Learning to Lead

Teaching a recent core program, one of my students, K, would gradually drift away from the circle during the lesson. I couldn’t tell at first what was going on for him – was he disinterested? Or shy? But I continued to invite him back into the circle to come join us.
            We got to the lesson for swing, and to my surprise, K stayed in the circle that day. Something clicked for him and I could see him light up. Many students have trouble with the swing basic at first, getting a handle on the syncopated rhythm and stretching the movement away and then toward their partner. K was the first in the class to get it!
            In preparing for competition, I assigned K the swing dance, figuring if he had a dance he really liked, he would really focus on it. K exceeded my expectations – not only practicing with enthusiasm, but also being a leader on the team and helping other students who were having trouble with the steps. On competition day, there was a long wait before his time onstage, he told me he just wanted to get out there and dance. I told him to save up all his energy and put it out there onstage – and he did!
            I was impressed by my student’s performance, and so were his family and regular teachers. I learned from them that K really struggled to pay attention in his other classes. I have people close to me who had trouble paying attention in school due to ADHD and other issues, and they often felt like “the bad kid” in school and struggled with feeling different. I’m so glad K learned the dance, but I am even happier he had a positive learning experience connecting with something he enjoyed, and was able to take on a new role as a successful leader.  

Can Dance Promote World Peace?

One of the main facets of the DWC curriculum is teaching the students about respect. What it means to treat others with respect, and how to show respect to others by dancing with them. This idea sounds simple and self-evident, but teaching ballroom dance to 5th graders, where boys and girls have to connect physically with each other, is no small feat. The excuses I have heard as to why they do not want to dance with members of the opposite gender range from comical, to absurd, to relevant.

Eventually, students become more comfortable with the idea, and give it a try. Once they have figured out that it is actually fun and begin to channel their energy into dance routines, something magical happens.  As an instructor, I watch the joy and excitement between partners and the class members who are being cooperative team players, exhibiting appropriate touch through various ballroom arm connections, expressing themselves through movement and music, and showing off their new dancing skills. It fills my heart with joy and love, and sometimes- amazement! 

Upon reflection, I began imagining a world where nations and humans of all kinds treated each other with respect. Wow- things would be really different. So, on the days when teaching ballroom dance is challenging, and I feel stressed out that things didn’t go exactly how I planned, I think about the possibility that the message of respect will sink in and affect their life choices in a positive way, if not now, perhaps in the future. I strongly believe in the power of dance, and its ability to create positive change on this planet, one 5th grader at a time. This gives me peace and motivation to continue spreading my love of dance through the art of teaching it.

Surprise - you're performing in front of your entire school!

Four weeks ago, I started a 12 week program at an elementary school working with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  They are taking time out of their Social Studies class to learn 2 dances - one with a partner, and one non-partner.  The teacher coach is beyond wonderful - he's excited, invested, and so supportive.  That's a gift in itself.

The students came into the first week of dance class very hesitant.  There are more boys in almost all 6 classrooms, which tends to be more difficult since girls are more likely to embrace dance class than boys at that age.  I was lucky enough to be able to hear him introduce me and the program - most of the time the students are prepped before I get there, so I have no idea what they're told.  He said very honestly that this was a new experience, one that he has been dreaming about for years but couldn't put into reality himself, and that I was there to teach them to dance.  The kids were skeptical, but they didn't write me off just yet.  Then he said something I have to remember for the future in new schools.  He told them he understood they were nervous.  And that their bad behavior (laughing, making faces, negative comments) were just a result of being nervous.  He said that if they just gave me a chance, they would be as convinced as he is that they will be successful.  I wanted to hug him.  That was the perfect thing to say to get the students on board.  His stamp of approval was enough for them to come to me with an open mind.  My job just got a little easier.

We only have 45 minutes together each week, and most of the first 2 classes was spent getting them to stop pulling their sleeves over their hands in connection.   However, there were some students who were hooked right away.  They embraced the dance and the character.  I could tell they were along for the ride.   I'm still working to convince some of the students that this isn't painful and they won't have to marry their partner.  But the majority of students were hooked by week 2.

Then, last week I told them I wanted their help in making the dance their own.  They were to help me choreograph parts of each dance for the performance in May.  Some of the kids shut down entirely saying they were not going to dance on stage.  Some were nervous I would make them dance by themselves but calmed down when I told them it was a group performance.  Some really looked excited to be a part of it.

It's still early on in the program, so I'm optimistic I can change the minds of the hesitant students.  A few students are choosing not to dance with a partner, and I'm not forcing them.  My hope is that they will change their minds, but if they won't dance holding another student, I can't have them be a part of the partner dance.  It's a tricky balance to try and find out the true reason a student won't hold another student's hand, and in only 45 minutes a week with 35 dancers on a tiny stage, I'm afraid I might never be able to delve deep into it.  So unfortunately, they have to sit down and join in when they feel they can handle it.  Some come back, and a few don't.  

I try to not get into "go mode" and just focus on what we must do that week.  I try not to freak out if we get behind my schedule.  I try to approach each class with a goal in mind, explain to the students my goal, and then hope to achieve it together.  But sometimes I wish I had more time to interact with the students to see if they'll open up to me about their fears and insecurities.  Why they won't hold Suzie's hand.  Why it's so scary to have Johnny's hand on their back.  Maybe that would take the fear away.  And maybe not.

Our Second Year Together

I've been lucky enough to be back with a YMCA program for the 2nd year after working with new students in 2014.  Last year, the kids did a wonderful job.  They were completely new to partner dancing.  Some were young, so they were not quite secure with dancing with a partner of the opposite gender and just not quite convinced this was an adventure they wanted to take with me.

This year, half of my class is new and the other half competed last year.  The changes are amazing.  The 2nd year dancers are committed, attentive, and understand the benefits to putting in hard work for 10 weeks and having a great time at the dance off.  That excitement had definitely translated to the new dancers.  They are working even harder to "catch up" to the 2nd year dancers and the results are wonderful.  There is no more convincing the students to commit to ballroom hold.  No more keeping them interested as they eye the board games they were playing before I arrived.  They are mine for one hour and ready to be molded into amazing ladies and gentlemen.    So far, half way in, the results are incredible.  I'm so excited to see where they take these dances in March!

Putting the "Unity" in Classroom Community

Before I worked with Dancing With Class, I used to study and teach classes on community-based performance. One thing that kept coming up was the connection between the personal empowerment that comes from mastering a performance skill-- something that you create in your own body and others can’t take away-- and the feeling of togetherness that comes from creating a performance with others. This is something that is similar to what happens in team sports: individuals learn to take pride in developing new skills while learning that for their team to succeed overall they must work together. In our program the skills are different, but the concept is the same. And unlike most team sports our students take part in at their ages, the teams are completely co-ed. This is something I see happen in my classrooms again and again. 

Personal Empowerment: So often we see the pride and joy our students develop when they master a new step, or when they get recognition for a dance well done. I recently had the chance to work with a full classroom of students to create a fully choreographed dance piece for performance. At one point I wanted the gentlemen to enter in a formation, but they were struggling with spacing. One of the boys in the class suggested they enter offset “like a checkerboard,” and we re-imagined that section to make that suggestion work. I was thrilled to see one of my students take a leadership role in the dance, and it looked great in the final routine! Particularly for students who may struggle in other subjects, or who face more challenges than their peers in other areas, these moments of recognition can be particularly motivating.  

Community Bonding: I so appreciate our placing partner dance at the center of a creative endeavor. One of my students once said that “ballroom dancing is different from hip hop because… in ballroom dance you have to get along with the other person.” This isn’t to take anything away from hip hop or ballet or jazz or any other form of dance, but to signify what is different about partnered dance. Our goal is never to outshine our partner. We have to work together for us to succeed. The dancers learn that have to trust and rely on their partners, and also that their partners rely on them. I think that can be scary and difficult for adults, let alone for 10-year-olds. In this same dance piece, there was a moment where some of the students participated in a simple, safe lift. The dancers who were lifted learned that the moment they trusted their partners to carry them the lift was completely secure and comfortable, but if they avoided giving their partners their full weight, then they wouldn’t get more than a few inches off the ground. So much of the staging of the piece, too, involved moments when a group of ladies would have to move across the stage in time for their partners to start the next piece, and vice versa. We discussed how when each person knew when they were supposed to move and when they had to trust and wait for their partner, the entire piece looked cleaner.  

These realizations are twinned: I can; We can. Both are very important lessons. In a culture of American individualism, individual scores and grading, and growing isolation of kids and teens through “social” networks, I think Dancing With Class can capitalize on our ability to bring students together. To my other teachers and collaborators: do you have particular strategies, anecdotes, or ideas of how we can do this to an even greater extent?

Overcoming fears

Crushona was not feeling comfortable. I could tell from her body language - arms crossed like she was trying to shrink into herself, sometimes covering her face with her hands - that she was feeling freaked out at the possibility of having to dance. I'm sure it was extra nerve racking because she was a new student. Everyone else in class had been with each other since the beginning of the school year and had three dance classes already, but it was her first day. We had been working gradually up to our closed position ballroom hold, and I was confident that the other students would be able to handle it. But Crushona was a wild card - she had another adult helper specifically with her in the class, and seemed to be legitimately frightened.
When it came time to introduce closed position, I thought to myself, "Well, we'll see... Maybe she'll just need to take a break." In between talking to students I tried to casually mention to our classroom teacher that if new students were having a hard time it would be okay to go easy on them. But then when I asked for a volunteer to help me demonstrate, Crushona raised her hand! With a little coaxing, she got up in front of the entire class. I talked her through the closed position and she did a great job; she was even able to follow me though a salsa basic! And best of all, the entire class cheered and clapped for her without any prompting from me. What a great confidence boost! She was smiling as she went back to join the circle.
The rest of class wasn't perfect, she still needed a little encouragement sometimes to get into closed position with some of the gentlemen. But compared to where she was at the beginning of class, she made a huge leap forward. I was so proud of her and so grateful to have been a part of that experience. Moments like these are why I love teaching for Dancing With Class and why I believe so passionately that dance can make a positive change in people's lives.