Vol. 20,  No. 9 May 3 - 16, 2007


With Ballroom Dance Classes Kids Learn More Than Merengue


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 the Bronx.

“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 behind-the-scenes jobs.

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 program.

“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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