Long Read: Dancing Classrooms Goes Beyond the Ballroom for STL Students
It’s a few minutes before 2:30pm on a rainy October day at Barbara C. Jordan Elementary School. Six small heads peek out from around the corner of the cafeteria door. Behind them, invisible in the hallway, are 21 other classmates, lined up in girl-boy pairs with elbows linked together.
At 2:30pm, Dancing Classrooms teaching artist Angie Brooks cues up the music, and the students walk in formation into the center of the room, looping into a circle and continuing to move until Brooks calls them to attention and switches the music to a swing tune. The students have un-linked their arms and watch Brooks, standing on the perimeter of the circle, rock in and rock out, snapping her fingers in time with the beat. On her cue, they begin to join in. Today, the dance lesson begins with swing.
But Dancing Classrooms isn’t really about dance. There is dance, and there is also education—students learn the steps, history and cultural context of dances like the foxtrot and meringue. But Ken Lederle, board president and director of fine arts in the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Catholic schools, is quick to emphasize that the real purpose of the dance lessons is to teach skills that last far longer. “It’s a vehicle to all these other skills: of how to communicate with each other, how to interact with your fellow students, how to be respectful to adults,” he says.
Part of this emphasis on practical etiquette is that arm-and-arm entrance (the “escort position,” it’s called) and also what the students are doing now: Pairs face each other, arms extended out in front with palms up, one student laying his hands on the other’s. Lederle says it’s a “get-to-know-you, start-the-dance kind of position.” The boys ask the girls to dance. The girls respond with a yes. After practicing the first of the tandem swing steps, they rotate partners. This happens around every two to three minutes during the lesson, maybe longer, depending on the step and dance.
“You don’t get to dance with your friend; you don’t get to dance with your girlfriend; you don’t get to go off by yourself,” says Lederle. “You have to learn to work with everyone in the class, no matter what issues you may or may not have with everyone.”
The students exchange thank-yous—at this point in the 10-week program, these courtesies have become routine—and rotate to the next partner for another step. There’s no hesitancy, no shyness, no blushing at an age when interaction with the gender you’re attracted to is marked with either secret giggles or calls of cooties.
The program, now in around 20 schools in STL, is affiliated with the national Dancing Classrooms organization, which was started in NYC in 1994 by a dance instructor named Pierre Dulaine. Lauren Wilmore and a business partner, who has since left Dancing Classrooms, called Dulaine in 2008 as part of an effort to come up with an idea to win a Washington University social entrepreneurship grant. They didn’t win that year, but decided to keep going. Wilmore brought it to Lederle’s attention in 2009 and he helped them get it started at St. Francis Cabrini. “After that, more and more schools wanted to do it,” says Wilmore, who also teaches salsa outside of Dancing Classrooms. “So we kept going, got more experience.”
They won the prize the next year and used the money to keep the program going and growing. Now, Lederle says, schools come to him—whether of their own initiative or because a parent has become enamored with the idea after seeing it at another school—but other times he’ll approach a school he thinks is a “good fit.” What exactly that is, Lederle doesn’t say, but eventually, Wilmore says, they want to get it in every fifth-grade class in the St. Louis metro.
It’s worth noting that each student at each school—whether it’s a Catholic school in Ferguson, a public school in St. Louis city, a Catholic school in the CWE or Barbara C. Jordan out here in University City—learn the same steps to the same songs, which comes in handy at the end of the semester, when the schools get together for a dance competition that bridges cultures and backgrounds (Barbara C. Jordan, let it be known, is the reigning champ from last year’s spring competition).
The program also carries over to other aspects of students’ education. Music class, obviously, gets a boost as students learn rhythm; math skills are learned by breaking apart steps and counts. Classroom attention is better too, Lederle says. There’s less tension. Group projects go more smoothly. “Through dance, they’re starting to learn who everybody is and learning about their likes and dislikes and getting to know everyone one a more personal level so they understand how to work with each other,” says Lederle.
Ballroom dancing, then, might just be the icebreaker that 10- and 11-year-olds need.
“I was nervous,” says fifth-grader Di’Asia Bell. “I was so nervous that I actually cried. One of the other teachers told me ballroom dancing wasn’t going to be that bad, so I tried it out.”
“I was nervous the first time I did it, then I got used to it and saw it wasn’t that bad,” says Christian Smith, who’s loving the swing steps he picked up recently. “It started off scary and then got fun.”
Both students support Lederle’s thoughts on Dancing Classrooms’ cross-classroom effects: They say they’ve gotten more confident as a result of the lessons and that it’s helped them in other classes. “It’s helped me because I know the other people better and we can talk about things,” says Bell, whose favorite dance is the meringue.
“It helps me because … it helps me focus on my work and focus when I’m dancing,” says Smith, adding that the exercise helps him when it comes to football practice later, too.
Both student find themselves dancing outside of school, and Wilmore smiles as they talk. Teaching the students is something she misses now that her time is spent managing, enabling others to carry out the program’s goals. What she loved, she says, “was the journey of watching them grow. Sometimes the growth can be slow. This is a 10-week program, which isn’t a lot of time, and to watch growth that you can perceive in that amount of time is really exciting.”
And now, after almost seven years, Dancing Classrooms is beginning to see long-term results of their program: “The problems we have in the classroom have definitely gone down from fifth grade on through their eighth-grade year,” says Lederle. “There’s less problems going on in the classroom because they’ve all learned to talk and communicate with each other.”
But for the fifth-graders navigating both getting to know themselves and an increasingly complex social and emotional world, the simplest benefit might be the one with the greatest effect. After all, being 10 isn’t always easy.
“Sometimes I start with rough days when I come to school,” Bell adds. “Ballroom dancing, it just makes me happy.”