Season of Giving

Dancing with Class is wrapping up a successful Fall Season, having recently completed our Fall Dance-Off for CPS schools as well as our Chicago Park District program. At each event, I reminded students that there are wonderful gifts they can give any time they like that don't cost a thing. Namely, compliments to other people and the joy of sharing a dance. When reminded to do so, students take the challenge of "paying a compliment to someone they do not know" very seriously. A young boy came up to me after an event last night to report on the number of compliments he had paid to others that evening. He was joyful to share this news. He was experiencing what the joy of giving is all about. By doing something nice for someone else, he was also giving a gift to himself. Spread the joy this holiday season!


May 16, 2013

The moment when forty eyes look at you in disbelief, just because you said “Class is over”.

Definitely worth it.

Dance Family

I've been working with an amazing group of 7th and 8th graders the past few weeks on choreography for their end of year festival.  They are doing a wonderful job with salsa, cha cha, and merengue, and the majority of them are learning the footwork for the first time.  They are picking up on the choreography so well I find myself challenging them beyond what I had planned.  It's exciting to see their faces when they get the movement down - the pride they feel is just priceless.

Today was my favorite day there because everyone showed up, they remembered last week's choreography, and were eager to learn more.  That alone makes my day.  But it was one of the comments a girl made at the end of class that made me smile.  She is one of those students who is very polite, cooperative, and works very hard even though the movement doesn't come easily.  She happened to glance down at my Visitor's badge that the front office gave me to wear and asked why I had to wear it.  I replied that it was policy for everyone who teaches the after school programs to wear one.  She then said, "But you're not a visitor.  You're part of our dance family."

What a powerful statement.  And by far the best compliment I've ever received.

One Brave Student Made My Day

I started a new school yesterday teaching third and fourth graders.  The moment I arrived, the coordinator told me that most of the students were terrified of dancing.  Terrified.  I've been told before that the kids were nervous or scared, but terrified was a little shocking.  The boys told me right away that they didn't want to dance with a girl and vice versa.  When teaching partner dancing, this can be a problem!  Luckily, I came prepared with some ideas so they would get over the "ick" factor.

As with every class I teach, I always ask them if they've seen partner dancing on television before.  Almost all of them have seen Dancing With The Stars or So You Think You Can Dance.  This helps get the conversation started about dancing with the opposite gender.  However, it doesn't mean they want to do it!

I taught the kids their first dance, the merengue, in a circle all doing the same footwork.  This they were just fine with.  There was no touching involved.  The moment I mentioned that the next class we would partner up with our teammate, they all groaned, shrieked, and said, "No way!"  I had to think fast.

I noticed a few of the boys were really getting into the dance, and I thought I would try to use one of them to help me show the class how cool partner dancing could be.  So I asked the boys if any of them was brave enough to dance with me.  Of course, five of them immediately backed up and shook their heads.  Then I looked to my left and say one shy boy raised his hand.  I have never been so grateful to an 8 year old before!

His name was Santiago, and he said he would dance with me.  I asked him to hold out his hands.  The class groaned, but he did it.  I held his hands and showed the class the entire merengue routine in a hand hold position.  He did an amazing job keeping his feet moving as I turned into the different positions to show the class what they could do with their partner.  The smile on his face was all I needed to know this was a great idea.  But what sealed the deal was when I led Santiago into his turns and the entire class went, "Oooooohhh!  That's cool!" Santiago was a star, and they were almost sold on the idea of holding hands with their teammates.

I say almost because even though they cheered their classmate on, at the end of the hour I showed them escort position and lost them once again!  Holding on to the boys' elbow was still too much to handle, but I have more tricks up my sleeve to handle the cooties' outbreak they think will erupt next week.

The Wonderful Minds of First and Second Graders

I had the pleasure of teaching my first class with a great group of 1st and 2nd graders at Dawes Elementary this week. They are learning two Dance Around the World dances, so we began by talking about dance and why they think people dance.

I was amazed that they responded with, "To show other people our culture," or "To show everyone we're happy", and, my favorite, "To get better and better so we can dance at parties."

We talked about their first dance from the Philippines, the Pandango Sa Ilao, which they kept calling the "Fandango Sake Lao." They got the pronunciation in the end, and who can blame them for taking some time to get it? That's a mouthful for adults!

I told them to close their eyes and pretend they were on an island, but when I asked if they could smell the saltwater, one student said, "No. I smell hot dogs." (They were dancing in their lunch room.)

It was all I could do to keep from laughing. This is going to be a great session, I just know it.

Favorite Dances

When I asked the kids to choose their favorite dances, their answers reminded me of all the different perspectives on dance, and all the various opportunities you can explore within the art.

A very energetic Elliot loves to swing dance and salsa. He feels as though "I get to do my own thing" more in those dances than the others. In the counts when they get to freestyle a bit, Elliot is a choreographer. Hopping on one leg, tuning, jumping, shimmying are all moves he likes to throw into the routine, surprising me every time.

Rebecca likes the more formal dances, tango and waltz. She says that, "In tango we get to be dramatic. It's fun to pretend to be someone else." She also feels as if, "waltz is hard, so I feel good when I get it right." Her perspective reminds me of ballerinas in the role of Odile in Swan Lake, mastering some of the most difficult choreography while enjoying and exploring the character even more.

Merengue is a favorite of a lot of my class. A couple students say "merengue is the most fun because it's fun to dance with your partner", "it's like we are at a party with our whole class." These kids are my social dancers. They enjoy the community and companionship of dance. Making eye contact and having fun together is something I've experienced in every social dance experience I've had.

It's exciting to recognize the diverse passions within my class, and how reflective they are on what it means to be a dancer. There is no single definition of what a dancer is, what a teacher is, what an artist is, that they can find their own! No matter what inspires them, I'm so happy to share this art, and even more happy that their personalities shine through.

Who Gets to be Elegant?

I'm a big believer that dance is representative of cultural history, and part of what I love about teaching through Dancing With Class is the feeling that I am participating in both teaching and creating cultural history; the cultural history of Chicago students.  A great example is a comment in a recent class from one of my students.

I was teaching the waltz.  I told them that the dance originated in Germany, and explained that it is widely known as one of the most beautiful and elegant dances.  I asked them to imagine doing the waltz as they met Prince William and Princess Kate at a beautiful royal castle.  Then one of my students, Cameron, raised his hand.

"But, Ms Megan... I don't think people in Chicago can be elegant.  There's too much crime and violence here."

His comment blew my mind.  These kids are participating in the Chicago history that's being made right now, and one thing that's been happening in Chicago lately is a lot of violence in neighborhoods.  His comment was a potent reminder that those events have a cultural effect; in this instance, affecting the way Chicago students think about themselves.  Cameron is an example of what many students are undoubtedly thinking; they believe that qualities like elegance and sophistication are not available to them!  they believe that the negative events in the world around them are what defines them.  

Now, I don't know that the waltz is going to be Cameron's favorite dance.  But by participating in this program, Cameron is going to get to go to our Dance-Off... an event we purposely make as elegant as possible, from the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center location, to the requirement that gentlemen wear dress shoes and ladies wear skirts.  And at our Dance-Offs, I have seen an increase in confidence and self-respect in many students; for students I've taught and students I've merely observed.  So I told Cameron: "On the day of our competition, I'm going to ask if you still think people in Chicago can't be elegant."  I'm betting that he's going to change his mind.

I'm proud to make my mark on the cultural history of Chicago by opening up some doors for Chicago students: inviting them to view themselves a little differently, to view what they're able to do a little differently.  I believe that Dancing With Class is changing the culture of Chicago in a positive way, and I feel very privileged to be a part of that.

Field Trip Into the Minds of the Students.

Four weeks into Dancing with Class Core Program I had the students give me feedback on how it is going so far.  I asked a few questions and here is what they had to say:

Brenda: What has been the most challenging thing about the program?

Wiam: Dancing with a partner because I have never danced with someone before. The "closed-hand position" is the most challenging. (The majority of the class agreed with his response).

Brenda:What is the best thing?

Emilia: The best thing is learning new moves and having fun!

Brenda: What is your signature move (the one move you feel you do best)?

Damian: The boogie walks aka "walking it out".

Brenda: What are you most excited about?

Wiam: Learning how to dance so I can dance at my family's parties.

Brenda: What do you believe makes a good dancer?

Adilene: "You know you are a good dancer when you have rhythm in your blood and you have the music in your heart." Not being shy also helps.
Alexis: A lot of practice.

It is very typical for fifth and sixth graders to feel uncomfortable dancing with their peers particularly in closed-hand position. However, week by week it is apparent how this feeling lessens as they start viewing each other as a team. I love that the students realize that this will go past this program and the competiton. This not only regards the moves but also the respect and etiquette in social dancing such as the proper way to ask someone to dance. What better way than to share this knowledge and put it to practice with one's peers and family?!

The last answer moved me. I was so excited to read this and I loved it so much that it is hanging on my fridge. I could not agree more with Adilene. A good dancer is more than just having the right steps and technique.  It is about the passion and the love for dance, about following the rhythm and music within! And of course not being shy and tons of practice do help!! :) It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes.

“Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion.” 
― Martha Graham

* Answers were from one classroom from the Back of the Yards Program 2013. Only a few answers were selected.

Dance as Therapy

As some of you know, in addition to teaching through Dancing with Class and at May I Have This Dance, I am a student nurse.  For one of my classes I had to do a report on a Complimentary Alternative Therapy.  Naturally, I chose Dance Therapy.  Sorry for such a long blog, but this is a topic that I find fascinating.
I learned that Movement/Dance Therapy has a great many benefits.  It is effective for individuals with developmental, medical, social, physical and psychological impairments.  I found it interesting that this therapy can be especially helpful for those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Movement/Dance Therapy helps when someone's experience is so traumatic they can't talk about it; it has the potential to access emotions and issues that may be inaccessible in verbal therapy.

I am clearly in a unique position to report on the benefits of dance because I have all of my fellow instructors experiences, as well as my own.  None of us are certified Movement/Dance Therapists but we have all seen the benefits of dance. Here are some of the things that I learned from other Dancing with Class instructors:
Rachel Singer spoke with me at length about a workshop she took with Dance for Parkinson's Disease (  She told me about one man who couldn't raise his arms much higher than parallel to the ground. However, after a few months of dance he was able to reach for the sky.  Some other patients found that their tremors would often decrease or even temporarily disappear during and after class, sometimes giving them relief for 1 or 2 weeks!!  Here is a quote from Rachel that I liked a lot, "Dance and movement is a way for them (Parkinson's patients) to escape; but to escape through the thing that challenges them the most."
Nicole Gifford told me about her experience teaching a dance class to widows and widowers.  She was able to help them remember joyful thoughts that not only gave them a temporary escape, but also gave them something to look forward to in their lives.  They then brought these thoughts to life by enacting them physically through dance.
Dawn reminded me of students who have used dance to mend their bodies and minds.  With a doctor's consent, these students saw much faster recovery from physically problems and surgeries like shoulder and hip ailments.  Their doctors were impressed with the speed of their recovery.  Other students have used dance to get over a bad break-up or divorce.
Personally I have worked with autistic and blind children.  It was so fulfilling to see the caring showed by the other students when dancing with the autistic or blind children.  It was clear to me that the other students were sweet and sensitive but their other classes did not give them the opportunity to share this side of themselves.Additionally, I have seen children who dislike gym class and sports embrace dance.  Their faces light up when they find this physical activity in which they are able to excel.

Movement/Dance Therapy is used as a Complimentary Alternative Therapy for many illnesses including Alzheimer's disease, dementia, autism, PTSD, depression, eating disorders, rape victims and survivors of sexual abuse and incest.  It is also helpful for those with chronic and life threatening illnesses such as cancer to help deal with pain, fear of death and changes in body image.  This therapy can be utilized to aid the deaf, blind, physically handicapped, mental retardation and learning disabilities.  It is even helpful for those confined to wheelchairs.  And health insurance may cover some or all costs.
If you're interested in learning more about Movement/Dance Therapy check out the American Dance Therapy Association at

An Interview with Manny

This week is the week of the Final Dance Off.  With practice, dress rehearsals and maintaing nerves for the BIG competition,  I decided to take one of my superstar students aside for a quick interview on how he was feeling.  

Colleen: "So Manny, how are you feeling about the BIG competition tomorrow?"

Manny: "Im not nervous, Im really excited to compete!"

Colleen: "What dance are you competing in?"

Manny: "Im dancing Salsa.  I love the Salsa because it's really fun.  It's very upbeat and has a lot of energy......It's way better than the slower dances.   I dont like slow dances."

(I smile thinking how many Men I have met who feel the same way.)

Colleen: "What are you looking forward to in the competition?"

Manny: "Well, in all the years I have been dancing, I really like all the teamwork it takes, and of course the trophies!"

Colleen: "All your years dancing?....... How long have you been in Dancing with Class?"

Manny: "Two years..... Each year I come back because I love learning all the new dances and dance steps"

Colleen: "Wonderful!  So all in all, what is your favorite part about dancing?"

Manny: "Its super fun!  I really enjoy dancing with other people.  Its way better than dancing alone.  I dont know why people do things alone, because having other people makes thing so much more fun!"

I can't help but to think that Manny is a very wise young man.  He nailed such a mature concept with such simplicity.   No matter how big or small our joys are in life, it is much more meaningful to experience them with other people than to keep them to ourselves.  How much joy is there in a raise at work, or a fun new recipe,  or a big shiny Dance Trophy if you can not share it with the people you like?   So 'cheers' to being surrounded by your teammates, family, friends, and other passionate people.......When shared with others, even the smallest of triumphs can become worthwhile experiences and the more substantial of them can linger as lifelong memories. Thank you Manny for making your enjoyment a lifelong memory for your classmates.  

VDay= A Celebration of Love

It is Valentine's week, a celebration of love! I love to dance and will celebrate by blogging about it.

I do not recall when my love for dancing came about. I like to think that I have been moved by music since before I could walk. I also believe my passion for it to be unexplainable. I hear music and my feet, head, shoulders or all of the above begin to move before I even realize what is happening. I believe that everyone is a dancer but some just never get the opportunity to be introduced to it.

That is the beauty of this program and the reason as to why I am such a huge advocate for it. We give children who might not have the opportunity to take a dance class the gift of dance, that first step, the introduction!

My main goal in teaching is to share my passion and love for dance not just the steps and technique.  I encourage children to add their own personality so they are able to speak with their own words and not so much mine.

With all this said, I love the bittersweet feeling I get on the last day we meet. This is when I see kids who at first were hesitant about dancing bursting with excitement about their competion, the shy kids erupting with confidence, and everyone helping each other be the best they can be and encouraging one another.

I have always believed dance to be magical. It has magical powers that may heal not only the physical body but the mind and the soul as well. This program is a beautiful demostration of the magic in dance!

Happy Valentine's Day!!! <3

Mom can you find me music

Friday February 8, 2013

I recently had a parent come up to me after class and tell me how much her son enjoyed the class.  She told me how he began to teach her how to the dances so that he could practice at home as well.  The only problem was now her son wanted to dance to different songs.  I quickly rattled off some of my favorite artists but what stuck with me was how animated she was about her child's excitement.

 Early on in the class session I ask the students what they believe dancing with class means.  Some answers are: "dancing with our classmates", "dancing with manners", "dancing with our heads up".  The answer is a mix of all of these things.  I stress how dancing can be done as a team.  We can dance together and in many of the dances that we learn are done in social settings.  So I was thoroughly excited to hear that the dance had been something this student had shared with his mother.  Needing more dance music is a good problem.

Blaine Tea Dance

Last Thursday was one of my favorite nights of the year, the Blaine School Tea Dance. This is an incredible school-wide dance program that Dancing With Class has been involved with for the past three years. It is different from many of our other programs thanks to the initiatives taken by faculty and parent leaders at the Blaine School.

 Rather than culminating in a competition, the final goal is a major performance that is a highlight of the year for the students. Every homeroom in grades 5-8 learned and performed a fully choreographed dance in a different genre celebrating one of the school's annual themes, "Unity Through Diversity." Nicole and I worked with ten different classrooms over several months to tailor and polish a performance for each group of students. The school then rented space at Chicago's historic Aragon Ballroom to allow the dancers to perform in front of thousands of parents, teachers, family, friends, and faculty.

 The performance began with one of my fifth grade classes dancing Charleston to "Sweet Georgia Brown." Ms. Hollingsworth's class learned about the dance's roots in the American South and its influence on genres like Lindy Hop and Swing. They looked adorable in bright swing costumes complete with bow ties and suspenders for the boys and skirts and Keds for the girls, and they danced with joy and flair that would have made Shorty George proud.

 The next piece was Nicole's seventh grade foxtrot to Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me To the Moon." I was so impressed with her students' timing, frame, and ability to execute difficult ballroom moves while changing formations. The ladies and gentlemen in Ms. Nash's class danced with finesse and polish that rivals most adult ballroom amateur performance troupes I have seen.

 This was followed by my sixth grade disco piece danced by Ms. Wininger's classroom. I adore all of my classes and all dances I teach, but disco is always one of my personal favorite genres because to dance it you have to be unashamed of having fun. My class embraced this aspect of the dance from day one, and all throughout their performance to "Shake Your Groove Thing" their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. I had a hard time keeping still!

 After these three North American dance genres we traveled through Latin American dance history, beginning with Nicole's eighth grade Afro-Cuban piece performed by Ms. Pagel's homeroom. This piece blew me away! I was astonished at how Nicole brought out the characters of African lamba, Caribbean merengue, and Brazilian samba body movements from her dancers. Their wholehearted embrace of the dance created an entertaining and beautiful experience to the Afro-Cuban funk/jazz song "Che Che Cole."

 We continued through Latin America to Mr. Mills' sixth grade class performing bachata. I really enjoyed working with this group. They pulled together as a classroom and helped each other master the movements. Dancing to a bachata version of "Stand By Me," they impressed me with their ability to dance in unison and connect to the music, their partners, and each other. I can't wait to see how this group grows in future years!

 Nicole's sixth grade rumba classroom performed to one of my favorite songs of the night, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." Although rumba is a slower dance, it is actually difficult for most young dancers to master because they have to develop patience in order to avoid getting ahead of the music. The class impressed me by pulling everything together and creating a final image dancing in a circle where all of the dancers stayed in unison. I know that wasn't easy to do, and they should be so proud of their accomplishment!

 Mr. Clancy's seventh grade classroom danced a country two-step to "Stuck Like Glue." This is another deceptively difficult dance because the basic rhythm is syncopated rather than keeping a predictable straight count and the music is very fast, so it is very easy to fall off beat. My dancers looked fantastic in brightly colored country costumes complete with cowboy hats and boots. And that's not to mention their fantastic job dancing a very difficult piece complete with traveling steps, staggered fugue sections, and country line and square dances complete with several partner changes.

Nicole's fifth grade dancers from Ms. Pike's class performed a flamenco inspired paso doble to "Bamboleo." What a surprise to see such poise and style from such a young group of dancers! Flamenco timing and arm styling are notoriously difficult even for experienced dancers, but her class looked fantastic on both counts.

Continuing through Europe, I had the pleasure of choreographing Ms. Bianciotto's fifth grade class in a waltz set to "If I Ain't Got You." What classy young ladies and gentlemen! I felt every single dancer in this class had so many strengths, and they came together to create a performance that was absolutely heartwarming. My favorite moment had to be the final pose, when all of the fifth graders stunned their parents with a dip and final stage pose.

My final group of dancers brought us to South Asia for a Bollywood performance to one of my favorite Bollywood songs, "Desi Girl." Ms. Seibel's eighth graders had a difficult set up for a partner dance since there were almost four times as many ladies as gentlemen! Luckily, Bollywood allowed all of the dancers to remain a part of the dance whether they had partners or not. They learned movements from classical Indian styles like bharata natyam and belly dance as well as more contemporary jazz and pop dancing. The final performance was a fun and high energy close to the evening's performances.

Finally, one gentleman and one lady from each classroom returned for a grand finale inspired by salsa rueda dancing set to Shakira's "Waka Waka." I loved watching dancers from every classroom and every grade level dancing together. The older dancers helped the younger dancers through the dance steps while the younger dancers absolutely stepped up to the challenge and looked every bit as polished as their older peers. My favorite moment was towards the end of the dance, when all several hundred dancers stood up in their places and joined in the dance. What better way to demonstrate unity through diversity?

I am so proud of all of the dancers, whether I got to work with them from day one this year or whether I first saw them dance during the last week's rehearsals. I cannot express enough gratitude to all of the faculty, teachers, and parents at Blaine who work to make this incredible experience happen for their students. I know it is something they will remember all their lives and I am humbled and thrilled to have been a part of it. Thank you all, and see you next year!

An Awesome Experience!

Can't begin to tell you what a thrill it is to judge a Dancing with Class Dance Off. It is amazing to see how very proud the students are of their finished product. From the moment they walk to the stage in escort postion with their partner (as taught in the program), to each and every dance they do, to every step they take, to the final bow they take -- I just can't take my eyes off of all of them. They work so hard to perfect their dances and it is so gratifying to see how much fun they are all having out there performing. And the support they give to one another is just so touching. I truly believe that each and every school should have this experience! Beverly Solazzo

Proud DWC Parents

While helping out at a Dancing with Class Dance Off last year at the Chicago Cultural Center, I was so very impressed with all of the kids' performances.  And then I happened to look over at one side of the room and all I saw was a human wall of proud parents, video cameras in hand, filming their kids' performances and cheering so loud for the team that it almost raised the roof!  This is just one of the very special unforgettable moments that this program creates for everyone involved.  I can't wait to see the Dance Offs this year.
Beverly Solazzo

Tall Ladies

One of the fifth graders in my Beasley Elementary classes is very tall. Emerald is only one inch shorter than me, towering above her classmates at 5'9". She said that she couldn't do "this kind of dance" (salsa at the time) because she is way too tall for any of the boys to partner her.

I have always been "the tall girl" in my dance classes. In my professional dance life, I'm never the one to be partnered, but was always told that I could do a solo, or a different part instead. I've learned to own my height and dance as big and tall as possible. What makes me different is unique and interesting.

Emerald was frustrated. Just as I have been frustrated before. But I let her know, of course the gentlemen can partner you. It's about having fun and breaking down your own expectations, as well as anyone who doubted you can dance with a short guy, or they can dance with you.

Erik, one of the smallest in the class, and one of the best dancers, was standing close to Emerald. I asked him and her if they could demonstrate the entire salsa routine. A couple of kids laughed at the height difference.

They did the entire routine, and rocked it. After that Emerald was the most engaged and excited I have ever seen her.

Dance is a perfect outlet for breaking expectations. The kids are learning that what makes us different doesn't prohibit us, but can make things more interesting.