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Shall We Dance? Unexpected Lessons in Ballroom Dancing

I recently took six couples – six boys and six girls – from Success Academy Upper West to a ballroom dance competition in lower Manhattan. They were fourth-graders. Before this fall, none of them had taken ballroom dance lessons. Now they were about to dance for the top spot against other teams from the city and the opportunity to advance to the finals.

When the couples were called to the dance floor, my fourth-graders took their places, locking hands and eyes with their partners, and waited for the music to play. For the next hour, they surprised and delighted everyone in the audience, including their families and classroom teachers. They performed an elegant foxtrot, a sultry tango, a spirited merengue, a soulful rumba and a joyful swing. These were not the same 9-year-olds who had shown up for ballroom dancing lessons 10 weeks earlier. They were now ladies and gentlemen.

Watch a video of Success Academy Upper West scholars performing here.

Thanks to a partnership with Dancing Classrooms, an organization that invites artists like me to teach dance at elementary and middle schools across the city, all fourth-graders at Success Academy had the opportunity to learn ballroom dancing. At the start of the program, my group struggled with the basic rules. They were uncomfortable holding each other closely and looking into their partner’s eyes. Inevitably, someone would giggle and break hold. To them, the foxtrot, characterized by long, flowing movements, and the tango, with its staccato steps and head snaps, were dances for grown ups.

Indeed, for America’s youth, modern ballroom dancing does not have the same appeal as hip-hop or other contemporary dance forms. That is starting to change. Television shows like “Dancing with the Stars” have increased the popularity of ballroom dancing in the United States, and school programs like Dancing Classrooms are introducing young people to the sport.

After weeks of practice, my students became comfortable with each other and the steps. They wanted to learn more with each lesson and continue to grow. They wanted so badly to become good at dancing. One boy, who at first didn’t want to dance, became a role model for others. Even though he struggled with the steps, he never gave up. He always asked questions and took risks. His perseverance paid off. He received the highest honor in the class and was selected to represent SA Upper West at the Colors of the Rainbow dance competition.

All the students at Success Academy worked so hard to become excellent ballroom dancers. More important, they learned to trust and respect one another more than they already did. I am so proud of my students at SA Upper West and feel honored to have worked with them. Their final performance at the quarterfinal competition was a delight to watch and impressive enough for a third place finish.

Written by Ariel Tharpe January 5, 2015

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