Everyone to the Dance Floor!

August 23, 2009

Cindy, a sweet and smiling fifth-grader, shows up several minutes after the rest of her class begins reviewing the basic tango, merengue, foxtrot, and swing moves they’ve been learning. She hasn’t been dawdling. She’s late because she has to take a more circuitous route to the school auditorium in her wheelchair. But she rolls right up to the lip of the stage at P.S. 33 in Manhattan and takes her usual position beside the tape player, slipping easily into the rhythm as Suzanne Perfetto Amidzich—“Miss Suzanne” to the students—calls out the music cues. Cindy is the class DJ, and a perfect example of how Dancing Classrooms, the program made famous in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and the Antonio Banderas flick Take the Lead, isn’t just about teaching dance steps.


“It’s a social development program that uses ballroom dances to instill confidence and teamwork and respect in the children,” says Pierre Dulaine, the founder and executive director. So even students who can’t dance—whether for physical, cultural, or religious reasons—are included. “The whole class comes in, and the whole class leaves,” Dulaine says. The operating assumption on the dance floor is that no one is too big or too small, too clumsy or too shy to participate.


Dulaine, a prize-winning ballroom dancer who began competing as a teenager in England and ended up performing and teaching in New York, founded the American Ballroom Theater Company with his dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, in 1984. Dancing Classrooms was born 10 years later, after Dulaine agreed to teach a one-off ballroom class to a group of New York City fifth-graders. The positive reaction prompted him to develop the basic curriculum that has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. During the last school year, 265 teaching artists worked with 40,500 students in 400 schools. Expanding beyond its original target population in at-risk urban neighborhoods, Dancing Classrooms now serves cities as disparate as Newark, New Jersey, and Geneva, Switzerland—13 in all. In recent months Dulaine has traveled to Jordan and Trinidad and Tobago, preparing to roll out his Dulaine Method in two more countries.


The Dulaine Method, he says, stresses respect. “The most important thing for a teacher is to be present mentally and emotionally, and really speak with the students—not to speak down to them.” He has no use for teachers “standing in the middle, sticking out their hand saying, ‘nah, nah, nah, do this.’ For us, everything is ‘Yes’: OK, that’s one way of doing it. But have you tried doing it like this? Because this way is more elegant.”


To make sure his teachers follow the script, Dulaine personally trains all of Dancing Classrooms’ teaching artists using a 60-hour course he developed. His trainees are not necessarily ballroom dancers, although most have some dance background. They don’t really need it for the simple ballroom routines they pass along to the students. The key element is how they do that. “We teach them how to teach,” he says.


They learn, for example, how to use stealth. To overcome standard fifth-grade inhibitions about touching and being touched, the Dulaine Method introduces a specialized lingo that defuses embarrassment. Hands, for example, become “pancakes.” With “pancakes” up in the air, partners align their forearms to make “peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.” Before they realize it, the students are in waltz position. A pair of 11-year-olds might feel squeamish about holding hands, but how can they object to putting their pancakes together?


The ease and enthusiasm in Miss Suzanne’s class are evident. At this point—week nine of the 10-week syllabus—the students need no coaxing to pair up as Amizdich calls out, “Escort position, please.” They march onstage and form a circle. The first item for the day is a review of the waltz. Amizdich checks everyone’s position—“Make a beautiful frame!”—and starts the music. She counts the opening beats and says, “Please begin.” The endless stream of not-so-common courtesy is part of Dulaine’s system. “We say, ‘Thank you, partner; hello, new partner,’ ” he says. “We want to instill in the children the idea that they are ladies and gentlemen. At that impressionable age, you can show them things that will be life skills for later on.”


When things in class get a little ragged, Amidzich pauses. But she’s less concerned with the missteps than with the students’ reactions to them. “If your partner is having a hard time,” she admonishes, “this isn’t what he needs to see,” and she mimes huffy, petulant annoyance. “Be patient. He’ll learn what the steps are.” And then, to demonstrate the next move with a partner, she says, “If I could borrow a gentleman. . .?” There’s no shortage of volunteers. The trick to holding their interest, she says, is not to linger over anything: “Keep rotating partners, keep it moving, keep it fast.”


Tom Kelly, the classroom teacher, is up there too, doing the moves with his students. He’s watched kids blossom over the course of the term. “Their posture changes,” he says. “Kids who might not necessarily be good at academic learning become engaged in ballroom dancing. Some boys in the class have grown to love the program. They always make sure they’re in school on Mondays and Fridays, and that they’ve done all their other work. It begins to affect other outcomes in the classroom.”


Kelly describes one student as “a selective mute” who has never spoken in school, although she speaks at home. Dancing Classrooms, he says, “has given her a forum for expressing herself. When she’s written about it for class, she says dance is her way of communicating.”


American Ballroom Theater provides classroom teachers with informational packets on the social background and history of each of the dances the children will be learning. Kelly assigned his students research projects on the dances they liked best; then they presented what they’d learned in PowerPoint reports. When John Michael, in his crisp striped polo shirt, volunteers that his favorite dance is the merengue, “because I come from the Dominican Republic and that’s where it was made,” he’s not just expressing ethnic pride. He has absorbed a curriculum.


Kelly says he’s been doing some absorbing, too. Like John Michael, he’s grown fond of the merengue. And at his brother’s wedding in June, he says, it came in handy.



Sylviane Gold writes on theater for
The New York Times.


Photo Courtesy American Ballroom Theater