Students from Community Day School may be the city’s biggest movers and shakers, at least the 12 fifth-graders who executed the merengue, fox-trot, rumba, tango and swing before an audience of 600 at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. The May 16 performance and competition capped a 10-week co-curricular exercise, said Mark Minkus, the day school’s head of Intermediate School and Middle School.
“It was quite an event and the outcome was unexpected and amazing,” he said.
Although this was CDS’ first go-around with Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh, the Squirrel Hill-based school was named grand champion of the “Colors of the Rainbow” Spring 2018 Semester Final Team Match.
Organized by Pittsburgh Mercy and Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh, the nine-year-old program welcomed 10 student teams. Apart from CDS, squads from Pittsburgh Banksville K-5, Pittsburgh Brookline PreK-8, Pittsburgh Montessori PreK-5, Pittsburgh Phillips K-5, Pittsburgh Roosevelt PreK-5, Pittsburgh Westwood K-5, St. Benedict the Moor School, Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy and West Mifflin Area Middle School participating in the event.
Taking part in Dancing Classrooms is a “truly life changing experience,” said Mark Rogalsky, Pittsburgh Mercy’s senior manager for school and community services. “The kids think they’re learning about dancing, but they’re learning about life.”
Throughout the lead up to the finale, issues such as how to appropriately address one another — both physically and verbally — how to bolster self-confidence and how to be a good partner were all covered, said Minkus.
There is a level of “respect” that is gained throughout the process, “and it shows,” added Rogalsky.
Bringing Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh to CDS “was the brainchild of Judy Adelson,” a CDS fifth-grade parent, former professional ballerina in New York and current instructor at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, said Jennifer Bails, CDS’ director of marketing and communications.
Despite interest in the endeavor, there was an uncertainty as to “how it’s going to go,” admitted Minkus. However, any apprehension abated as the activity advanced.
There was this “transformation we saw with our kids,” from the first lesson when they thought, “This is dumb; why do we have to do this?” to “I can’t wait,” he explained. “This was the first time where something has checked every single box where they said it would happen. It actually exceeded our expectations.”
Prior to the May 16 team match, in lieu of gym class or music, each of CDS’ 27 fifth graders participated in twice-weekly instructions. The sessions began in January.
Given that dance is “musically oriented” and requires physical activity, “we felt like that was a reasonable trade-off,” said Minkus.
During the 20th and final lesson, parents were invited to observe.
“If Dancing Classrooms would have ended with the parent event, everyone would have walked away on cloud nine because of the growth and confidence, and these kids being able to do something they couldn’t do before,” said Minkus.
Although having 12 students selected to represent CDS in the “Colors of the Rainbow” and aiding the school in becoming grand champion was the “unexpected icing on the cake … it’s really about all 27 kids and each of their individual journeys walking into that room and not knowing what to expect and then lesson 20, dressing up, walking in front of their parents and doing all of the different dances,” said Minkus.
Whether it is “a change in the child for the better by taking school more seriously, treating each other better or test scores and GPA [improving],” the program has had tremendous effect, noted Rogalsky.
Launched in 1994 by Broadway dancers Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, Dancing Classrooms has taught more than 50,000 students and has spread as far as Israel.
Locally, more than 6,000 Pittsburgh students have experienced the “arts-in-education” opportunity since Pittsburgh Mercy introduced it in 2009, said Bails.
“The program has gotten very big in Israel,” said Rogalsky, who dreams of one day hosting “an international competition like the Maccabi Games.”
“It would be kind of cool in the future but that’s down the road right now,” said Minkus. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.