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American Ballroom Theater's Dancing Classrooms update

by Yvonne Marceau
November 17, 2004
New York, NY

American Ballroom Theater's Dancing Classrooms update

Yvonne Marceau
November 17, 2004

2004 marked the 10th year of American Ballroom Theater's work in the New York City public school system. We are very proud of our progress and amazed at the continual expansion of our ballroom dance program, Dancing Classrooms.

Statistics first: during the 03-04 school year we serviced 56 schools with 28 teachers and taught 251 classes reaching 7000 4th, 5th and 6th grade children. Whew!!!

What started as Pierre Dulaine's desire to bring to all children what the privileged saw as an important lesson for their children-learning how to socialize-has grown into a legitimate "arts in education" program.

We have not, certainly, abandoned the initial thrust. We still feel it is of primary importance for all children to understand how to interact in a physical, yet socially acceptable way with each other and we offer guidance in learning to feel comfortable in social situations — -talking, meeting others, making introductions. During classes we often change partners several times in the framework of a three minute song and it is fascinating to observe the students body language loosen up as they go from partner to partner. Meeting others can be a fun experience — -even for shy 5th graders!

We discuss "escort position" with the lady on the gentleman's right side and its roots in chivalry. Did you know that because most of the world is right handed, knights carried their swords on the left side? It was unseemly (and awkward for both partners) to have a lady walk on the sword side. So the lady was positioned to the gentleman's right and that remains the place of honor through to this day. Our students enter and leave classes in this classic escort position.

But what are we really trying to accomplish by teaching social dancing to 10 and 11 year olds? What would we like our students to carry with them into life?

Certainly an understanding of the dances: Merengue, Foxtrot, Rumba, Tango, Swing and Waltz. A fundamental knowledge of the basic steps. A clear frame and dance position. A good idea about leading and following.

But each of these concepts opens windows to other subjects and provides a jumping off point for academic enquiry.

The dances: Each dance comes from a different country and brings with it the music and the extraordinary culture of a people. Where does the Merengue originate? What is the capital of the Dominican Republic? What other country shares the same island? These questions move the children out of the dance world and into the entire world. What begins as a dance lesson becomes a geography lesson and young minds are opened to broader fields. This is exceptionally relevant in the NY City school system as it is a meeting ground of the world (some schools host children speaking as many as 50 different languages!) What a significant opportunity for children to learn about each other and their heritages-and each others — -brought about through the medium of dance.

A fundamental knowledge of the basic steps: This is dance technique and teaches physical concepts inherent to all dance: spatial awareness (where are you standing in the room?), musical sensibility (what is the rhythm of the Foxtrot?), patterns (how do you create a box on the floor?), dynamics, coordination, balance, etc. For students blessed with physical intelligence this kind of learning opens pathways of discipline and self discovery which offer insights into other methods of learning. It helps them organize their world in a way they can understand.

A clear frame and dance position: We use this skill to promote suitable body language (one needs to stand up beautifully in order to dance beautifully and we all constantly read each other's body language. What does my body language tell you about me, we ask the students. When you go for an interview for school, or later for a job, body language will greatly determine the power of the first impression you give, we tell them. Have you ever seen a movie star with droopy body language? Is this because they're famous, or did they become famous because they projected good self image?)

And it is through the conventions of frame and dance position that a "team" is created. Granted it is only a team of two, but it is a team none the less. And just as in any sport, both partners must give their personal best at every second for the team to succeed.

Leading and following: Related to the idea of the team, this deals with gender relationships. Two people needn't be boyfriend/girlfriend to dance together. Each partner has a "position" to play, the convention just happens to be 1 male and 1 female. We hear from school teachers and principals that this has changed the dynamics of boy/girl relationships in some schools — -they become friends with each other and learn that the opposite sex is not such a strange and dangerous thing. They learn to see each other as people and partners first rather than boyfriend/girlfriend and that this is helpful at such a dangerous and hormone active age. They have "held" each other in the dance "embrace" position — in public- and its OK.

And what is next for Dancing Classrooms? We simply hope to continue the exchange — — providing students with tools to connect them to positive elements in life and learning from them the best ways to do that. "It takes two….."

See Yvonne Marceau's first article on Dancing Classrooms.

Please also see the American Ballroom Theatre website at www.americanballroomtheater.com.

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