Teaching Opinion

Dancing Classrooms

By John Wilson — February 19, 2013 5 min read
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We all hear about great educational programs in a few school districts, and we wish that these were available to all students in every district. When you see the faces of students who are participating in excellent programs and you grasp the impact that these programs have, you just want to shout from the rooftop, “Do whatever it takes to give every student this gift of educational excellence!” That is the way I felt last week when I attended a benefit for Dancing Classrooms in New York City.

Dancing Classrooms was the brain child of Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau who created this program as a project of the American Ballroom Theatre Company. The mission of the program is to build social awareness, confidence, and self esteem in children through the practice of social dance. The program provides 20 dance sessions over a ten-week period for 5th and 8th graders. It enables students to engage with other students who are not in their normal social circles with the result of breaking down barriers almost immediately.

Sometimes programs don’t live up to their hype, but this one does. I was lucky enough to see the program in action. I saw students from the schools of New York City advance to the dance floor in an exclusive hotel poised, confident, and happy as they displayed their dancing skills with grace and talent. I suspect their teachers, former teachers, and parents were amazed and proud of the maturity that their students exhibited. Children do rise to the expectations of the adults in their lives, and ballroom dance, which is almost always out of their comfort zone and experience, allows them to demonstrate the potential that we know exists in each of them.

The Dancing Classrooms program can be found now in over 500 schools in a network of 24 American communities and five international sites. Remember that we have 100,000 schools in the United States; this means that so many children do not have this opportunity. But we have businesses, philanthropists, and supporters of the arts who are willing to sponsor arts-in-education programs. We need to tell them about Dancing Classrooms. Just like at a middle school dance, all our students need is for someone to make the first move, someone to set up the program. Dancing Classrooms is affordable. Why not make it available to every child?

Our children deserve to have smiles on their faces. Standardized tests, practice tests, and scripted learning have sapped most of the joy out of learning and teaching. The arts can give back much of that joy and can provide a foundation for creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. We need more arts and less testing. The arts will strengthen literacy, math, and science more than any test. When given the choice, I hope you dance.

Note: Below is a good description of the philosophy of this program as developed by Pierre Dulaine. This information comes from Wikipedia.

The Dulaine Method

Respect & Compassion: At the very core of the Dulaine Method is the essential respect that goes into being a lady and being a gentleman. Dancing Classrooms is a program that demands that children not only treat others with respect but also respect themselves.

Coupled with respect is compassion. Perhaps it is Pierre’s own childhood that predisposes him to walk into a classroom full of children who struggle to believe in themselves, open his arms and heart to them, and then guide them gently along a journey that leads these young people to joy and accomplishment.

Respect and compassion are the foundational elements of the Dulaine Method. Unfortunately, very few adults know how to treat children with genuine respect. And even fewer adults seem to remember what it was like being a child.

Being Present: Probably the most difficult skill for any teacher to learn is the ability to be completely in the moment when teaching. Children are extremely aware of when the adult in charge (parent, teacher, coach) is not really there; and when a child senses that distance, woe be unto that adult.

Pierre’s ability to “be here now” enables him to observe every nuance of individual and group behavior. He can see when a child is nervous, not paying attention, when the group is becoming antsy, and he can respond to those issues immediately, thus keeping the classroom experience flowing. Being present also allows Pierre to express his own positive emotions towards the children at precisely the moment the children need that affirmation.

Creating a Safe Place: Asking children to take the extraordinary risk of embarrassing themselves in front of their peers is precisely what Dancing Classrooms does. And the only reason that the children are willing to take this risk is because Pierre has perfected a way to make that experience safe.

A Dancing Classrooms class is a place in which everyone is equal: the students, the teaching artist, and the elementary school staff that are participating. In modern jargon we call this creating a therapeutic milieu, an environment so different from these children’s normal daily environment that simply being in that room and being part of that collective group experience changes that child.

Command & Control: Clearly, if you are going to move 25 children through twenty 45 minute classes and have them successfully learn seven dances, you need order and discipline. Pierre is in command of the class from the moment he begins until the moment the children leave the room.

An essential part of the Dulaine Method is developing the craft of managing the group. When teachers are being taught how to work with children, their training is invariably focused on individual child development. Rarely, if ever, are student teachers taught about group dynamics and how to manage a group of children.

Language: Body & verbal Language are the great connectors in Dancing Classrooms. Pierre’s entire physical affect is one of openness, warmth, and genuine affection for the children. His verbal repertoire is a consistent barrage of positive comments. There is no denying that when Pierre combines his body and verbal language, he is a force the children simply cannot resist.

Humor & Joy: Dulaine has been commended for bringing humor to the classroom. Gentle humor can help a shy child become less self-conscious; humor with that same child handled poorly can make him retreat and never come back. Pierre is playful, he is present, and the children can sense that he is just plain happy to be with them. He also has this little habit of playfully slapping the students at Dancing Classrooms with his tie.

Being in such a safe place, where the boundaries are clear, the teacher is fully present, where respect and compassion reign - these are the elements that bring joy into the lives of the Dancing Classrooms children. And, as one teaching artist states:
“Dancing Classrooms is not about teaching ballroom dancing. The dance is a tool for getting the children to break down social barriers, learn about honor and respect, treat others carefully, improve self-confidence, communicate and cooperate, and accept others even if they are different.”

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.