Crispy Chicken Wings and Peanut Butter Sandwiches

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This past Saturday, a group of fourteen slightly sleepy Helena School District teachers gathered in an elementary school gym on a cold, snowy morning looking a little apprehensive.  The teachers had voluntarily signed up for a professional development workshop with Rodney Lopez, National Program Director for Dancing Classrooms, a New York City-based organization that provides ballrooms dancing residencies to classrooms.   As somebody who has been on both sides of arts-based professional development, as a provider and as a classroom teacher, I recognized some of the body language:

“Why did I sign up for this?  It’s Saturday. I could be sleeping in.”

“I’m about to completely embarrass myself.”

“If I duck out now, will anybody notice?”

Dancing Classrooms began in New York City, but the organization now works in classrooms all over the country and even internationally.  Dancing Classrooms teaches ballroom dancing to students, but, as their website states, it is not about teaching ballroom dancing:  “The dance is a tool for getting the children to break down social barriers, learn about honor and respect, treat others carefully, improve self-confidence, communicate and cooperate, and accept others even if they are different.” The work of Dancing Classrooms was featured in the hit documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, which was screened for parents and students in Helena on Friday evening as part of Dancing Classroom’s Helena School District residency.  Lopez also worked with students at both Helena Middle School and C. R. Anderson Middle School on Friday as part of the project that was the brainchild of district gifted and talented teacher Julie Mitchell and was funded by the Helena Education Foundation through their Great Ideas grant program.

After gathering the teachers for a brief overview of the day and an icebreaker activity in their seats, Lopez wasted no time getting the group up and immersed in Dancing Classrooms’ method of teaching ballroom dance to young people. He taught the group as if he was working with a group of 5th graders and it was their very first session (a Dancing Classrooms residency is normally a 10-week residency, with two sessions per week).  “Respect.  Elegance.  Teamwork.  That’s our goal,”  Lopez told the group.  He also immediately made them comfortable by telling them, “If you can count to eight, you can do ballroom dancing.”  The first dance they learned was the merengue.  Students always start by learning the parts of the dance without touching, and without worrying who their partner is going to be, something that can cause a lot of anxiety for students.  Gradually, the students are assigned partners, but first they are in “pancake” position–meaning they dance with one partner’s hands on top of the other’s, rather than in full “dance frame.”

Part of the brilliance of the Dancing Classrooms method is the way they use language and metaphor to demystify the idea of dancing and make children who are not dancers comfortable with the idea of dancing.  Lopez used terms like “crispy chicken wings” and “peanut butter sandwiches” to describe how participants should hold their arms in dance frame once they got to that point.  The humorous terms make the participants laugh, rather than making them think about the awkwardness of being so close to another person.

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Lopez also gradually insists on eye contact between the dancers as a sign of respect for each other.  Every dance ends with a bow and a thank you to the partner.  At the beginning and end of every session, the dancers also escort each other in and out of the dancing classroom, because the dancing classroom is a place of honor, and the students are the kings and queens of the ballroom.  Respect for each other, for the instructor, and for the space is constantly reinforced throughout the lesson.

Watching the group learn the merengue, then the tango, and then a swing dance, it was remarkable not only how quickly they learned the steps, but also how fully engaged and comfortable each teacher became in the process.  The room very quickly went from a nervous discomfort to a joyful energy that made time go very quickly.

During the session, Lopez shared with the teachers the Dulaine Method that is the philosophy of how Dancing Classrooms approaches their classroom residencies.  The method is named for Pierre Dulaine, the founder of Dancing Classrooms.

1.  Respect and compassion.  Every student and teacher in the room is honored for where they are at in their journey.  If they are not ready to dance, that is ok.

2.  Being present.  Focus on what is happening right now.

3.  Creating a safe space.  Nobody feels wrong.  Everybody feels a sense of belonging.

4.  Command and control.  The teacher is in charge of the learning in the classroom, and the students are simultaneously learning command and control of themselves.

5.  Body and verbal language.  Change the language so it’s relavant to the experience of the child.

6.  Humor and joy.  Laughter helps take away the discomfort associated with learning something new and different.

I marvel at how easily translatable this philosophy is to every classroom, in every school, in every subject.  What if these six tenets were posted on the wall of every classroom our students walked into every day?  Observing this group of teachers working with Rodney Lopez, quickly learning three dances in three hours and building a safe space of laughter and joy, I was reminded again of the power the arts have to create a learning environment where everybody can succeed.  And, given that proven power, I marvel at how often children are denied access to arts learning experiences like this in their schools.  But, on this Saturday morning, there was a lot to celebrate:  a teacher with the vision to bring Dancing Classrooms to Montana, a local foundation that would support it, a master teaching artist, and a willing group of teachers who will take what they learned back to their classrooms to the benefit of their students.

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