Pierre Dulaine swept St. John off its feet as he graced the island with a mix of ballroom grandeur and humorous dance instruction only the world renowned ballroom dancing instructor himself could swing.
Dulaine, whose life provided the basis for “Take the Lead” starring Antonio Banderas and whose unique teaching philosophy led to the creation of “Mad Hot Ballroom,” the award-winning documentary about the successful dancing program he began in New York City classrooms, came to St. John for a whirlwind visit to kick off Dancing Classrooms on the island.
“I am not personally interested in turning these boys and girls into world champion dancers, but into ladies and gentlemen who have respect for themselves and each other and the ability to develop confidence,” Dulaine said of his 10-week long, twice a week pilot project which is being implemented in fifth grade classrooms at all three island schools.
Dulaine said Dancing Classrooms is such a success because it is a social development program that teaches students skills that are transferable to real life situations.
“We work with these children at the age of 10 years old when they are still malleable,” he said. “I really don’t care if they remember the steps 20 years from now, but they will remember having danced with a lady and being gentle and being respectful of each other and all the various manners that are inherent in ballroom dancing.”
Dulaine said when he was 14, he was very shy and timid but dancing changed his life.
“I wanted to give something back to society, and I get to see the results in these kids’ faces and smiles,” he said. “At first, they don’t want to do it, but 45 minutes later, they become ladies and gentlemen and they love it.”
Seeing him work his magic on Friday, September 11, during 45-minute introductory sessions with youngsters at Guy Benjamin, Gifft Hill and Julius E. Sprauve schools, left no doubt that this seasoned dancer knows how to transform the shyest and most resistant student into an eager ballroom dancer.
“I think it was really nice,” said Kemisha Hoheb, a JESS fifth grader, of her dance lesson from Dulaine. “I love the Marangue and Pierre is so funny.”
“And yes, I did like dancing with the boys,” she added.
Even Lewis Gil, a JESS fifth grader who seemed a bit shy at first, described the ballroom intro as “good” and admitted he liked dancing with the girls.
Perhaps one of the reasons Dulaine knows how to reach children through dance is because this is where he found confidence as a child — beginning dance lessons in Birmingham, England when he was 14-years-old.
“I was not very good at it, but something stirred inside of me and I stuck with it,” he said.
Dulaine’s father passed away when he was 15 so he took on a paper route job to pay for dance lessons and subsidized the cost by helping his dance teacher until he moved to London at age 20 to work as a full time dance instructor.
Dancing with a partner earned him award-winning titles throughout his early 20s, and soon Dulaine’s success landed him work as a dancer all over the world — from London and Nairobi to Cabaret dancing on Caribbean-bound cruise ships departing New York City.
“Then one day I got off in New York and stayed there for 38 years,” Dulaine said.
It was in 1989 when Dulaine was dancing on Broadway in the musical Grand Hotel with his dancing partner, Yvonne Marceau, when he started volunteering at a New York City school in his spare time.
“And that was the seed that created the beginning of Dancing Classrooms,” he said. “Every one told me I could do it as an after school program, but that doesn’t work — then you get 20 girls and three boys.”
The real success of the program comes from it being integrated into the school day as part of the curriculum, said Dulaine, whose persistence landed him a contract with the Department of Education in New York City.
“Many doors were shut in my face by parents, principals and teachers,” he recalled. “But if a door closes, there is always a window.”
Dancing Classrooms is entering its 16th year in New York City schools where 240 schools participate and 60 trained dance artists teach 28,000 kids on an annual basis. Today more than 40,000 students participate in 15 cities around the United States, and the program is being taught in schools in Toronto, Geneva and now St. John.
“I have taught students from Tokyo to Jordan — all over the world,” Dulaine said. “I love kids and I have a way with children because dancing did so much for me personally.”
Dulaine said his dream is to see children all over the world dancing together, but he is especially excited to bring Dancing Classrooms to St. John, where the West Indian culture is ripe with natural rhythm that cannot be taught from lessons alone.
“The local people here are such rhythmic people; such dancers,” Dulaine said. “I am going to teach them steps and civility, but I don’t know if I can teach them to dance and shake what their mama gave them — they do that on their own.”
St. Johnians and residents young and old showed up to dance with Dulaine in Franklin Powell Park Thursday evening, September 10, in a festive kick-off that featured root beer floats, pizza and a lot of what the dance instructor referred to as “shaking what their mama gave them.”
The following evening, a dance-filled fundraiser at the Westin Ballroom to raise money for the new Mad Hot St. John scholarship, drew around 100 people, slightly over $3,000 and a greater respect for ballroom dancing by all who attended.
Even I, who was inappropriately equipped with zero ballroom dancing skills and way-too-high heels, had the honor of dancing with Dulaine whose seasoned steps and graceful lead during a brief moment left me longing for more ballroom bliss.