“While I dance I cannot judge, I cannot hate, I cannot separate myself from life. I can only be joyful and whole. That is why I dance.”
- Hans Bos
Four years ago, Cambridge Public Schools received a grant for a ballroom dancing program as part of Physical Education. It ran in a handful of schools, one of them being the school I worked at as an assistant. The fifth-graders were mortified at the idea of touching a member of the opposite sex. It didn’t help that the program “Know Your Body” was taught at the same time.
The lead teacher handled it well. To begin, she showed the students the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom”. This documentary of New York City fifth-graders practicing and performing in a citywide competition makes dancing seem less alien-like. (I highly recommend watching it.) This teacher and I also attended every gym class even though it was her prep period to help out, so the students took it seriously. Each week, the students improved and by the time of the performance, a few of the couples were really good.
I attended the performance. Watching these initially awkward boys and girls behave like ladies and gentlemen, dressed in their finest and treating one another with respect, brought tears to my eyes. They danced The Fox Trot, Swing, Merengue, Tango, Waltz, Rumba, and Salsa. At the end, they group danced to “Electric Slide” and the audience was invited to participate, like a giant wedding. If I had any sort of coordination, I would’ve joined them. I was proud of my students.
The program was so successful the Physical Education Department provided the funding for all of the elementary schools. At the end of the school year, the fifth-grade performed a few of the dances for the entire school. We hoped the fourth-graders would be less intimidated for the following year after witnessing the older kids dance.
As pleasant as the first fifth-grade class had been was as unpleasant as the next group turned out to be. They came in with a bad reputation and did nothing to overcome it. The lead teacher who could turn any lump of coal into a diamond had a tough time with this class. Then she went out on maternity leave and I took over. (Lucky me.) When my students watched the documentary, they made fun of the New York City kids. Even with students being sent to the office during lunch and by any specialist they had, somehow I kept them from being too rowdy in gym, and it came together for the ballroom dancing performance. At least, for those who showed up.
One boy refused to participate. I talked to his grandmother, promising her it would be transformative for him, but she wouldn’t make him do it. He chose writing essays on famous dancers in the office over dancing with girls. And those essays? He didn’t bother doing them, getting an F in his formerly favorite class.
This year, it was my son’s turn to take ballroom dancing. And “Know Your Body”. Tuesday night, the performance was held in the high school gymnasium. My son’s teacher is awesome. Not only did she show the documentary, she demanded they treat each another with respect and even compliment one another. Attendance at the performance was not optional – it was MANDATORY.
Her attitude kept my son from being too apprehensive when the classes began. But more than that, once he started it, he liked it. By a week before the performance, he was looking forward to it. He laid out his outfit, including a tie this past weekend and nagged me to iron everything.
Looking at all of these young men and women, most whom I’ve known since kindergarten, made me emotional. I took tons of pictures and video, and all of us parents gushed about the whole thing.
My son had three different partners throughout the dances. I was amazed over how well he danced and how comfortable he was with his partners. During the Dance Off, MIT dancers acted as judges, who walked around and tapped a winning couple from each school, during the final song, the Merengue. It was clear that my son’s partner was really good, but so was this girl’s best friend and her partner. I could see the judges hovering between these two couples. My son and his partner weren’t chosen.
When the winning couple received their trophies and walked back to their classmates, their fellow students surrounded them and cheered. It wasn’t about competition. They’d done it together and supported one another.
I wish I could post pictures and video to show you the beaming smiles, lovely outfits, and diversity of the students. I wish you could see how nearly all the boys are shorter than nearly all the girls, and how the girls bent down when the boys twirled them. I wish you could see how happy they were to be dancing and how relaxed they were with their partners, even looking into one another’s eyes. I wish you could witness the dramatic flair they put into the Tango. I wish you could see them laugh and have a great time for the three group dances (Electric Slide, Cotton-Eyed Joe, and Cha Cha Slide (a fun Hip Hop song) at the end. I wish you could’ve heard my son’s excitement recapping the night on the way home.
When my son attended kindergarten, his class performed The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. He was the “beautiful butterfly”. In my daughter’s second-grade class this year, they are observing caterpillars turning into butterflies. Watching those fifth-graders dance, I witnessed the same metamorphoses.