Kristofer Washington has studied dance for nearly a year. He knows the fox trot, swing, and salsa. He’s milling around the lobby of a New York City dance studio waiting for his Saturday class to start.
Kristofer is 10 years old. Heavy-set with cheeks begging to be pinched, he started dancing last year when Dancing Classrooms, a program founded by dancers Pierre Dulaine and Yvon Marceau, came to his elementary school.
â€œI danced hip hop before,â€ Kristofer says, â€œbut itâ€™s different from ballroom. Ballroom is just really fun.â€
With television shows like â€œDancing with the Starsâ€ in its 13th season, ballroom dance isnâ€™t as foreign as it used to be. But itâ€™s still an incredible sight to see a room full of fifth-graders transform from fidgety kids to graceful â€œladies and gentlemen,â€ as the program staff refer to them, doing the heel-toe-polka.
â€œIt was just an experiment,â€ Mr. Dulaine says of the 18-year-old program that has grown from one school on the West Side of Manhattan to 509 schools in 24 cities around the world. Over 300,000 students have gone through the Dancing Classrooms program since its inception.
Born in Jaffa in Palestine, now Israel, Dulaineâ€™s family moved to England when he was four years old. He started dancing at the age of 14 and says it transformed him from a shy young man who rarely smiled into a confident, elegant adult.
â€œI walked straight. I had savoir faire,â€ he says of his transformation.
Seated in the midtown dance studio where the Dancing Classroom offices are located, Dulaine exudes an air of grace. He wears pressed slacks and a black v-neck sweater over a light blue tie and white-collared shirt. Dulaine points out the posters lining the back wall of the lobby advertisingÂ films about his work â€“ the 2005 documentary â€œMad Hot Ballroomâ€ and the 2006 Hollywood film â€œTake the Lead.â€
His hearty laugh and mischievous smile belie any stereotype of a stuffy dancer.
â€œI had no say in it, but who wouldnâ€™t want Antonio playing you?â€ he says of actor Antonio Banderas, who played Dulaine in â€œTake the Lead.â€
Creator of the â€œDulaine Methodâ€ of teaching, the four-time world champion show dancer saw a need for children to learn vital skills like confidence and respect. He decided to use ballroom dancing as a tool, mixed with a safe environment filled with humor and joy, to break down social barriers and inspire teamwork and cooperation.
â€œChildren arenâ€™t being brought up with enough civility,â€ Dulaine says. â€œEveryone has a Blackberry, a blueberry, a strawberry, or an iPhone,â€ he says, laughing. â€œWe speak to each other on the Internet and Facebook, but we no longer touch each other.â€
This human contact and face-to-face communication is necessary for a healthy society, Dulaine says, and itâ€™s something he teaches through Dancing Classrooms.
â€œIn the ballroom, when you touch someone with respect you become human beings,â€ he says. â€œYouâ€™re no longer a white or a black person, Hispanic, Palestinian, or Chinese. You become human.â€
While performing on Broadway in the early 1990s, Dulaine also taught Cotillion dance classes on Manhattanâ€™s Upper East Side. He thought it was something kids might enjoy, and approached a public school principal with the idea.
â€œI really thought whatâ€™s good for the Upper East Side can be good for the Lower East Side,â€ he says. â€œBut going into New York City public schools, everyone thought I was mad. â€˜Are you sure? This is New York. These are challenging kids.â€™â€