Kristofer Washington has studied dance for nearly a year. He knows the fox trot, swing, and salsa. He's milling around the lobby of a New York City dance studio waiting for his Saturday class to start.
Kristofer is 10 years old. Heavy-set with cheeks begging to be pinched, he started dancing last year when Dancing Classrooms, a program founded by dancers Pierre Dulaine and Yvon Marceau, came to his elementary school.
“I danced hip hop before,” Kristofer says, “but it’s different from ballroom. Ballroom is just really fun.”
With television shows like “Dancing with the Stars” in its 13th season, ballroom dance isn’t as foreign as it used to be. But it’s still an incredible sight to see a room full of fifth-graders transform from fidgety kids to graceful “ladies and gentlemen,” as the program staff refer to them, doing the heel-toe-polka.
“It was just an experiment,” Mr. Dulaine says of the 18-year-old program that has grown from one school on the West Side of Manhattan to 509 schools in 24 cities around the world. Over 300,000 students have gone through the Dancing Classrooms program since its inception.
Born in Jaffa in Palestine, now Israel, Dulaine’s family moved to England when he was four years old. He started dancing at the age of 14 and says it transformed him from a shy young man who rarely smiled into a confident, elegant adult.
“I walked straight. I had savoir faire,” he says of his transformation.
Seated in the midtown dance studio where the Dancing Classroom offices are located, Dulaine exudes an air of grace. He wears pressed slacks and a black v-neck sweater over a light blue tie and white-collared shirt. Dulaine points out the posters lining the back wall of the lobby advertising films about his work – the 2005 documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” and the 2006 Hollywood film “Take the Lead.”
His hearty laugh and mischievous smile belie any stereotype of a stuffy dancer.
“I had no say in it, but who wouldn’t want Antonio playing you?” he says of actor Antonio Banderas, who played Dulaine in “Take the Lead.”
Creator of the “Dulaine Method” of teaching, the four-time world champion show dancer saw a need for children to learn vital skills like confidence and respect. He decided to use ballroom dancing as a tool, mixed with a safe environment filled with humor and joy, to break down social barriers and inspire teamwork and cooperation.
“Children aren’t being brought up with enough civility,” Dulaine says. “Everyone has a Blackberry, a blueberry, a strawberry, or an iPhone,” he says, laughing. “We speak to each other on the Internet and Facebook, but we no longer touch each other.”
This human contact and face-to-face communication is necessary for a healthy society, Dulaine says, and it’s something he teaches through Dancing Classrooms.
“In the ballroom, when you touch someone with respect you become human beings,” he says. “You’re no longer a white or a black person, Hispanic, Palestinian, or Chinese. You become human.”
While performing on Broadway in the early 1990s, Dulaine also taught Cotillion dance classes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He thought it was something kids might enjoy, and approached a public school principal with the idea.
“I really thought what’s good for the Upper East Side can be good for the Lower East Side,” he says. “But going into New York City public schools, everyone thought I was mad. ‘Are you sure? This is New York. These are challenging kids.’”
His critics were right: It wasn’t easy at first. Principals didn’t see the value in taking up precious class time twice a week for 10 weeks. The diversity in New York played against Dulaine with critics asking "What would our community do with ballroom dancing?"
But Lily Woo, an elementary school principal at Manhattan’s PS 130, says the program has been beneficial for the students and community. Dancing Classrooms has been taught in her school for 16 years now, working with fifth graders before they graduate and move on to middle school.
“A lot of our kids live very sheltered lives,” Ms. Woo says. The school is located in Chinatown, and most of her students come from immigrant homes.
“Sometimes what happens is they get to middle school, and they don’t know how to interact, socialize, or approach a young lady or man and not feel awkward,” Woo says.
Not only do students learn social skills, respect, and manners like opening doors or making eye contact, but the program is also educational. Dancing Classrooms teaches the history of dance, Woo says.
“There is social studies information built into the program, and it sparks their interest in learning more about the world,” she says.
Even though adults often value the experience from the outset, getting buy-in from the kids can take some work.
“The first class is the pits, but for me it’s the most wonderful class,” Dulaine says. “The kids don’t want to touch each other. They start far apart, and then it’s incredible. Within a 40-minute period I see them move together.”
He admits he has had children cry at the thought of dancing, he says. But he doesn’t force anyone to participate. After manning the boombox for a few sessions, most kids realize they’re missing out on a lot of fun.
Dulaine works with the kids’ imaginations.
“When we teach the Meringue, we aren’t saying side-together, side-together,” Dulaine says. “No! Instead it’s The Red Light Step.” Dulaine stands up to demonstrate, shuffling his feet in place as though he were waiting for a walk signal at a busy intersection. His face is expressive as he pantomimes checking his watch in exasperation. “We aren’t teaching the way a typical dance teacher would.”
On Saturdays in New York, students who have completed the Dancing Classrooms program in their public schools are invited to continue taking lessons. Parents chattering in a handful of different languages crowd around the edge of the ballroom as their children partner up with their “teammate” and “shake what their mama gave them” for an hour.
Tara Fulgham is the mother of 10-year old twins who participated in Dancing Classrooms last year. She says her daughter and son will come home and dance with her in front of the mirror and even with each other.
“I was surprised they liked it so much,” Ms. Fulgham says while attending the Saturday class. “Especially my son. I guess there’s a stigma against boys enjoying dance, but he loved it.”
Mr. Dulaine most recently took Dancing Classrooms overseas to his hometown of Jaffa. In a community with both Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli students, his goal of teaching kids to take pride in who they are while embracing others is particularly poignant. The elements of breaking down barriers and conflict resolution took on new meaning in a region that has been besieged by conflict for decades.
A film documentary about bringing Dancing Classrooms to Jaffa will be released next year.
Dulaine says he met with Jewish and Palestinian parents beforehand, and found they were very open to the idea.
“I brought them a gift,” he says, referring to Dancing Classrooms, “I wasn’t met with opposition.”
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