Pictured above: Dancing Classrooms Executive Director, Rodney Lopez, directs fifth grade dancers at recent recital held at the Westin St. John Resort & Villas.
All photos courtesy of Amy Roberts.
Dressed festively in their best party clothes, the fifth graders from the Julius E. Sprauve School and the Gifft Hill School enter the Westin ballroom in pairs, proudly escorting each other.
After taking their positions in the circle, the individuals in each couple face each other. “May I have this dance?” the boys ask on cue. “With pleasure,” respond the girls.
Then, arms lifted (“crispy chicken wing arms” in the words of the instructor) but elbows soft (“peanut butter and jelly elbows”), they begin to dance.
These fifth-graders are the seventh group of St. John students to participate in Dancing Classrooms, a nationally recognized program in ballroom dancing launched 23 years ago by Pierre Dulaine and celebrated in the films “Mad Hot Ballroom and “Take the Lead.”
“What you’re going to see on the dance floor is cute,” said Rodney Lopez, Dancing Classrooms Executive Director who was in the Virgin Islands to host recitals on all three islands. “But it’s so much more than that. What’s happening is that boys and girls are becoming ladies and gentlemen. There’s wonderful personal growth happening underneath.
“These children experience what it’s like to work with another human. When you’re holding another person and touching them in a respectful way, there is no longer an ‘other,’” Lopez said.
Lopez said the global program this year has involved more than 50,000 youngsters in 25 cities around the world. The latest film to document the program, “Dancing In Jaffa”, chronicles Dulaine’s travels to Jaffa, Israel, to bring together Israeli Jews and Palestinians Muslims.
One of the delights of the recital on May 11 at the Westin was seeing the students of all colors, shapes, and sizes seamlessly changing partners and moving through the dances. It didn’t matter that they’d never met before and sometimes differed in height by several feet.
The fifth graders proved they could glide gracefully in a waltz as well as shift their hips for the merengue while family members and teachers looked on. But the audience wasn’t allowed to simply watch; towards the end of the recital, each of the young dancers went out among the tables of guests and selected a partner to dance with in the spirited finale.
Lopez had warm words for Katie Zaytoun, the executive director of Dancing Classrooms in the Virgin Islands (DCVI). “What’s so great is seeing how Katie has developed a strong team of teaching artists and solid support in the schools.” Local instructors have included Marie Paul, Gail De Haas, and Gina Wellner.
Since launching the program in the territory in 2011, DCVI has partnered with 17 schools and worked with 4,500 young Virgin Islanders. Students meet during the school day twice a week for ten weeks.
“The challenge is that it’s a school residency program,” said Lopez. “We have to convince the education leaders that yes, we’re taking up precious minutes in the school day. Twice a week for ten weeks is not an insignificant investment of time and resources, but in the end you get a community—you get kids working in a way that enhances the classroom experiences.”
Lopez especially thanked the school administrators who attended the recital, including Marion Lynch-Esannason and Lisa Penn of the Sprauve School, and Beth Knight of the Gifft Hill School, for supporting the program.
“We tell the principals, ‘If you make the time, we’ll show you the artistic, social, and emotional benefits,’” Lopez said.
Dancing Classrooms hosted their final recital on Mother’s Day, May 14th at Reichhold Center for the Arts. The event, which includes children from ten schools, was free and open to the public.