Dancing Classrooms life lesson: respect

trust and create
Denise Carbonell via Flickr

By Kimberly Flaherty

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.”  ~ Aretha Franklin


We know it when we see it.

When we respect ourselves and others, it shows… in our attitude,  in our words, and in our behavior. We may smile a little more. Others may notice us walking a bit taller.

“Dance is a vehicle for many aspects of a young person’s social development,” according to Mr. Terry Sweeney, co-owner of Art and Style Dance Studio and teaching artist for Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh.” One of the most important lessons we teach is respect.”

Sweeney, along with his wife/dance partner/business partner, Ms. Rozana Sweeney, has been a member of the Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh team since the program launched in 2009. As ballroom champions, the Sweeneys have experienced the joy of dance throughout their lifetimes. As teaching artists for the past three years, they’ve helped hundreds of Pittsburgh fifth graders discover that joy. Simultaneously, they are teaching life lessons.

Recently we talked to the gentleman known to his students as “Mr. Terry” about the concept of respect and why it’s essential to Mercy Behavioral Health’s in-school prevention program.

“Thank you, partner. Hello, new partner.”
Respect – for self and for others – is a core component of Dancing Classrooms. Over 10 weeks of instruction based on the methods of Mr. Pierre Dulaine, program founder, the Sweeneys and all teaching artists emphasize the importance and value of respect.

When an elementary school signs up for Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh, the course is mandatory for all fifth-grade classrooms. At the end of the semester, each student’s performance is graded, just as it is for other subjects. These requirements have pros and cons, depending on your point of view.

Every fifth grader in the school has the opportunity to learn, grow, and ultimately vie for a spot to compete in the citywide Colors of the Rainbow team match that concludes the program.

However, to most 10- and 11-year olds, the thought of holding hands to dance in a way Mr. Pierre jokingly describes as, “Close, like old people at a wedding,” is not necessarily their idea of a good time. Part of the first class is devoted to getting over that hurdle as well as allaying fears since most participants don’t have prior dance training.

To underscore the point that all students deserve respect, the novice ballroom dancers change partners often during the twice-weekly sessions.  Over the semester, every boy dances with every girl, every girl with every boy. This brings us to one of the cardinal rules in the dancing classroom, according to Mt. Terry: Rejecting a dance partner is not acceptable.

At the end of each dance, couples turn to face one another and say, in unison, “Thank you, partner,” as the young man bows and the young woman curtsies. Each then greets the next person they’ll dance with an enthusiastic, “Hello, new partner,” accompanied by another polite bow and curtsey.

“From day one, I talk about how respect starts with self,” explains Mr. Terry. “Next, we extend respect to others – to our fellow dancers and students. From there it grows to teachers and principals, to family and other friends, to the entire school, and to the larger community.”

Soon students recite Mr. Terry’s mantras about respect as easily as they chant “Quick, quick, slow” and other techniques that help them memorize their choreography.

But, what happens when the music stops?

Respect yourself

“While there is much controversy about respect for persons and other things, there is surprising agreement among moral and political philosophers about at least this much concerning respect for oneself: self-respect is something of great importance in everyday life. Indeed, it is regarded both as morally required and as essential to the ability to live a satisfying, meaningful, flourishing life — a life worth living — and just as vital to the quality of our lives together.” ~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ideally, parents teach their children how to respect themselves at a young age. In reality, not every child is raised in a healthy, supportive, and loving environment. Even with the best parental guidance, peer pressure can be enormous.

In a time when we hear so many stories about bullying, there is another rule in the dancing classroom: No one will make fun of anyone else because of how they dance.

Participation in the culminating event – the 20th and final lesson when all students dance for their families and school – is important, according to Mr. Terry. Performing in front of hundreds of people can be daunting for anyone, especially for those with low self-esteem. The last lesson offers exposure, visibility, and accolades that further boost confidence.

Mr. Terry has watched introverted children “come alive through dance.” He’s seen children with autism perform above and beyond expectations. Students with previous issues about being touched have learned to dance with ease, some even helping to coach fellow dancers on their moves. He recalls one particularly shy young lady who blossomed through Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh. Teachers reported that it wasn’t until after she started the program that they noticed her smiling in school.

This affirms Mr. Terry’s belief that “dance is magical.”

So you think you can dance?
As the semester winds down, teaching artists consult with the respective school’s teachers and principal to decide the 12 students who will represent them at the Colors of the Rainbow. The criteria for selection are not limited to how well they have learned to Rumba, Tango, Swing, Merengue, and Foxtrot, although performance is significant consideration.

Behavior is a crucial factor. Have they shown they can work as a team? Have they incorporated respect into daily life? Have they acted like young ladies and gentleman, both within and beyond the confines of the dancing classroom? Suspension, detention, or other significant behavioral problems will disqualify a student from the competition.

“I tell my students upfront that, even if they act like perfect ladies and gentlemen in my class, I’d better not hear about them getting in trouble somewhere else,” says Mr. Terry.

Fortunately, that’s been the exception. As a rule, parents, teachers, and school administrators cite significant changes in the behavior of more than 1,500 students who have participated in Dancing Classrooms – for the better.

Through positive reinforcement and repetition, the practice of showing respect can become as routine as the complex dance steps the children master.

“One of the reasons we brought Dancing Classrooms to Pittsburgh was because it fit well with the curriculum we already use in schools like PATHS,” says Mark Rogalsky, prevention services unit manager for Mercy Behavioral Health and site director for Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh.

The Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) Curriculum, developed by Mark Greenberg, Ph.D., promotes social and emotional development among young children.  “Dancing Classrooms picks up where PATHS leaves off, and helps fifth graders apply what they’ve learned,” says Rogalsky.

Mr. Terry marvels at the transformations he’s seen.

One student with a particularly difficult and unstable home life had a history of finding himself in trouble. Initially, this angry young man strongly objected to Dancing Classrooms. Over the course of 20 lessons, his attitude shifted dramatically. Not only did he do well in class, but his behavior also improved elsewhere. Others took note. In the end, he advanced to the Colors of the Rainbow competition.

That, says Mr. Terry, deserves R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
What does respect mean to you? How does it feel to be respected? Share your comments below.

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