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Valerie Macdonald's picture

They're Having A Ball

 

MARCH 12, 2001 VOL. 157 NO. 10
TIME BONUS/FAMILIES

They're Having A Ball
Ballroom dancing--the waltz, the merengue, swing--is not only O.K., it's downright hot with kids

Cool ... Really great! ... Fun! ... Funny ... Nice ... So good ...

These are definitely not the adjectives most parents today would use to describe the formal dance classes they attended as children. But they are the very words Grade 4 students at P.S. 127 in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, N.Y., used last month to describe the first ballroom-dance class held at their school. In less than 45 minutes, these 9- and 10-year-olds had learned to dance the merengue, the first of 10 dances they would attempt in a 20-class session. Their dance teacher, Pierre Dulaine, is the artistic director of American Ballroom Theater, a dance company that has introduced ballroom dances to theaters around the world and also has an outreach program, Dancing Classrooms, that instructs almost 3,500 children each week in 37 New York schools. Dulaine treated his young dancers with great respect, addressing them as ladies and gentlemen. He and his talented teaching-artist, Victoria Malvagno, also joked their way through the class, banishing any anxiety the children might have felt about performing or touching a member of the opposite sex. While some of the children resembled little wooden soldiers, they all smiled and laughed as they learned their steps.

The students at P.S. 127 are but a smattering of the tens of thousands of young people who are rapidly getting into ballroom dancing--practicing at their schools and at community and cultural centers, health clubs, dance studios, park programs and cotillions across the U.S. Some other examples:

--At Edgewood High School in Madison, Wis., this year, half the school's 480 students chose to take a ballroom-dance class to fulfill their physical-education requirement--over such other gym electives as golf, tennis, Ping-Pong and bowling.

--In numerous venues in and around Atlanta, about 800 11-to-13-year-old students--some to please their mothers, but many to please themselves--have signed up this year with the Cotillion group, which has for decades been teaching dancing as part of a total package of social skills.

--In the San Francisco Unified School District, elementary, middle and high school teachers from 14 schools took six months of ballroom lessons, just so they could pass their skills on to their students.

--In the Los Angeles area, dance instructor Gaye Smith teaches ballroom and social graces to about 1,000 children a month in three different locations. Two years ago, she established a new class in Camarillo because 93 students from that town were driving over to her cotillion in Westlake Village so they could learn to dance.

--At Brigham Young, the only university in the country that offers a degree in ballroom dance, some 6,000 students a year are involved in some fashion in the program. Ballroom is also huge in the Ivy League schools, as well as in colleges like the University of Wisconsin and Penn State, where students at the Beaver campus are on long waiting lists to get into the classes of popular teacher Richard Morris.

--One sign that an activity is catching on in America is that it becomes increasingly competitive. A fast-growing dance-sport community, made up of competitive ballroom dancers, is campaigning to include ballroom in the 2008 Olympics. (The International Olympic Committee recognized dance sport as a legitimate sport in 1997.) Among the many websites that serve the ballroom community, www.dancescape.TV is visited daily by tens of thousands of fans and participants.

How come? There's a lot to recommend ballroom, of course--whatever age a person is. It provides good cardiovascular exercise and helps develop muscle tone, grace, poise and balance. It's affordable and can be learned in a relatively short time. But its popularity among the young is particularly welcomed by parents who, with some reason, fret about the safety of their children in the harsh and sometimes violent world in which so many grow up today. "What we are really teaching the students is respect, teamwork and transferable skills," says Dulaine. "Our students learn that the most important thing is to be able to work with another human being. And what they learn stays with them for life." Dulaine, like many other dance teachers, shows his students how to walk in a way that reveals that they respect themselves and others, as well as how to request and accept a dance--as they would any favor--and express thanks afterward. Above all, Dulaine shows them what it means to be kind. Scientist Ronnen Levinson, author of a social-dancing handbook, Much Ado About Ballroom Dancing (see website www.outdancing.com), says this is one of the aspects of ballroom that is so special: "When you are dancing socially, you are nice to your partner all the time." In some dance schools, students also learn telephone, dating and interviewing skills, as well as basic manners. There's even a charm class at M.I.T. that includes ballroom dancing, intended for students whose brilliance may not always compensate for their awkward ways once they're out in the real world.

Children might initially attend classes because their parents want them to, but they won't want to come back unless those classes have a certain coolness factor. And the media are confirming that dancing is very cool. The Broadway musical Swing and movies like Dance with Me, Swing Kids and Swingers all celebrate dancing. Ballroom-style dance routines are also turning up on MTV and in movies like What Women Want, Blast from the Past and The Mask of Zorro. Ballroom competitions are being presented more frequently on TV. Latin stars like Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Carlos Santana are releasing numerous ballroom songs that appeal to young audiences. Jim Anzelmo, an 18-year-old senior at Madison's Edgewood High who takes ballroom as a gym elective, was strongly influenced by a 1998 ad for the Gap featuring handsome young people doing the lindy hop. He remembers thinking, "It would be great to learn to dance like that."

Today's dance teachers understand that students who enjoy their classes are likely not only to stay but also to bring along their friends. Price Tyson, 9, and his older brother Robby Tyson, 14, attended a weeklong dance camp last summer at Gulf Coast School of Performing Arts in Biloxi, Miss. The brothers had so much fun that they decided to continue dance lessons again this summer and have persuaded "a whole lot of other guys to come to camp."

A fellow Performing Arts student, Meagan Moran, 16, was also won over last summer, after she had taken a dance class while attending a program at Duke University. There, she reported, "swing was the hottest thing, and kids from all over the country were learning from the counselors." Dancing with her was Stephanie Skupien, 17, who had noticed that in her high school, "swing is so popular that there's a lot of peer pressure to learn the right steps."

Kids also appreciate that being able to dance well can give them confidence at a time in their life when they need all the help they can get. Brieanna Everts, 14, acknowledges that she was really shy until she began dancing the East Coast swing and the lindy hop at the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association. She now finds it much easier to handle social situations. Also once timid, Andrea Mosley, 16, of Alta Loma, Calif., learned to dance at a swing camp she attended with her family. Clearly more poised, she happily admits that "dance helped me get out of my shell." Because one of the etiquette rules of ballroom is that a girl who refuses a dance must then sit it out, boys feel less risk of humiliation at dances. With that issue out of the way, they can concentrate on perfecting their steps.

Ballroom classes and parties provide a safe environment that parents--and kids--appreciate. Linda Wakefield, a mother of five and the assistant artistic director of the ballroom-dance company at Brigham Young University, notes that "kids today want to go out and have fun, but in a way that they don't have to be violated--physically, mentally or emotionally." Ken Richards, national director of publicity for the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association www.usabda.org), also believes that "kids are looking for activities where they can socialize, where boys and girls can get together, without its being about sex and drugs and violence."

So when do we start? Many teachers and ballroom experts hold that the younger a child is when introduced to ballroom the better. "If you introduce dance at a grade-school level, you are doing everyone a public service," suggests Michael Fitzmaurice, publisher of the magazine Dancing U.S.A. "The principles taught in ballroom are skills that children can carry over into other areas. It is like tennis or golf--when you are taught the fundamentals, you have the ability to develop good form throughout." Middle schoolers in particular benefit from ballroom, believes Tammy Hutchinson of the Atlanta-based Cotillion group, because "they're trying to find themselves at a hugely self-conscious time in their lives. And they don't have many social opportunities. So we provide a supervised, structured environment where they can learn something but also have a lot of fun." That's why Caryl Fernandez signed up her 10-year-old daughter Katie for salsa lessons at the Hama Dance Center in Studio City, Calif. She feels "kids today have a lot of stress. And when they're dancing, they seem to be happy. The music moves their hearts."

The good news for ballroom aficionados--and anxious parents hoping their kids will find something wholesome to do and stick with it--is that this fad looks to have some legs. Many beginners are continuing to dance long after they complete their classes. They are discovering, as Ronnen Levinson says, that the "world of ballroom is enormously complex, and there is always something new to explore." Or as newly expert East Coast swing-dancer Brieanna Everts puts it, "Once you start dancing, you just can't stop!"

"--In numerous venues in and around Atlanta, about 800 11-to-13-year-old students--some to please their mothers, but many to please themselves--have signed up this year with the Cotillion group, which has for decades been teaching dancing as part of a total package of social skills."

" Middle schoolers in particular benefit from ballroom, believes Tammy Hutchinson of the Atlanta-based Cotillion group, because "they're trying to find themselves at a hugely self-conscious time in their lives. And they don't have many social opportunities. So we provide a supervised, structured environment where they can learn something but also have a lot of fun." "

 

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