Pittsburgh Public Schools embrace dance program that teaches poise, camaraderie

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Today's kids are growing up in veritable isolation, spending hours texting rather than talking, surfing the Internet or television channels instead of swimming with the other fishes.

When they do connect, they say "Wassup?" in place of "Hello." "Thank you?" Probably not.

Enter Dancing Classrooms, symbolized by a classic escort position where the gentleman offers the lady his arm. Rather than address issues of character through lectures or written assignments, why not learn by doing?

But ballroom classes? That's a throwback to debutantes in white gloves.

Not so in the eyes and heart of Pierre Dulaine -- international ballroom champion, Broadway star, master ballroom teacher and all-around bon vivant. He took ballroom to a class of low-achieving students in New York City, a story told in the 2006 film "Take the Lead" with Antonio Banderas.

Out of that humble beginning sprang Dancing Classrooms, which Dulaine installed in New York City schools in 1994 and which now has spread to 40,000 students a year in 13 cities.

The Pittsburgh Public School system came on board about a year ago when Mark Rogalsky, supervisor at Mercy Behavioral Health, became aware of Dulaine through another film, "Mad Hot Ballroom."

It documented real students in the New York City program and immediately inspired Rogalsky to get it started here as part of the prevention services he and his staff run in Pittsburgh classrooms.

"That's the beauty of Dancing Classrooms," he said enthusiastically. "It's like 'The Karate Kid' -- wax on, wax off. As Pierre always says, 'Dancing Classrooms has nothing to do with the dancing. It has to do with everything.' "

Last spring he gathered administrators, dance experts and supporters to meet with New York representatives of Dancing Classrooms. By September, more than 300 fifth-grade students from Allegheny, Arlington, Martin Luther King, Phillips, Spring Hill and West Liberty elementary schools began taking the 10-week session.

Rogalsky funneled the lessons through the students' gym and music classes, where they would meet twice a week for a total of 20 lessons. This Saturday the top 30 (plus alternates) will participate in the Colors of the Rainbow competition at Allderdice High School.

A rocky start

Although Dulaine himself came to Pittsburgh for the introductory event in September, there were still a number of obstacles to overcome. Cliques. Touching. Suppose they just didn't like each other?

The students started with "pancake" hands (girls place their hands lightly on top of the boys') and the Merengue. They learned about the red light: walk in place. Green light: move along the circle painted on the gymnasium floors in which they usually worked. Then "shake what your mama gave you." The ballroom method eased over the above-mentioned "icky" situations by changing partners frequently.

"Thank you, partner!" and "Hello, new partner!" became a mantra in each class.

The students picked their way through a curriculum set by Dulaine and taught by Pittsburgh experts Rozanna and Terry Sweeney, owners of Art & Style Dance Studio and international ballroom champions themselves.

At first the participants resembled bumper cars on a racetrack. But soon the students were executing a traditional ballroom frame, reminded by the Sweeneys with the words "crispy wings!" Boys were bowing and the girls responded with a curtsy. They learned timing and team spirit.

Rocking the tango

After the Merengue, the students moved on to the Foxtrot, gliding to the sounds of Frank Sinatra crooning "The Way You Look Tonight" -- and liking it. They tackled the Rumba, arguably the most difficult of the dances. There the girls sashayed in a circle, proudly displaying an imaginary diamond ring and then combing their fingers through their hair.

They loudly spelled "T-A-NGO! T-A-NGO!" It signaled the famous Argentine dance that featured one of the students' best moves, the Scorpion, where the partners sharply curled their arms over their heads as they stalked the floor. The Swing was probably everyone's favorite, an upbeat dance with a "Boogie" walk. They picked it up in one lesson.

That concluded the competition level dances, but the students also learned the waltz and the polka ("Heel, toe, heel toe, shuffle off to Buffalo. Heel, toe, heel toe, shuffle back to Mexico."). Then there was an assortment of "sugar" dances, as "Miss Rozanna" labeled them, all familiar line routines like the Stomp, Electric Slide, Macarena and Follow the Leader.

Midway point

Halfway through the program, these budding ballroom dancers reluctantly took time off to watch a film with assorted professional performances. Elegance was stressed, along with costumes.

The Sweeneys asked how it all made them feel. "Do we really have to lift the girls up?" one boy asked tentatively. "It makes me feel that all ages can dance, and I want to do it," responded another. Their instructors also started to prepare them for their school performance and the final competition.

The elegance began to emerge, along with concentration and perseverance.

The lessons were going strong during the height of the H1N1 outbreak. Students washed their hands and were careful not to touch their faces. There was also a liberal use of hand sanitizer.

Phillips students spent the first 10 minutes in the tight quarters of the school entrance while the multipurpose room was being cleaned after lunch. No problem. During one of the classes the students congenially moved to the far half of the gym so that the Holiday Shop, where students excitedly bought presents, could take up the other half. As principal Rodney Necciai explained, "We're a small school, so we learn to share."

At Spring Hill the students asked if they could walk back from recess and lunch in escort position. And when childrens' book author Sara Pennypacker of the "Clementine" and "Flat Stanley" series came to the school to speak, the students invited her to dance with them.

A large support system began to emerge. Fifth-grade teachers gave up their prep time to participate in the classes, and other staff members often popped in for a look and to applaud. A few principals, like Allegheny's Viola Burgess and West Liberty's Kathy Moran, were able to attend most of the lessons themselves.

It has made a big difference in social interaction," said music teacher Gretchen Eckroat, who was one of the early supporters of the program. In fact, she and Phillips gym teacher Jeffrey Igims had been doing a folk dance unit for the whole school. Would that give Phillips a leg up in Colors of the Rainbow?

Not necessarily -- everyone was practicing hard. Martin Luther King's Ellen Fricks announced that she was "rehearsing with my Dad."

Much more than dance

Stories started to filter in from the various schools. Miss Rozanna was warned that one of the West Liberty students was autistic and didn't like to be touched. But that didn't happen.

"She never missed escort position and taught the other students about the frame," she exclaimed.

An Arlington boy was scheduled to be transferred to another school, but he begged to stay and participate in Dancing Classrooms. He was one of the students to take the stage at the start with Dulaine.

There were marked differences in the classroom, too. When directed by the teacher, the students could quietly turn to discuss a reading assignment with a partner, instead of giggling and disrupting the class. Janet Yuhasz, coordinator of health services in Pittsburgh schools, noted that all of the students were at "ground zero. Reports on office referrals, behavioral disruptions and needs for intervention declined in every school."

In December, each school invited parents and friends to see the fruits of their labor. Some girls showed up in gowns, the boys in suits. At the conclusion of each assembly, they escorted a friend or family member to dance the meringue, much to the delight of all.

Yuhasz was beaming as she visited a number of the schools.

"We were hopeful and positive about it all," she said. "But we never, ever thought that it would be this successful. Even our most challenging students find a niche in this program."

But one challenge still remained -- to select only five competing couples and one alternate couple to participate in Colors of the Rainbow. It would not be easy because there were so many who deserved to go. The Sweeneys would be assisted by staff members in each school in making the decision.

Despite the difficulties, Miss Rozanna was certain that Dancing Classrooms was one of the "most rewarding" experiences in her career.

Rogalsky added, "I have worked for 30 years in behavioral health, and I don't think there is more powerful program around. Seeing the movie is one thing, but seeing it in action is another. I can't wait for Jan. 9."

Pittsburgh Public Schools will present Colors of the Rainbow at Allderdice High School on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Admission is free.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net . She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com. First Published January 4, 2010 5:00 AM


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