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Friday, December 25, 2015

Students learn life lessons one dance step at a time

"The Government House Ballroom in Christiansted was awash in Christmas lights and holiday decor, as two lines of fifth-graders, elegantly dressed in shirts with ties and colorful formal dresses escorted each other arm-in-arm into its center." continues Virgin Islands Daily News.  


With the dramatic high horns of Paso Doble music echoing in the background, the students waved to a tightly packed room of eager parents, principals, and VIPs as they prepared to dance the merengue, the first of six ballroom dances that they would perform for the evening, celebrating the completion of the inaugural Dancing Classrooms Virgin Islands program on St. Croix.

Students at Juanita Gardine, Claude O. Markoe and Ricardo Richards Elementary schools participated in the 10-week, 20-session program designed to teach children essential life skills through the practice of social dance.

Professional dancer Pierre Dulaine started the Dancing Classrooms program in New York City in 1994 as a way to help children gain the confidence, elegance, and self-esteem that he had gained while learning ballroom dancing as a boy.

After growing 21 years to comprise 30 cities and 50,000 students, the program found itself in demand in St. Croix after a series of successful residencies on both St. John and St. Thomas.

Executive director and teaching artist Katie Zaytoun relocated from her home on St. Thomas for three months to deliver the program for the first time.

Zaytoun said she remembers feeling a sort of sadness in her early conversations with people, a clear nostalgia for the island's grand history alongside the effects of recent hardships felt by the entire community.

Students not only face challenges in learning and completing schoolwork, their families are affected by joblessness, drought and economic hardship, according to Zaytoun.

However, a strong resolve and the graciousness and generosity of the St. Croix community at large, Dancing Classrooms' partnership with the Education Department and the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, were instrumental in making the transition to St. Croix a smooth one, she said.

Her students have developed moves, confidence, self-esteem and discipline, along with a host of other social and emotional learning skills, but the overall community also benefits from the program, Zaytoun said.

"I've seen firsthand what Dancing Classrooms can do for a community," she said. "A community within a classroom, a community within a school, or the greater community at large and how it brings such joy. When children are happier it's easier for them to be at school and learn and to be around the people in their lives whether it's their families, teachers, or friends.

"People get joy from seeing the children dance and watching how they treat each other," Zaytoun said.

Speaking after the culminating event at Juanita Gardine last week, assistant principal Anna Marie Gordon praised the program.

"We want to expose our students to everything there is to offer. We want our children to know that you can do anything if you put your mind to it," she said. "We always say we have diamonds in the rough, and we want to keep chiseling them so that they would be able to just shine forth. That's our dream and we saw the fruition of that today. The whole school needs to be dancing."

Students learn six ballroom dances during the residency: the merengue, foxtrot, swing, tango, waltz, and heel-toe polka.

From the first class, students are addressed as "ladies and gentlemen" and are encouraged to treat themselves and each other with respect and elegance and accomplish learning with teamwork and grace.

Complex dance steps are broken down into simple moves and taught in a spirit of fun and play.

"When children are asking another child to dance, they're not just asking them to dance, they are making eye contact, they are practicing respectful touch, they are learning how to regulate the emotion that may be coming up with doing that dance," said Rodney Lopez, Dancing Classrooms global program director.

"They may be nervous, fearful, excited, joyful, intimidated - there are a lot of feelings that come with asking someone else to dance," he said. "Just as children need social and emotional skills to help them succeed in life they also need to learn how to manage themselves, their feelings, how to make decisions responsibly, how to manage their relationships peers and adults."

Whether they know they are learning more than just how to dance, the students were certain that the program was fun.

Source: Virgin Islands Daily News