It Takes Two to Tango
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2017 Issue
By Martha Beach
Imagine a gymnasium filled with Grade 7 students. They’re scattered around the room in mixed pairs of girls and boys. They’re holding hands. They’re looking each other in the eye. They’re stepping in unison to classical music, communicating silently, and playing their role in the duo. This isn’t your typical awkward middle school dance. It’s a ballroom lesson and students are dancing as part of their education. Only a couple weeks ago, these same kids were reluctant to learn a dance only their grandparents knew. Some even sat on the sidelines; their initial discomfort, however, soon turned into excitement.
Over the past few years, ballroom dance has garnered attention as an extremely useful yet entertaining educational tool that levels the social playing field and carries extremely important life lessons. The current popularity of traditional partner dances started with the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, about New York City schoolchildren preparing for ballroom competitions. Shows like Dancing With the Stars, now in its 25th season, are so popular that viewers can create their own Fantasy League as they tune in to episodes. And just this past summer, Mirvish Productions mounted a musical version of the 1992 Australian flick, Strictly Ballroom. But teaching school kids traditional ballroom dances—from the Rumba and Cha cha, to the Waltz and Tango—is not just for their entertainment. Ballroom dance embodies lessons of physical communication, teamwork, discipline, focus, and respect for your fellow classmates.
Future Steps is one company teaching ballroom dancing to schools throughout southern Ontario. Started by Carole Simmons nine years ago, the instructors break down old-school choreographed dances into easily digestible sections of movement patterns. Over the course of five to eight lessons, kids learn their section, learn to work together, and perfect the moves. It culminates in a performance for the school community.
Simmons and her team teach 40 to 80 programs per year to roughly 5,000 – 8,000 students. The program is affordable, with some schools choosing to cover the cost while others pass it on to the families. What’s more, ballroom dance lessons fit snugly into Ontario curriculum. “We get a large portion of our marks from her program—dance, participation, teamwork. It’s a good opportunity to get the evaluation in,” says Antony Caruso, a grade seven teacher at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Aurora, ON.
Velia Viola, principal at Holy Family Catholic Elementary School in Bolton, ON, signed her entire school up—800 kids from kindergarten to grade eight—last year and incorporated it right into the dance mark. “We had some students who didn’t want to participate but it wasn’t optional,” she says. “By the end, everyone was enjoying it.”
Franco Troiani, principal at St. John Paul II Catholic Elementary School in Bolton, ON, signed up his entire school—800 kids in kindergarten to grade eight—after hearing about it from a fellow educator. “I was looking for something to get the kids out of their shells and building relationships with their peers,” he says. His students put on three evening performances. “Parents always want to see what kids are doing and showcasing.”
The most important things students are gaining can’t be seen by the audience. “It’s all about discipline, etiquette, respect, communication,” Simmons stresses. “We have zero tolerance for disrespect or lack of teamwork.” They are learning to play their role in a situation. They are learning life skills: confidence, body language, and patience. “They have to know about facial expression, posture, eye contact,” Simmons explains. To work with someone new at such a young age is of utmost importance. “Sometimes the teamwork is like pulling teeth. But doing it is so good for creativity and respect,” she says.
In the world of ballroom dancing, everyone is equal. “The whole purpose of what we do is to level the playing field,” Simmons says. Caruso has seen this in action, “They have to work with people they have never worked with before. In the end, you can’t tell who is the nerd and who is popular,” he says. Ballroom dancing is something new to the vast majority of kids these days. They all start at the beginning and move forward at the same pace, step by step, count by count. The students learn a new—and fairly difficult skill—all together. And they need each other to succeed. After all, the old saying is absolutely correct: it takes two to Tango (or Waltz, Foxtrot, Rumba, or Jive). Such adamant attention to teamwork effects social attitude and interactions throughout the program.
These attitude alterations often also carry on past the end of ballroom dancing lessons. “We see the difficult kids in grade six, but these trouble kids are different when we see them in grade seven and grade eight,” Simmons says. Their personalities start to change. Their confidence shifts. “Especially with bullies. We flatten them out. We level the playing field. We give them something to make them feel good, to give them success and then we reward them and then have them help other students,” says Simmons.
Valerie Soper, a librarian and planning time teacher at Centennial Public School in Guelph, ON, has noticed that students really enjoy ballroom dancing. “Maybe it’s because ballroom is new to them. It’s mathematical. It’s different. It’s patterns.” In the beginning, they may not be so enthused, but “by the end they’re giving up recesses to dance more,” Soper says.
Viola notices a similar carry-over. “Often, the girls and boys don’t play with each other. Now they are playing together. They’re playing soccer and other organized games together,” Viola explains. She notes how much more respect exists between the students. “It is a huge positive outcome of how they behave and support and how they collaborate and work together.”
These outcomes are often the best part of ballroom dancing. “The main point for me was to build a community of inclusiveness,” says Troiani. He also notices a large amount of individual change as well. “It’s nice to see, when there is that hesitation or a reluctance, they still try something new,” Troiani says.
Caruso has even had a couple students tell him about a wedding they attended where they were able to ask their parent or grandparent to dance. Ballroom dancing can bring together different generations.
Ultimately, ballroom dance lessons are a fun way to get students moving and learning fundamental real-life skills. “We give them the ability to ask someone to dance. We give them confidence and respect,” Simmons says. Caruso agrees. “It’s another art form to express themselves,” Caruso says. “Plus it’s great for physical activity.” So far, Future Steps is the only program of exactly this type in southern Ontario. Researching within the local arts community to see what is on offer and what may be brought into the school is well worth the effort. Sometimes, students just need to be carefully instructed on how to participate in this performance we call life.
Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.