Come Dance With Me, part 2

Editor’s note: This article reflects on scientific and practical uses of dance and brain function. To read Part 1, visit here.

By Veronica Hackethal

Scientific studies among youth have shown that dance improves stress, depression, self esteem, motivation, and concentration at school. Dance can also improve creative thinking, problem-solving skills, and the ability to cope with stress for those suffering from a variety of illnesses, and can increase the general quality of life of people of all ages. Regular participation in dance may even help decrease the risk of developing dementia. You can read up on the science of the brain and how dance boosts brain power in Part 1 here.

Dancing Classrooms, New York, NY
Helen Hayes with students from the Joy of Motion Youth Dance Ensemble, Washington, D.C., courtesy Joy of Motion

Helen Hayes with students from the Joy of Motion Youth Dance Ensemble, Washington, D.C., courtesy Joy of Motion

Classrooms was founded in 1994 by Pierre Dulaine and his dance partner
Yvonne Marceau, former Broadway dancers, and faculty members at the
School of American Ballet and the Juilliard School. The 10-week,
20-session social-development program is intended for 5th through 8th
grade public school children in New York City. According to the Dancing
Classroom website, the organization’s goal is to “increase children’s
self-esteem, confidence, responsibility, politeness, discipline, and
social awareness, to breakdown social barriers, and to develop respect
for others and for themselves through the medium of ballroom dance.”

in 15 states nationwide have subsequently adopted the Dancing
Classrooms model, which has also spread internationally to Canada,
Switzerland, and Israel. During the 2010-11 school year, a total of
42,000 children in 509 schools received the Dancing Classrooms program.
In New York City alone, more than 30,000 children in more than 200
schools participate in Dancing Classrooms each year.

Classrooms, perhaps the most widely known of youth dance programs,
inspired the Antonio Banderas film “Take The Lead,” and was also the
subject of the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.” The latter profiled the
progress of several children from various backgrounds, from the
beginning of dance classes to the culminating competition at the end of
the program.

Children who participate in the Dancing Classrooms program can pursue further dance training through the Dancing Classrooms Academy weekend program, from which they can audition for the Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company. The Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company has performed on NBC’s “Today Show,” Kennedy Center’s 35th Anniversary Gala, PBS, and CBS’s “The Insider.” They have also performed at Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, and have appeared in the March 2008 issue of Vogue.

Rodney Lopez, national program director, described the benefits of Dancing Classrooms. “Ballroom requires kids to work together in a specific way that builds respect and self-confidence,” he said. “They are able to relate to their peers through dancing. Some kids have used dancing to come out of their shells and become more popular.” Lopez went on to describe opportunities that have opened up to some of Dancing Classroom’s participants. “For example,” he said, “the boy Wilson, who was featured in the film Mad Hot Ballroom, spoke at the Dancing Classrooms benefit gala last year. He has also received a scholarship to attend college in Massachusetts.” The program need not end at the conclusion of the 10-week session: “Dancing Classrooms participants can continue learning more advanced steps in the weekend academy,” he continued, “and they can audition for the youth dance company, which has performed at Lincoln Center with YoYo Ma and at the Jacob’s Pillow festival.”

Here’s what a fifth grade boy wrote about the program (as reported on Dancing Classroom’s website): “I learned to have respect for everyone in my class and I learned to behave in a gentlemen way and how to be nice and not mean to others and most of all not always think about myself but think about others around you.”

Village Dancers of Crossroads, San Francisco, Calif.

The motto of Village Dancers of Crossroads is “Effort, Respect, Reciprocity.” According to the organization’s website, the goal of Village Dancers of Crossroads is to be a “community-service  learning program designed to help low-income kids and teens harness their personal power through movement, singing and dance performance.” Founded in 2000 by Albirda Rose, a dance  professor, as part of the dance degree program at San Francisco State University, Village Dancers of Crossroads offers free lessons in jazz, ballet, hip hop, and other types  of dance to children aged 8-18 who otherwise could not afford it. The program operates at six sites, and also teaches about diet and health. Rose, is a master instructor in Dunham Technique, and uses Katharine
Dunham’s model of “Socialization Through the Arts” and “Inter Cultural Communication” to train future dance teachers, as well to bring dance to youth in the community. Currently retired, Rose continues the program as faculty emeritus, and worries about its future.

In a phone
conversation, Rose described some challenges the program faces. “One time,” she said, “there was a series of gang-related shootings. The kids were traumatized, and we were worried whether we should take the college dance education students to that area. But we did it, and it was a good thing. It gave the kids a break from the craziness.”Rose’s dedication to improving the futures of program participants became evident when she described one of the program’s success stories: a young woman who Rose took into her own home after the woman aged out of foster care. “There was a 14-year-old girl who came to the after school program and really wanted to be there,” she said. “At age 18, she aged out of foster care. She’s now 22 and she’s in community college. She was just certified to be a teen counselor.” Rose’s description clearly showed the pride she took in this young woman’s progress, perhaps aided by the structure and positive role models provided by Rose’s dance program.

Rose continued to explain how dance benefits youth, “Participating in dancing nurtures their ability to be independent, teaches them creative processing, and offers them an outlet for individual expression. Dancers have always known that everyone has their own special qualities. Dance allows [those] to come out,” she said. “Dance teaches them to be comfortable with themselves. It teaches them respect. I say, ‘If you don’t respect yourself , how can you give anyone else respect?’ It teaches them reciprocity. I say, ‘If I give you 100 percent, you better give me 110 percent back.’ It teaches them about effort and how to have a work ethic.”

Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, D.C.
Dancing Classrooms event at Grand Central Terminal Centennial, courtesy Dancing Classrooms

Dancing Classrooms event at Grand Central Terminal Centennial, courtesy Dancing Classrooms

The Joy of Motion Dance Center was founded in 1976 in Washington, D.C., and has several community outreach dance programs. Joy of Motion’s mission is “Dance is for Everyone,” and the goal is to encourage “participation in dance across the lifespan to develop better individual and community health and well-being.” Motion Express, one of its community outreach programs, offers a 20-week program of free dance classes, performances, and educational opportunities to economically disadvantaged children in order to promote positive growth and change. Over 400 students, from Pre-K to 12th grade, participate each year through D.C. public schools,
D.C. public charter schools, and one community performing arts center.
Associated programs at Joy of Motion include The Step Ahead program,
which provides free summer dance classes and job skills training for
D.C. teens. The Dance Is for Everyone program provides merit and
needs-based scholarships to youths.

Joy of Motion is also a designated site for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Youth Dance Program, which provides free dance classes and opportunities for 4th through 6th graders at public schools to see dance performances. The aim is to encourage dance as a healthy alternative to drugs, alcohol, and violence. As one of the most successful after-school dance programs in the United States, the DEA Youth Dance Program reaches thousands of students each year in Washington, D.C., through JOM and 15 other cities nationwide, via other suitable dance providers.

Helen Hayes, program director of the Youth Dance Ensemble, is a former professional dancer who has won dance education awards, and has guest taught at the prestigious Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria. She reinforced what science has to say about the benefits of dance. “Dance is transformative,” she said. “It builds strong bodies and minds. They way dancers process information is different from other physical activities. The brain is asked to work in a different way when you learn repertory and combinations. Dancing makes for a complete, whole, and healthy person. Dance addresses the body, mind, and soul. The level of integration necessary to be successful is very, very advanced. It’s win-win. Physical and mental skills increase. Self-confidence increases.”

She expanded on this to describe the social benefits of dance. “The feeling of creating a community every time they come into class,” she said, “participating in team building, having role models,
and taking responsibility — all of this helps create a better world, and better human beings.”

She also believes that dance teaches life skills. “Kids learn in every area of life. Former participants have told me that the time management and focus required in dance class taught them to be better in every area. The DEA Youth Dance Project kids find their own voices through dance. They create their own choreography and express what’s deep inside of them. They’re doing it in a  healthy way, and coming to a safe environment.”

Joy of Motion’s outreach programs are designed to expose, employ and empower imagination of  youth, explained Quynn Johnson, program manager of education and outreach at Joy of Motion. A dance teacher, choreographer, and a former member of Savion Glover’s tap dance company, Johnson also holds a BS in health management from Howard University. “The program teaches conflict resolution, nutrition, and positive health habits,” she said. “Students are encouraged to incorporate what they learn in dance class into their schoolwork.”

As a high schooler Brian Spitulnik danced in the Joy of Motion Youth Ensemble, a pre-collegiate dance training program. He subsequently completed college and currently lives in New York City,
where he has danced in the Broadway musical “Chicago” since 2007. He also recently completed a masters in creative writing from Columbia University. Spitulnik emphasized the life lessons he learned at Joy of Motion. “Helen taught me how to have a work ethic and showed me that when things seem impossible, it just takes work,” he said. “Dance can be a great equalizer. Either your technique is there, or it’s not.” He further explained, “In the classroom, parental help, or being financially able to hire tutors, gives some people an advantage. In dance, I learned that what would help me move forward is my hard work. Other factors that would play into success outside the studio are stripped away. Inside the studio I’m just a boy in a leotard and what matters is my hard work.”

He also emphasized the importance of good teaching. “It can be a really scarring experience if you have the wrong teacher,” he noted. “Who your teachers are makes all the difference. Having that one really solid male figure allowed me to own whoever I was, within whatever I was doing.”

Spitulnik also emphasized the psychological rewards of dance: “It took me a long time to incorporate into other parts of my life the strength, confidence, and natural leadership qualities that I was able to develop at a dance studio. I learned things through my body before I knew them in my mind, which is how a lot of kids are. But it started with dance.”

DanceDC, Washington, D.C.

is a community outreach program run by The Washington Ballet with the stated goal of creating higher achievement through ballet. Founded in 2000, Dance-DC provides 2nd and 3rd graders with a seven-week in-school curriculum that covers topics like ballet, music history, science and ballet, math and dance, introduction to world cultures, and language arts. Children also participate in daytime field trips to performances of The Washington Ballet and other recognized dance companies. The program concludes with a final performance given by the children. DanceDC operates in six public elementary schools, one charter school, and one community arts center in Washington, D.C. It reaches more than 500 children each year in District public schools. DanceDC also offers
scholarships, sliding-scale tuition and financial aid for those DanceDC students who also attend dance classes at The Washington School of Ballet, or TWB@THEARC (The Washington Ballet at the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Center), located in Anacostia, a low-income area of the city.

In a telephone conversation, Saki Kawakita, DanceDC director, described the crucial importance of DanceDC programs, especially since D.C. public schools have lost physical education, arts,
and music classes. She echoed Brian Spitulnik’s statement about children learning through their bodies. “Sometimes,” she said, “kids learn better from using their own bodies rather than a book. Some kids create their own choreography. Ballet or any other type of art helps them figure out who they are,” she said.

Kawakita explained how she teaches life lessons using fables. “For example, I took the texture from the fable ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ in order to teach children that the size of the body doesn’t matter. The idea of ballet dancers needing to be really tiny—breaking that is a big thing for boys. I show pictures of athletes and give them the idea that ballet isn’t only for a particular body type, or a certain gender, that it’s always good idea to try something new.”

Ballet improves academic performance, Kawakita said. “Teachers have noted better control in academic classes after ballet class, better control not only of the mind but also of the body. The children get the energy out of their bodies so they can sit down and do their schoolwork. They need an outlet. The first thing the teacher takes away from a trouble maker is recess. But trouble makers do really well in a ballet class,” she explained, “because they strive for recognition from the teachers. They pour their energy into the dancing. It gives them a sense of pride, and helps them to become better students.”

DanceSport Academy, Palm Beach County Florida
Young dancers from DanceSport Academy, which provides ballroom dance instruction to disadvantaged children in Palm Beach County, Fla., courtesy DanceSport Academy

Young dancers from DanceSport Academy, which provides ballroom dance instruction to disadvantaged children in Palm Beach County, Fla., courtesy DanceSport Academy

Academy provides ballroom dance instruction to disadvantaged children in West Palm Beach, Fla. According to the organization’s website, the goal of DanceSport Academy is to encourage self-discipline, respect, and good manners, and to enhance young lives through the rigors of ballroom dance. DanceSport Academy, founded in June 2007. currently operates in four Boys and Girls Clubs throughout Palm Beach County, Florida. The DanceSport Academy program lasts 12 weeks and culminates in a competition between the four clubs.

In its five years of existence, DanceSport Academy’s impact has attracted national attention. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited a DanceSport Academy class in March 2012, spending time with the children and dancing with the class instructor. Two DanceSport Academy graduates, Mark Wright and his sister Jameelah Grant, were provided with an expense-paid trip to San Francisco so that they could perform their award-winning tango at the Boys & Girls Club of America annual meeting in May 2008.

George Stamas is president, director, and co-founder of DanceSport Academy. A former banker and businessman in New York City, George Stamas is currently adjunct professor of finance and economics at Northwood  University and Florida Atlantic University in West Palm Beach as well as a former navy officer. Stamas personally attends and supervises DanceSport Academy classes. “You can see the difference from when they start and when they finish,” he said. “From time to time we have children who come in with behavioral problems. I’ve seen some boys who will literally run around in circles. By the end of twelve weeks they’re not running around in circles anymore. We help them understand that there’s a whole world outside the abusive home. You teach a kid respect and they listen to you.”

He further explained some of the challenges of the program: “Sometimes a boy won’t dance with a girl, maybe because of chauvinism or a history of abuse. We overcome these resistances with care, compassion, and discipline. We expand their horizons. Ballroom dancing helps these children feel better about themselves and feel better in society. The process of discipline, of learning these steps, also helps them in school.”

Come Dance With Me

In the 14th century the Persian Sufi poet Hafiz wrote these words:

The God who knows only four words
Not the word NO!
Not the word DON’T!
Not the words that cause disorder and conflict.
The God who knows only four words keeps repeating them-

Perhaps Hafiz knew that the drive to dance, the sheer joy of it, has been passed down to us since the dawn of time. Ancient cave paintings from as early as 20,000 years ago depict dance scenes, though dancing may have existed far earlier. From the time when our earliest ancestors became capable of upright posture, dance has benefited the human mind and body. Science has added to this ancient wisdom by offering proof about the benefits of dance, while success stories of community dance programs bear this out. Perhaps one of the great hopes for the future of dance
and for our children lies in this: that we listen to the wisdom of experience from our dance elders as well as the scientific evidence. It is indeed a precious gift to bestow upon future generations the
appreciation and thrill inherent in the words: “Come dance with me.”

Veronica HackethalVeronica Hackethal is a dance, travel, and health writer based in New York City. She is a contributing writer to The Dance Enthusiast. Her writing has also appeared on Best Travel Writing, Literary Traveler, Transitions Abroad, Matador, and Inner Body. Awards for her writing include Silver Prize in Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards, Bronze Prize in Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards, and finalist in Transition Abroad’s Narrative Travel
Writing Contest. Veronica began training in classical ballet at age six and danced into her teens. She took an extended hiatus from dance to
attend Harvard University (A.B.), Oxford University (M.Sc.), and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (M.D.). She returned to ballet five years ago. Veronica is the author of
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Medical Terminology, with publication by Alpha/Penguin projected for Summer 2013. She is also the recipient of a 2013 American Society of Journalists and Authors scholarship. 


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