed circle. Although this is their first lesson with the highly regarded Pierre, it is their 9th lesson in total, and when he begins calling out the steps, they know exactly what he's talking about. After a bit more practice, he cues up the song and lets them go at it. Frankly, it's impressive.

When the song ends and they return to their chairs surrounding the dance floor, Dulaine offers positive reinforcement and congratulates the kids on a job well done. In between his joking and self-depricating humor (he uses the expression "exsqueeze me" when he must repeat things more than once), he explains, "This is all about being polite and respectful to, and with each other." He goes on to spell out the next portion of the days events, which include sharing a meal of sorts. But there will be no mad dash to the table covered in juice boxes and chips. This is yet another exercise in manners. In small groups, boys escort the girls (hand on elbow and all) to the snack area. They return as couples, holding their snacks and take their seats.

Rooted in Giving Back

The roots of Dancing Classrooms can be traced to the early 1980s, when Dulaine and Marceau began to spread their ballroom-dance majesty from Broadway to Hollywood.

In 1984, the pair teamed up with Otto Cappel and founded the American Ballroom Theater Company (ABrT). While working on Broadway in Tommy Tune's Grand Hotel (roles for which they received the 1989-1990 Astaire Award for Best Dancing on Broadway), Dulaine says he found himself with extra time during the days and wanted to give something back. He began volunteering his time working with kids, and in 1994 established the educational nonprofit arm of ABrT, Dancing Classrooms.

Mad Hot Ballroom and Take The Lead are the factual and fictional portrayals of this educational program Dulaine and Marceau created to help bring social awareness, confidence and self-esteem to children through ballroom dance.

At the heart of the program is Dulaine's acute sensitivity to the notion that what he teaches on the dance floor holds potentially positive, long-lasting implications off the dance floor. And with locations in Geneva, Toronto, England and 17 US cities, Dancing Classrooms touches the lives of children around the globe on many levels. During 2008-2009 alone, they taught 40,500 kids in over 400 schools.

As might be expected, the kids weren't thrilled at the prospect of ballroom dance at first, but with his very upfront approach, Pierre has made converts of them all. Student Kiana Rodriguez says, "It's a good way to incorporate manners into something fun." In addition to grasping this over-arching message, many of the kids appreciate the additional benefits. Eighth-grader Eric Davis, whose favorite dance is the Salsa — thanks to "the energy and the form and everything," he notes — says, "It's very, very, very fun and it takes away stress."

The kids' instructor, George, talks about the changes he gets to witness on a regular basis. "You couldn’t get some of these kids to dance with each other and rotate and be respectful. They’re all wanting to play around with their friends and they’ll throw each other around, but no. At least for my class they’re pretty elegant, they’re pretty respectful," he says.

Giving kids a safe space to practice new behavior helps foster entirely new levels of relationships, which they can bring to all areas of their lives. "One of the assignments I gave them this semester was on Valentine’s Day," George says: "'Please write a dance invitation to your mom, dad, grandparents, whoever.' And so I’ll get those [invitations] back and look at them and it’s like, 'Wow, you know, they get it.' They’ll forget the steps two weeks from now, but you know they’ll remember a lot more than that."

Lasting Impressions

The practical implications of the Tango and the Waltz extend beyond manners and inter-personal skills. Many Dancing Classroom initiatives are based in low-income communities where kids are in particular need of attention and guidance. Many endure challenges on a day-to-day basis that most people never even imagine.

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