When a pair of movies about ballroom dancing came out in 2005 and 2006, some current Long Island students were babes in arms. Now they're wrapped in each other's arms as they learn the waltz, merengue, salsa and other dance classics.
The lesson plan, which includes the tango, fox-trot, rumba and swing, is part of Dancing Classrooms LI, a program of the nonprofit CoDanceCo Inc. that helps fourth-, fifth- and eighth-graders to build self-confidence, cooperation, good manners and respect for others.
"Our mission is to cultivate in Long Island youth essential life skills through the process of social dance," said Nancy Duncan, founder and executive director of the East Patchogue-based nonprofit.
CoDanceCo offers Dancing Classrooms LI to schools in Nassau and Suffolk. Duncan contacts them to participate, or officials call her or learn of the program through word-of-mouth.
Duncan launched the program in 2008 in two North Babylon elementary schools and a middle school in the Lynbrook School District. It is currently in 18 schools in Nassau and Suffolk, serving nearly 2,000 students. Over the years, more than 10,000 students -- including special-needs children -- have been involved.
Eileen Clarke, one of the program's nine teaching artists, said the most popular dance among students is the merengue, followed closely by the swing. "Many students love the swing because it's upbeat and it's lively, lots of twirling," she said.
Duncan said there's more going on than meets the eye.
"Dancing Classrooms is not just about teaching ballroom dancing," she said. "The dance is a tool for getting the children to break down social barriers, learn about honor, and respect others who may be different."
Learning the steps
Participating schools incorporate the Dancing Schools LI curriculum into 20 lessons, presented over 10 weeks in the fall, winter or spring. There are two 40-minute sessions each week.
The residency costs $4,000, or about $8 per child per lesson. The school pays 50 percent, or $2,000, and CoDanceCo is responsible for raising the remaining amount. Duncan said there must be a minimum of two classes within a school signed up to take the program. If a school has more than two classes, the cost per class decreases with each additional class.
"We collaborate with classroom music teachers, art teachers, and most of the time we're integrated into phys ed time," Duncan said.
Fall sessions are being taught at South Middle School in Great Neck; William S. Covert Elementary School in South Hempstead; and Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport.
There are 20 to 25 boys and girls in each class. Duncan's staff includes a team of nine teaching artists trained in the Dulaine Method, created by champion ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine.
Dulaine left the dance world to teach ballroom dancing in 1994 to children in the New York City school system. "Mad Hot Ballroom," a 2005 award-winning documentary about the program, and "Take the Lead," a 2006 film about Dulaine's life that starred Antonio Banderas, boosted interest in the program from educators, school districts, parents, social workers, health professionals and others.
Lessons begin with a teaching artist leading students to the strains of recorded music. There are no chosen partners.
"Every 30 seconds when a dance is finished, the 'gentleman' rotates to the next partner so everyone gets to dance with everyone," Clarke said. "We ask them to look at each other while they're dancing. They're in a dance frame, that is, the position their arms are in: One side is the Crispy Chicken Wing, which is a lady's left arm and a gentleman's right arm. The other side of their body is the Elbow Sandwich. They must have their elbows connected and their hands must be in a 'wrap,' in which the gentleman's left hand wraps around the lady's right hand."
Students' classroom teacher and teaching aides are on the dance floor doing the steps alongside them, and sometimes partnering with them.
Students learn a diverse range of ballroom dances that have Cuban, Latin-American, Northern European and African-American influences. They also learn about the music and culture of each dance form and how to dance with a partner. The goal is to help children develop a sense of physical and emotional well-being.
"I really like it," Adriana Wool, 10, a student at William S. Covert School, said after a recent session in the auditorium. "It's a learning opportunity; it's also fun. I like the merengue. There are other kinds of dances, but ballroom dancing is more elegant."
Her classroom teacher, Joe Gallina, said students who experience the program show more respect for one another. "They build relationships," he said. "I see more boys talking to girls, and it's an opportunity for students that may not shine in the classroom to be good at something."
Gallina, who takes the class with his students, said kids at first are "terrified" about dancing with their teacher. And there are other reactions he remembers.
The last of the 20 lessons in the program is a performance that families attend.
"The great thing is seeing how parents react," Gallina said. "They cry."
Volunteers step up
Duncan, 65, was able to bring Dancing Classrooms LI to local schools after training with Dulaine and getting a two-year, $65,000 grant from the Manhattan-based Dana Foundation. Its mission is to advance brain research, but at one point the foundation also offered support for training of arts educators.
Duncan is a seasoned dancer, educator, producing director and arts management consultant who moved to Long Island in 2003 after living in New York City for 22 years. She is originally from South Dakota, and lives in East Patchogue.
Duncan founded CoDanceCo, which stands for Collaborative Dance Company, to foster the art of dance. Some of the Dancing Classrooms LI volunteers were attracted by the program's concept.
Micki Williams, owner and operator of an Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Bay Shore, offers Duncan the studio "whenever they want to have meetings or training sessions. Anything she needs my studio for, she'll call me and set up shop here. Anything for the kids. I saw 'Mad Hot Ballroom' and thought it was such a fantastic idea, something we would definitely want to get involved in. It would be helpful across the Island. The change in the children that get involved in this is remarkable. It's a lot more than just dancing."
Sandi E. Novomestky, of East Northport, serves on the Dancing Classrooms LI board of trustees. "We do all the fundraising, hosting events," she said. "Their mission is near and dear to my heart, because I know the true value of learning ballroom dancing is so much more than dancing! It teaches you a lot about yourself, interpersonal communication; even things dealing with conflict, learning about personal space, treating people with respect. A lot of that is lost today."
About 340 students at Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport participate. Assistant principal Alicia Ulberg said Dancing Classrooms LI is an "excellent program" and that the school hopes to continue it.
"Every year the students as well as the parents look forward to it," she said.
The nonprofit's surveys of principals reveal that 96 percent of them see a positive change in how students behave, and 80 percent believe it has a positive impact on academic performance, Duncan said.
Two local administrators who signed up when the Dancing Classrooms LI program began remain enthusiastic about it.
"I watched the movie ['Mad Hot Ballroom'] and I was blown away," said Darren T. Raymar, principal of William S. Covert School. "I think it's very important to expose kids to dance. The boys learn to be gentlemen and the girls learn to be ladies, and they're spoken to as ladies and gentlemen."
Two of the school's fifth-grade and three of its fourth-grade classes participate in the program. One student is Keira Vasconez, 9, who favors the rumba. She said she likes the Dancing Classrooms LI program "because it shows how people in different countries dance. It increases my chances for doing something better. Dancing might help kids become friends."
Students are asked to write essays and poetry on how they feel about interacting with their peers, and they're encouraged to research the dances they learned.
Proximity and eye contact are an adjustment for the young dancers, Clarke said.
"The children are not used to looking at one another closely; that's a challenge," she said. "The other challenge is that they need to work together cooperatively, sometimes in a small amount of space. In the end they forget about the closeness of their partner and work toward a common goal, which is doing the steps correctly."
Duncan is focused on achieving something else for her nonprofit.
"Our big, hairy, audacious goal is to be in every elementary and middle school on Long Island," Duncan said.
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A POEM INSPIRED BY A TANGO LESSON
Students participating in the Dancing Classrooms LI program are asked to write essays and poetry on how they feel about interacting with their peers. Here are a poem and comments from past students.
The Amazing Tango
Some people do it for love
Some people do it for fame
There is no need to watch your partner
You feel each other's moves
The tango is no Salsa
But is very spicy too
It's Spanish like black beans and rice
If you've tasted it once you'll want it twice
As smooth and sweet as a mango
There is nothing like the Amazing Tango
-- From a former fifth-grader at Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport
Quotes from student essays:
"The only way to succeed is to work together. I believe ballroom dancing brings the classroom together and brings out the best in all of us."
-- From a former fifth-grader in the Long Beach Public School system
"You get to make friends with people you never thought you would become friends with."
-- From a former fourth-grader at Willow Road Elementary School in Valley Stream
When Martin Rebello was growing up in Rhode Island, his mother took him to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio where she taught ballroom dancing, but he wasn't allowed to watch her in action.
"I had asked to see what she was doing," he said. Since he couldn't go in, he peeked from a spot in the doorway. "I loved it right off," said Rebello, who is now 46, lives in Huntington and owns an Arthur Murray Dance Studio franchise in Plainview, where he teaches ballroom dancing.
He also loves Dancing Classrooms LI, which brings ballroom dancing into classrooms through the nonprofit CoDanceCo Inc., a dance production and performance company founded by Nancy Duncan and based in East Patchogue.
Through that program, Rebello met Diane Giattino, of Bellport, another Dancing Classrooms volunteer. Both share Duncan's passion for using ballroom to help youths develop poise, self-esteem and respect for others.
Rebello has been a CoDanceCo volunteer for two years, during which he has judged the Colors of the Rainbow Team Match, a friendly optional competition for schools participating in Dancing Classrooms LI.
Rebello is also on Dancing Classrooms' advisory council, which helps build the program's network of supporters. And he offers his studio for a summer workshop for Dancing Classroom students.
"I'll do it in the future for her, whatever it takes," Rebello said of Duncan's program.
Giattino, 72, operated the Stage Door School of Dance at the Bellport Episcopal Church in East Patchogue for many years. She was on the board of directors of Gateway Playhouse in Bellport and was a choreographer for 26 years in the Bellport School District.
When Duncan moved to Long Island in 2003 and wanted to meet the movers and shakers in the local dance world, Giattino was one of them. "I was so excited," Giattino recalled.
When she learned about Duncan's plans for Dancing Classrooms LI, Giattino said she wanted to be part of it. She has since promoted the program and helped with fundraising efforts.
"Once you hear about [it], you're hooked," she said.
CODANCECO: HOW TO GET INVOLVED
CoDanceCo Inc. needs volunteers to share their expertise in marketing, fundraising, research and journalism, or they can serve on the advisory council or as trustees who take care of the governance and oversight of the organization.
Volunteers can also help organize the nonprofit's annual fundraising gala, scheduled for April 13 at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.
People who gravitate toward volunteering "have the same mission, the same care about the world we live in," said Nancy Duncan, founder and executive director of CoDanceCo, which is based in East Patchogue. "They have a passion for setting children up for positive life experiences and a willingness to be ambassadors for the program. They don't have to be dancers."
For more information, contact Duncan at 646-345-5234, or by email at email@example.com
MORE VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
The SOL Y SOMBRA SPANISH DANCE COMPANY, a nonprofit group of professional dancers based in Smithtown, performs flamenco and other Spanish dance forms and music at concerts, and on request, will offer assembly programs, residences and workshops in Spanish dance and culture in schools.
Although there is a fee for such appearances, the company's students volunteer when nursing homes and hospitals request a performance. "We do have a lot of students, and they perform on a volunteer basis," said Maria Loreta, the group's founder and director.
Lynbrook-based CREATIVE ART SPACE FOR KIDS will meet with teachers in a school's art department to discuss how the nonprofit can support creative activities and help mentor students. "This is the most precious gift you can give a child," said Carlo Thertus, the group's founder and director. "They were born to create." The group needs volunteers with an interest in art to help in the studio with tasks such as changing water and brushes.
Contact: 516-596-4278; firstname.lastname@example.org
For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the LONG ISLAND VOLUNTEER CENTER at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org