Local ballroom dancing program launches Kickstarter

A nonprofit program that teaches public school students to dance hopes a Kickstarter campaign will help them get into area schools.

Update #1 — February 4, 2013; 8:14 AM

Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to fund additional ballroom dancing classes in local public schools.

“Dancing Classrooms is a social development program for 5th and 8th grade children that utilizes ballroom dancing as a vehicle to change the lives of not only the children who participate in the program, but also the lives of the teachers and parents who support these children,” said Alex Cedeno, co-founder of the nonprofit (see below).

Dancing Classrooms featured a pilot program last year, with two additional programs at Chimborazo and Greene elementary schools beginning this semester.

“Our priority now is to secure additional funding in order to serve more schools and students in the Greater Richmond area, expanding the program to one or more of the surrounding counties,” Cedeno said.

The nonprofit hopes to raise at least $6,000 to fund a 5th grade classroom in a local school. Six days remain to reach that goal.

Here’s the Kickstarter video:

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Original — November 19, 2012

A Palestinian-born ballroom dancer depicted by Antonio Banderas in the 2006 film, Take the Lead, has created an unusual dance program for fifth graders used by schools in 31 cities across five countries. Its proponents argue that it bolsters student self-esteem, increases grades, and reduces disciplinary issues. Now the program has come to Richmond.

Earlier this month, Pierre Dulaine was the guest of honor at a reception heralding a pilot program at Swansboro Elementary called Dancing Classrooms, the program he created nearly 20 years ago.

“The idea was to teach [students] to have confidence in themselves,” said the spritely 68-year-old. He said that his program gives students “something they’d never get anywhere else.”

Blossoming as a dancer

Dulaine was born in the Palestinian port city of Jaffa in 1944, but at age 13 his family moved to England. “Kids made fun of me because of my accent,” Dulaine said. As a shy 14-year-old, he began dancing, an activity, he said, that “made me blossom.”

He went on to perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall and in that city’s West End. In 1973, he met his dance partner, Yvonne Marceau. The pair would go on to win the British Exhibition Championships multiple times, start the American Ballroom Theater Company, and perform on Broadway.

In a profession that provided free time during the day, Dulaine decided to use that time to teach a ballroom dancing class to fifth grade students at a New York City elementary school in the early 1990s. The reason? “It did me a lot of good in England when I was a teenager,” he said. He felt compelled to share.

The goal wasn’t to train future dancers, but to instill confidence, respect, and civility among students. “I talk to the children,” said Dulaine of his approach. “I don’t talk down to the children.”

In 1994, based in part on his experience as a dance instructor, he formed Dancing Classrooms, an in-school program1 that teaches ballroom dancing to fifth-graders. Many did not share Dulaine’s optimism and enthusiasm for his program.

“I was met with a lot of resistance,” said the esteemed dancer when he pitched the idea to various public school officials in NYC. Dulaine said one of the most common derisions against his program was that it was “too elitist.” In fact, it’s rather democratic.

Hello, dance partner

Faced with the awkward prospect of dancing with fellow classmates, most fifth grade students (typically aged 10 and 11) react with grumbling, if not outright terror. “The boys [especially] don’t like it at the beginning.” However, Dulaine’s enthusiasm, respect for his pupils, and humor has students invariably “eating out of my hand.”

Dulaine refers to the students as “ladies and gentlemen.” The students are taught the escort position, in which a woman walks next to her partner, resting her left hand on his curved right arm. Politeness and civility are key. Students say “hello, dance partner” and “thank you, dance partner” to one another. But one of the most simple, yet radical, components of Dulaine’s teaching comes from the sense of touch.

“When you touch someone, something happens,” Dulaine said. The proliferation of digital devices makes students more connected to their peers than ever before, but with, some argue, an increased distance. “We don’t touch each other physically nowadays,” he said.

Students in the Dancing Classrooms program rotate dance partners among their classmates. In turn, that intimate proximity and touch makes it difficult for students to bully one another outside the class. Whereas some children spend school days among a closed clique, Dulaine’s classes oblige students to continually interact with their peers in a fun, educational way.

In addition to building student self-esteem, confidence, and sympathy, Dulaine said that teachers in other classes within schools have noticed improved behavior among students. Even improved attire. “Even a bus driver sees a change” in the students, Dulaine said. Despite initial classroom success in the mid-to-late 1990s, getting schools to take notice of what Dulaine had created was not easy. It took a film featuring Antonio Banderas to really move things along.

The 2006 film, Take the Lead, fictionally recounts the efforts of Dulaine to use dance as a social instruction tool. In the film, Banderas (who plays Dulaine) sets out to teach ballroom dancing to inner-city students in New York City. The film helped both advertise and legitimize Dancing Classrooms and captured the attention of one local man.

A new home in RVA

After arriving in Richmond in March of 2011, Alejandro “Alex” Cedeno, VP of Global Innovation at MeadWestvaco, said he began looking for ways “to get back into the community.” Leader of a corporate network for the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Board of Directors for the Richmond Symphony, Cedeno recalled learning of Dancing Classrooms last February. “It seemed like a shame we didn’t have it in Richmond,” Cedeno said.

Soon after, Cedeno began researching and preparing to bring Dulaine’s program to the region. To do so, Cedeno helped create a 501(c)(3), Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond.2

Although the Dancing Classroom instructors are not certified teachers,3 instructors are taught by Dulaine at one of either two annual, week-long intensive training programs. Maria Vysotskaya completed that training and is now the Lead Teaching Artist for Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond.

“It’s very serious training,” Vysotskaya said of Dulaine’s program. Dancing Classrooms has designed the 10-week, 20-lesson curriculum that’s used all over the world. “It’s proven and been done so many times,” Vysotskaya said. The program culminates with students’ families attending a performance. “You are going to be stars here at Swansboro,” is what Vysotskaya tells her classroom 206 and 207 students. Funding the local program comes from one of Richmond’s most notable citizens.

One of the first to realize the potential of Dancing Classrooms in Richmond schools, Jim Ukrop, former chairman of Ukrop’s grocers and independent director of Union First Market Bank, offered more than emotional support to the program.

“The video [see above] is what really got me excited about it,” Ukrop said by phone. “The video is what really convinced me that these kids” could get excited about the program.

He met with Cedeno to discuss the project and agreed to fund the 20-week pilot program at Swansboro elementary, which Ukrop attended years ago.4 Most of Ukrop’s contribution, roughly $1,700, goes to compensate Vysotskaya and her instruction.5 Dulaine believes that keeping costs down is important for Dancing Classrooms to thrive, even if it means he doesn’t see a cent.

“I can be without money, but the teachers have to be paid,” Dulaine said.

Cedeno said a program like Dancing Classrooms is “not done to make money.” However, he added “you cannot do something of this quality [solely] with volunteers.” Ukrop funded the full operating costs, in part, to introduce area public schools to the program so that others would follow.

“I would like to see it grow in other schools,” Ukrop said.

Like politics, all dancing is local

Swansboro principal, Herman Mizell, said he was “very excited” about the pilot program arriving at his school (which also offers the like-minded programs SPARC and Minds-In-Motion). He said the positive self-esteem that Dancing Classrooms embodies is “important to the success of the students.” He has already noticed benefits since the program began this year.

Dancing worldwide

Another movie based on Pierre Dulaine is expected in the next year. This film, a documentary, shows his experience teaching ballroom dancing among a mixed class of Israeli and Palestinian students in his native homeland. It’s titled Dancing in Jaffa, and has been submitted for consideration in the Sundance Film Festival.

Dulaine also has plans to unify Catholic and Protestant students in Belfast, Ireland in a similar way early next year.

“Referrals have really decreased,” Mizell said, itemizing the improvements. “Classroom disruptions have really decreased.” While stating that Dancing Classrooms is “not a panacea,” he believes the program is helping to improve students lives. A program built into existing fifth grade curriculum,6 Dancing Classrooms can use components found in math, social studies, and other classes, which organizers say lends to its success.

He said that the lessons have benefited even “the most challenging” students. According to Mizell, this behavior, before the arrival of Dancing Classrooms, was unheard of. He attributes the improvement to the new program because the students are “not singled out.” Rather, they become individuals through collective enjoyment.

The sad part in all this, Mizell said, comes with the beginning of the second semester and the conclusion of the pilot program. “I hate to see it end…If it were all year, it would be great.” As of now, funding will need to be secured to bring Dancing Classrooms back to Swansboro next year. Not only do organizers want the program to continue at Swansboro, but in other area schools.

Alejandro Cedeno, the regional organizer, said “I would love [Dancing Classrooms] to get into all 27 Richmond public schools.” To do that, Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond will have to, in all likelihood, rely on corporate sponsors and select parent-teacher associations to fund them. Such efforts are underway.

In January 2013, Chimborazo Elementary will begin offering the program to its fifth-grade students. Both Cedeno and Pierre Dulaine said they also want the program to expand into Henrico, Chesterfield, and other neighboring counties. It’s this sort of patient, gradual expansion that the founder of Dancing Classrooms knows well. It takes time for people to realize the program’s many benefits.

Spending over 18 years teaching ballroom dancing to fifth graders, Dulaine is more convinced than ever that dancing can cultivate children into confident, respectful young adults, all while they enjoy an activity they would otherwise have no access to. He is happy that Dancing Classrooms has arrived in Richmond. “We’re thrilled to be here.”

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  1. The reason it is an in-school program and not an after-school program is that, in the case of the latter, “none of [the students] will come.” If they did, Dulaine said, it would likely be a disproportionate number of girls. 
  2. All satellite Dancing Classrooms programs across the U.S. are registered 501(c)(3) to partner with their area schools. 
  3. And thus cannot be left alone with students; at least one teacher must remain with students during Dancing Classroom instruction, which Dulaine prefers, as it integrates the teacher into the experience. 
  4. Ukrop grew up two blocks away from the school. It was called Franklin School when he attended. 
  5. Full, non-pilot programs cost approximately $4,000, half of which is typically paid by the participating school, the remaining amount funded by regional Dancing Classrooms affiliate. 
  6. There is also an eighth grade curriculum. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Quantity over Quality on said:

    The trailer for that documentary is epic. There is no question students could use good ballroom instruction, as it teaches character building skills in a constructive and fun environment. Unfortunately, there is currently no system in place to sustain it. It seems like we think just throwing money and programs at RPS elementary students in the arts will somehow fix a problem, but all it really does is make their arts education more convoluted. More is not always better.

    RPS elementary students are offered a myriad of choices, sometimes in addition to their regular music and art classes and sometimes as a replacement for those classes. They are offered band, strings, minds in motion, SPARC, harp, even guitar – Spanish is also offered at the elementary level in some schools – not arts but it is still a time requirement. These are all taught by different instructors as a pull-out program from the students’ regular music or art instruction time. This creates an inequality because there will be students learning different concepts from different teachers for part of or all of the year. The actual content ends up being painted with such a broad brush that the students have little time to really soak up any real knowledge, because they are being pulled in so many different directions by these programs.

    In NYC, where the ballroom dancing program was started, there is a state requirement of 93 hours of arts instruction for grades 4-6. (http://schools.nyc.gov/offices/teachlearn/arts/nysartsrequirements.html) In Virginia, there is technically no standard of hours, but on average, students receive 90 minutes of art and music instruction per week. If there are 36 class meetings of music and art in a given year – which to be honest, is not the case factoring in SOL testing, snow days, etc. That adds up to about 63 hours of Art and Music training per year. With numbers like that, it is easy to see how it’s possible to get a program like that into schools without sacrificing other instructional time.

    The 10-week, 20-lesson course would work perfectly in a school system that provided time for the arts like NYC does. Heck, 5th grade students in Fairfax County get two music classes per week. It could easily be built into a standard music curriculum, but there is just not the structure in place in the state to accommodate that without having to sacrifice time in music & art (yes, both), or one of the STEM subjects, reading, et al. Couple that with how 5th graders’ time is so thin with all of the co-curricular opportunities, I can’t see this becoming an integral part of the 5th grade curriculum especially in a critical SOL year like 5th grade.

    To me this seems like a wealthy person’s reaction to a film and a need to ‘give back’ to the school. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate any and all arts education, but there needs to be a system either at the state or local level in place to protect this time that students can get training in the arts. Unfortunately we are placing such a burden on teachers and administrators with high-stakes testing that there is little time for anything else.

    As an aside, programs like ballroom dancing and dance in general should be as big a part of public school arts programs as music, drama, and visual art. Elementary General Music teachers do teach dance, and it is a component of Phys Ed. Curriculum throughout the K-12 stream. If you are going to introduce this skill that some students might want to continue learning, there needs to be a structure in place to foster that passion after the initial session has ended.

  2. Great idea! Dancing enhances confidence. I really appreciate schools that have dance classes.

  3. As a mother of a child with Developmental Disability, I can’t say enough about ballroom dance for children. Every aspect of it is packed with value that they take confidently into their lives. Building a the spirit of the child should be our number one priority.

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