They're Having A Ball

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Cool ... Really great! ... Fun! ... Funny ... Nice ... So good ...

These are definitely not the adjectives most parents today would use to describe the formal dance classes they attended as children. But they are the very words Grade 4 students at P.S. 127 in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, N.Y., used last month to describe the first ballroom-dance class held at their school. In less than 45 minutes, these 9- and 10-year-olds had learned to dance the merengue, the first of 10 dances they would attempt in a 20-class session. Their dance teacher, Pierre Dulaine, is the artistic director of American Ballroom Theater, a dance company that has introduced ballroom dances to theaters around the world and also has an outreach program, Dancing Classrooms, that instructs almost 3,500 children each week in 37 New York schools. Dulaine treated his young dancers with great respect, addressing them as ladies and gentlemen. He and his talented teaching-artist, Victoria Malvagno, also joked their way through the class, banishing any anxiety the children might have felt about performing or touching a member of the opposite sex. While some of the children resembled little wooden soldiers, they all smiled and laughed as they learned their steps.

The students at P.S. 127 are but a smattering of the tens of thousands of young people who are rapidly getting into ballroom dancing--practicing at their schools and at community and cultural centers, health clubs, dance studios, park programs and cotillions across the U.S. Some other examples:

--At Edgewood High School in Madison, Wis., this year, half the school's 480 students chose to take a ballroom-dance class to fulfill their physical-education requirement--over such other gym electives as golf, tennis, Ping-Pong and bowling.

--In numerous venues in and around Atlanta, about 800 11-to-13-year-old students--some to please their mothers, but many to please themselves--have signed up this year with the Cotillion group, which has for decades been teaching dancing as part of a total package of social skills.

--In the San Francisco Unified School District, elementary, middle and high school teachers from 14 schools took six months of ballroom lessons, just so they could pass their skills on to their students.

--In the Los Angeles area, dance instructor Gaye Smith teaches ballroom and social graces to about 1,000 children a month in three different locations. Two years ago, she established a new class in Camarillo because 93 students from that town were driving over to her cotillion in Westlake Village so they could learn to dance.

--At Brigham Young, the only university in the country that offers a degree in ballroom dance, some 6,000 students a year are involved in some fashion in the program. Ballroom is also huge in the Ivy League schools, as well as in colleges like the University of Wisconsin and Penn State, where students at the Beaver campus are on long waiting lists to get into the classes of popular teacher Richard Morris.

--One sign that an activity is catching on in America is that it becomes increasingly competitive. A fast-growing dance-sport community, made up of competitive ballroom dancers, is campaigning to include ballroom in the 2008 Olympics. (The International Olympic Committee recognized dance sport as a legitimate sport in 1997.) Among the many websites that serve the ballroom community, www.dancescape.TV is visited daily by tens of thousands of fans and participants.

How come? There's a lot to recommend ballroom, of course--whatever age a person is. It provides good cardiovascular exercise and helps develop muscle tone, grace, poise and balance. It's affordable and can be learned in a relatively short time. But its popularity among the young is particularly welcomed by parents who, with some reason, fret about the safety of their children in the harsh and sometimes violent world in which so many grow up today. "What we are really teaching the students is respect, teamwork and transferable skills," says Dulaine. "Our students learn that the most important thing is to be able to work with another human being. And what they learn stays with them for life." Dulaine, like many other dance teachers, shows his students how to walk in a way that reveals that they respect themselves and others, as well as how to request and accept a dance--as they would any favor--and express thanks afterward. Above all, Dulaine shows them what it means to be kind. Scientist Ronnen Levinson, author of a social-dancing handbook, Much Ado About Ballroom Dancing (see website www.outdancing.com), says this is one of the aspects of ballroom that is so special: "When you are dancing socially, you are nice to your partner all the time." In some dance schools, students also learn telephone, dating and interviewing skills, as well as basic manners. There's even a charm class at M.I.T. that includes ballroom dancing, intended for students whose brilliance may not always compensate for their awkward ways once they're out in the real world.

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