Blown Away!

As a new addition to the DWC faculty, I recently had my first experience of teaching the core program to third and fourth graders for the ten week curriculum which culminates in the Dance-Off event that was held at the Chicago Cultural Center. I must admit, during the first few weeks of my teaching assignment, I was not feeling very confident that I would even be able to pick students to perform at this event. Many of the students refused to dance with partners, unable to bear the hand connection needed in ballroom dance between a young man and young lady, let alone learn the five different routines and styles that are taught. 

The overall behavior in class at first was challenging, but I was able to see little sparks of interest in many of the student’s eyes that kept me motivated. To my delight and surprise, around week five, a shift occurred in the students. They were engaged, excited about dance, and somewhat comfortable connecting to their partner in “closed dance position.”  Many of the boys who refused to dance at first, were completely on board and expressed interest in competing in the Dance-Off. 

I selected my group, we prepared for the event, and I crossed my fingers! When the student’s arrived at the Cultural Center, their excitement was noticeable and each of them were groomed and dressed to the nines. They wanted to review their dances immediately, and make sure they were ready. Then it began. Lights, camera, action! They had a blast! I, and the students, were blown away by this event! 

The students from all schools were on best behavior, showing respect to one another and other schools, and above all- felt proud to be there. This feeling of confidence, self-respect, and excitement permeated the ballroom. I was in awe of the power of dance and its ability to bring together so many diverse communities in Chicago in celebration of the accomplishments of the students in this core program! I was elated and moved by my first experience of this program, as were many of my students and their parents, and look forward to the next Dance-Off!

A Long Story...But One That Has To Be Told!

Thanks to a very generous grant, I have been lucky enough to work with a new elementary school for a month long residency program.  I'm teaching each classroom in the school, 12 total, a cultural dance.  The younger students are dancing to non-partner dances from around the world and the 4th and 5th graders are all learning merengue, swing, and tango.  The staff has been beyond accommodating and helpful to the extent that they volunteered to do a performance themselves at the end of the month long program!  It's a dream job that I was very nervous about at first but that has now turned into excitement as I finished my first week and a half.

The Saturday before I began, I received an e-mail from the Behavioral and Emotional Support Team Teacher telling me a little about some students that might need extra support.  She asked if DWC had any ideas for students who didn't want to participate in the partner dancing.  Between Margot and I we talked to her and decided to see how the students reacted but to have a Plan B in case partnering wasn't going to work. We thought maybe having them be the class DJ or have the teacher or teacher aide be their only partner would be a good solution.  The teacher specifically mentioned a 4th grader who was, in her words, terrified to dance in class.  We chatted about his specific fears, and she said he was faced with generalized anxiety disorder/extreme panic attacks and that he has displayed severe behaviors with dance in the past and had already displayed avoidance behaviors upon the mention of the upcoming dance unit.  With this in mind, I went to the first day of dance on Monday hoping I could help this student overcome his fears.

He didn't show up to school.  We weren't even going to meet for a dance class that day - I was there to perform in an assembly to prepare the students, and he was so scared, he stayed home.  I was supposed to have him on Tuesday,  no show.  Wednesday, absent.  After the 3rd day, I began to feel horrible that he was missing school to avoid dance class.  Then on Thursday, the third day his class met with me, I got introduced to him.  The teachers brought him in the hallway early so we chatted about sports, bike riding, the Blackhawks - anything I could think of to keep him from being scared about the upcoming half hour.

When all of the students arrived, I asked them to form "escort" position where the gentlemen escorts the lady into the "ballroom" hand to elbow.   He had a "ghost partner" since we had a couple extra gentlemen in the class.  So far so good.

Before I met this student, my plan was to start the class off by jumping into the merengue routine they already knew, but I knew now that would be disastrous.  The past two classes were spent getting the students over their fear of "cooties" and holding hands to dance as teammates.  This student didn't have that acclimation.  So I decided to backtrack and have them dance on their own in a huge circle.

I watched this student closely, seeing how he was feeling picking up the movement.  I made everything into a game and kept complimenting him specifically saying how quickly he learned on his first day.  I got a smile.

Encouraged by that, I asked the gentlemen to form their smaller circle and assigned them their teammates.  We rotate like crazy, but my new student didn't know that yet, so I had him dance with his teacher at first, and I stood next to her.  So his first two rotations would not be with a classmate.  I spent a lot of time reviewing so he could get used to the hand to hand contact with both of us adults.  Then, I couldn't hold off any longer.  I had to have him rotate to a female classmate.  I casually had them rotate and watched his reaction.  I heard him clearly ask, "May I have this dance?"  And she answered, "Absolutely."  They gave each other a "low ten", held on, and I turned on the music.  He rotated the entire rest of the class with all of the ladies.  And he smiled.  I was ecstatic.

Afterward, he got into escort position with his teammate and walked her out of the ballroom.  The teachers couldn't have been happier.  I was bursting with pride for this very brave student.  He overcame a huge hurdle that afternoon.  I only hoped he would keep it up the following week.

Fast forward to today.  The fourth class of merengue.  The moment when the students were to get into "ballroom" position.  That meant the gentlemen's hands had to go on the lady's back.  Always a big moment.  I was nervous.

When the students walked in, I looked around heartbroken because I didn't see him.  The gentlemen with ghost partners all filed past me, and my heart sank.  Then I saw him.  He had a female teammate on his arm in escort position, and he led her to the dance circle.  We started reviewing the dance, and he had no problem rotating yet again.  The moment of truth - ballroom position.  Not a problem.  My new hero held his teammate in his arms without any problems.

I've never been happier to be a teacher.  And I know I'll never forget this moment.  My only hope is, he will one day realize how brave he was and be proud of the progress he made that afternoon.

Posture Too Perfect?

To say that some of my classes are challenging, is an understatement.  But I can't blame them.  I see the way they are expected to walk down the halls in straight, silent lines.  I see the kids at the back of the line who choose to dance and wiggle their way through the hall and then get reprimanded for it.  I hear the screams of many frustrated teachers trying to control their classrooms. By the time the kids get to me, in a class where freedom of expression is not only allowed but encouraged, they can't help but act out.

I will admit that as much as I want them to have a space where they don't have to be perfect and they can express themselves, it can be frustrating at times.  I want them to be able to let loose and have fun but I also want them to take away the many life lessons that this program has to offer. Lessons about respect, manners, and discipline as well as the ability to ask for what you want in life.

After last week with them, I kept thinking about a particularly lively group that I have.  None of my methods, or their teacher's methods, were working to get them to focus at the task at hand.  What's more frustrating is that occasionally throughout the class we could get them to settle down and run the dance, and what I would see was amazing! They looked like little ladies and gentleman executing the steps just as I taught them.  How could I get them to focus like that for more than two times in a class? At the end of class, I turned it back on the students.  I told them that this was a great opportunity and that they can either let some trouble makers in the class take that opportunity away, or they can decide to take it for themselves.

What I saw this week was incredible.  I had more students actively participating than in the three classes prior.  I had a few students who decided to take the opportunity for themselves by helping to get their classmates into a circle and partner off.  I could tell that one of my students was frustrated by constantly have to stop the class to regain focus. This week he was able to ask for what he wanted from his classmates by respectfully asking them to pay attention.

We still have a lot of work to do but I was so impressed to see progress that quickly. From one week barely getting through half of the waltz routine and the next week finishing the whole swing routine was astonishing to me. I can see them starting to use teamwork along with their personal work while still having fun in the process.