Dance program aims at teaching more than fox trot, merengue, rumba, tango and polka
“I had no idea they’d enjoy it as much as they do. It’s been awesome to build their self-respect and confidence.” Da’ Anne Lipscomb, LaBelle Aire Elementary School principal, about the Dancing Classrooms program
The fifth-graders seemed fairly oblivious to the audience as they took their places on the dance floor in the auditorium at LaBelle Aire Elementary.
They were focused on the dance ... or dances.
Dressed in their very best, the boys and girls confidently presented a dance sampler, performing the fox trot, merengue, rumba, tango and polka to recorded music.
Each dance was just a few minutes long, and before each dance, a student told the audience a little bit about it.
Student Brajuana Ayers summed up how she felt about her new role as a ballroom dancer: “Great!”
Watching in the audience was one of the world’s premier ballroom dancers, Pierre Dulaine, of New York, who is one of the founders of the Dancing Classrooms program that gives students new skills that go beyond dancing.
“When you teach someone (to dance), something happens between two people: You start to develop confidence,” Dulaine said at LaBelle Aire, before the program began.
“Politeness, responsibility and self-esteem,” built through the dance program, become part of everyday life, he said.
Dulaine and his dance partner Yvonne Marceau have been show-dance champions and Broadway dancers, as well as faculty members at the School of American Ballet and the Juilliard School, according to the website, http://www.dancingclassrooms.com.
Dulaine, who was the inspiration for the 2006 musical drama film, “Take the Lead,” starring Antonio Banderas, helped found the American Ballroom Theater Co. Dancing Classrooms is its educational arm.
“Dancing Classrooms is not about teaching ballroom dancing,” its website reads. “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.”
It’s designed for fifth- and eighth-grade students.
Every year, Dulaine visits school sites in the United States that have the program and was in Baton Rouge in mid-October.
Dancing Classrooms has been in Louisiana in more than 20 schools in Calcasieu Parish and Jeff Davis Parish, since 2009. This year was the first time it’s come to Baton Rouge schools.
In a pilot program this fall, Dancing Classrooms was offered at LaBelle Aire Elementary and Southern University Lab School.
“The pilot’s over now” and Dancing Classrooms is considered launched in Baton Rouge, said Nancy Vallee, of Lake Charles, who was instrumental in bringing Dancing Classrooms to Louisiana.
It’s been so successful that at least four more schools in Baton Rouge will be added in the spring, Vallee said.
In Baton Rouge, Vallee has been working with the nonprofit Truancy Assessment and Service Center (TASC), a Legislature-approved agency that partners with LSU to support schools “that are more challenged and need more resources,” she said. It’s how the Dancing Classrooms came to LaBelle Elementary.
But Dancing Classrooms isn’t exclusive to TASC schools or to public schools, she said.
“We’re talking to some private schools” in Baton Rouge, Vallee said.
Twice a week for 10 weeks, students in the Dancing Classrooms program have 45-minute ballroom dancing lessons from a specially trained “teaching artist.”
“They start by learning the merengue, fox trot, rumba and tango and go on to learn the swing and the waltz,” Vallee said.
In May, there will be a culminating event, the “Colors of the Rainbow” dance competition, to be held here or in Lake Charles, with six boys and six girls chosen to represent their school.
“I had no idea they’d enjoy it as much as they do,” said LaBelle Aire Elementary School principal Da’ Anne Lipscomb in opening remarks at the dance program on Oct. 17. “It’s been awesome to build their self-respect and confidence,” she said.
In a phone interview, Ronnie Harrison, principal of Southern University Lab School, talked about how the students at his school had responded to the program.
“The kids really enjoy it,” Harrison said. “They were a little hesitant at the beginning, but I’m really starting to see them open up and enjoy themselves.
“They’re just so much more open to share and talk,” he said.
Vallee, the retired attorney who is introducing Dancing Classrooms to Louisiana, is the founder of a nonprofit organization in Lake Charles called Whistle Stop that provides neutral, supervised visits for children with their noncustodial parents.
The children are often in foster care or in high-conflict divorce situations, Vallee said.
“In 2008, we were looking for a way to expand our services to a larger group of children,” Vallee said.
“Dancing Classrooms is a social development program that (helps students) transition from elementary to middle school. It seemed to be a really good fit,” she said.
“We feel like in our society right now, (children) don’t necessarily get how important it is to treat other people with respect ... to empathize with someone who is not in the group,” Vallee said.
“Dancing Classrooms breaks down barriers ... the more we learned (about the program), the more we saw it worked,” she said.
Whistle Stop joined Dancing Classrooms’ national network, in a franchiselike arrangement, that brought the program to Louisiana, first in Lake Charles, said Vallee, who is site director for Dancing Classrooms in Louisiana.
Dancing Classrooms provides training for the teacher artists and a syllabus for the program.
Expenses are met by a variety of grants, she said, including those from the Brown Foundation, the Children’s Trust Fund, business sponsorships and fundraisers.
The liaison for the Dancing Classrooms program in Baton Rouge is Dr. Sterling Sightler, a retired physician and a board member of Saturday Night Ballroom and Louisiana Dance Sport, two locally based programs that provided funding for the new program in Baton Rouge this fall.
At the LaBelle Aire Elementary dance event, students carried off the dances without a hitch.
Before each dance segment, the boys would lead their dance partners to the dance floor.
When they returned to their seats after each dance, the boys politely let their dance partners go down the row of chairs first, ahead of them, to find their seats again.
The audience learned from the students introducing each dance that the rumba dates back more than 400 years to Cuba and came to the U.S. in the 1940s; that the tango was popular in Paris in the 1900s and evolved and caught on in the U.S. in the 1920s and that the polka has been called a Scottish waltz.
The audience applauded after each dance performance, and, once, a boy grinned and covered his face at the applause, to regain his formal composure.
Everyone in the auditorium got to join with the students in a line dance and the macarena dance, both instructed by Dulaine.
And before the program ended, Dulaine instructed each student to invite a member of the audience to dance the merengue.
They did so with aplomb.
The school’s principal, Lipscomb, said the students had some initial reluctance to hold dance partners’ hands or stand in near proximity, but she told them early on that all the “cooties” had been whisked away, and the kids relaxed and had fun, she said.
“It wasn’t easy for you in the beginning, was it?” Dulaine asked the students at the conclusion of the program.
But some students who volunteered to come speak with him at the microphone said they took to it right off.
“I felt good at the beginning, and now I feel even better,” said student De’Marcus Leduff.