20, No. 9
May 3 -
Dance Classes Kids Learn More Than Merengue
By KATHRYN MOLINARO
Dancing and spinning like professional dancers, the
fourth graders from PS 340 tangoed around the dance floor.
Just 10 weeks earlier, dance instructor Latisha Cesar had to
convince the class that the opposite sex didn’t have cooties.
“It’s always hard to get them to work together,” Cesar said.
Once the students started dancing, though, they forgot about gender
and let the music take over.
The ballroom dancing program comes to schools like PS 340 from the
American Ballroom Theater’s Dancing Classrooms program, which began
in 1994 and is based in Manhattan. Sessions last 10 weeks and meet
for two 45-minute classes a week during the school day.
Cesar, who studied dance at Lehman College, has worked for American
Ballroom Theater for three years. She teaches dances like the waltz,
rumba, tango and swing at elementary and middle schools throughout
“We want to give these children something to strive for,” Cesar
said. “It’s really about helping them grow as people.”
Principal Deirdre Burke agrees that the program, in its second year
at her school, teaches lessons beyond twirling and jazz hands.
“I think the arts are an entitlement,” Burke said. “If you’re going
to be educated you have to know more than reading and writing.”
Burke and Cesar like how ballroom dancing builds students’
vocabularies, gives them an appreciation of the arts and strengthens
confidence, which can transfer to better grades in the classroom.
The program, which cost $10,200 this year for PS 340, is paid for
with discretionary money the school receives as an Empowerment
school and by Learning in the Arts, a program the Department of
Education launched to emphasize music, art and theater education.
The program is open to all fourth, fifth and sixth graders and costs
nothing for the students. Those who can’t dance for religious
reasons participate by helping with the music and other
Eddie Vargas, the leadership team chair at PS 340, decided to bring
ballroom dancing to the school after seeing “Mad Hot Ballroom,” the
hit documentary that follows fifth graders at three different New
York City public schools as they take part in the Dancing Classrooms
“We’ve got to find a way for us to do this,” Vargas remembers saying
after seeing the movie. “I liked the fact that it taught them
confidence, responsibility, leadership. It gives the kids an
opportunity to shine.”
Sixth grader Imani Purnell, 12, likes the program because she learns
new dance steps and hears music from around the world. Her favorite
dance is the salsa.
“A lot of hips,” she said. “It’s very Latin.”
Imani added that the class has also taught her good posture, which
her mom likes.
On April 19, the PS 340 students showcased their grapevines and fox
trots for parents in one of the ballrooms at The Eastwood Manor on
Eastchester Road. The space was donated by the owners.
The girls shined in dresses and hair ribbons and many of the boys
wore ties. The 200 students paraded around the marble dance floor
underneath twinkling chandeliers in escort style – couples with
linked arms, girls on the right – as flash bulbs and applause burst
from the parents’ section.
Between dances, the students sat at tables covered with white
tablecloths and napkins that matched the purple and peach balloons
decorating the room. When the students finished dancing, Cesar
announced free summer classes at the American Ballroom Theater.
As a cheer went up from the students, Burke smiled. It seems her
students had developed an appreciation for the arts, and everyone
agreed they now dance a mean tango.
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