ESTERO, Fla. (October 22, 2018) – The excited chatter of 1,045 Lee County fifth-graders blended with the exotic melodies of five familiar ballroom dance scores may seem like a complete contrast. For students in eight Lee County elementary schools this year, what they learn during the 10-week Dancing Classrooms program will last a lifetime … and the School District of Lee County and Miromar Development are counting on it.
Miromar takes Dancing Classrooms seriously and has directly invested over $500,000 to guide Title I students in Lee County toward success.
“Dancing Classrooms is such an important life-changing program,” said Margaret Antonier, president and CEO of Miromar Development. “When I first found out about the program, I knew I had to bring it to Southwest Florida and that the children of Lee County would greatly benefit.”
This Saturday, Miromar Outlets will host 472 fifth-graders plus teachers, parents and school officials for the Dancing Classrooms Fall Exhibition. Students, wearing t-shirts spanning the colors of the rainbow, will demonstrate the ballroom dancing skills they’ve learned during the fall semester. The shopping center also hosts the spring exhibition and a newly minted group of dancers.
As participants in Dancing Classrooms, sponsored by Miromar Outlets, the 10- and 11-year-olds have learned more than the eight counts of the merengue or five-step foxtrot. During the 20-class program which is part of their school’s curriculum, they’ve become young ladies and gentlemen, beginning a journey of personal growth the moment they stepped onto the dance floor. Teachers, principals and parents will tell you they’ve seen increased self-esteem, better grades, reduced truancy and improved respect for themselves and others. The students have also overcome FoC – fear of cooties.
“From the outside it looks cute and maybe even a little frivolous but it’s very impactful,” said Rodney Lopez, executive director of the national Dancing Classrooms program. “The children are learning very important social and emotional learning skills that are wrapped up in ballroom dancing.”
Dancing Classrooms has positively impacted the lives of over 9,000 local students during the past 11 years.
Antonier introduced the program to Lee County Schools in 2008 after seeing “Mad Hot Ballroom,” a documentary about the Dancing Classrooms which started in New York. Dancing Classrooms was created by champion ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine and is proven to change the lives of at-risk fifth-grade students.
“Margaret was amazing. She decided she wanted Dancing Classrooms in her community,” Lopez said. “It takes people like Margaret who can seed and fund the mission and invest in the community.”
Miromar Outlets also supports Dancing Classrooms by hosting an annual fundraising spring block party. Miromar Development provides the sun-lit atrium at Miromar Design Center for the annual culminating event, Colors of the Rainbow Team Match, which Lopez emcees every year. Dance teams – 12 peer-selected finalists from each school – compete in the five dances.
“Margaret understood from the very beginning, that this was much more than teaching ballroom dancing,” said Marshall Bower, president and CEO of The Foundation for Lee County Schools which oversees Dancing Classrooms in the district. “It was about helping to build and enrich the character of our greatest community asset – our children.”
Teaching Artists work with multiple classrooms during school hours. After the initial qualms about touching a boy or girl (one of the biggest obstacles facing these rookie dancers), students overcome shyness and self-doubt to master five dances – the merengue, tango, rumba, foxtrot and swing.
“Parents and teachers see increased confidence in how the students carry and express themselves,” said Lopez. “What’s so beautiful and unique about ballroom or social dancing is you have to work together. Ladies and gentlemen have to touch and look at each other – and 10 years old is the age of cooties.”
Carol Davis, a ballroom dancer and instructor, has chronicled 10 years of Dancing Classrooms. She became the “official” photographer by default, taking pictures the inaugural year at the request of one of the instructors. “… and here I am 10 years later,” she laughed. “The confidence the students bring is amazing. I watch them in the halls just running around and acting like kids but as soon as they get on the floor, there’s a difference. And the parents are so proud. They watch their children dancing and tears are running down their face. This program should be in every school district in the country.”
“This program takes my breath away,” said Dancing Classroom Teaching Artist Kathleen More. “We see a change in attitude, character and values. Dancing makes such a difference in their lives. It’s the best journey I’ve ever been on.”
Ashlee Barnett was surprised to learn from her excited son Caden Montalvo about his first dance lesson at school.
“I didn’t know what he was talking about until I saw the fall exhibition,” she said. “Now he practices with mom and dad. Since he started he’s become a little more outgoing and confident and he’s not afraid to stand up for himself.”
Caden, then 10, and his partner demonstrated the tango during the April block party. “It was nerve-wracking at first,” said the Carrie R. Robinson Littleton Elementary student, tapping out the steps of the merengue while waiting his turn in the spotlight. “Now I look forward to it.”
Caden and the Littleton team won the school’s first gold in April. It was also More’s first win.
Samuel Carlson, who competed with his Hancock Elementary classmates last April, was confident he’d like dancing before he tried it. “It’s just my way,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s daily exercise.”
Dancing Classrooms’ proven success shows how the power of movement and music change lives. One of Bower’s favorite success stories is that of a student with autism performing at Colors of the Rainbow.
“He adapted to the program quickly and looked forward to dancing with his partners every week,” Bower recalled. “On the day of the event he asked his grandmother to dance with him. Those who witnessed this moment had tears in their eyes.”
The Dancing Classrooms Fall Exhibition begins at 11 a.m. this Saturday, October 27, at Miromar Outlets near the Restaurant Piazza. It is free and open to the public.