Ballroom dance could be the best form of diplomacy, according to New York City teenagers starring in a new documentary, Taking New Steps—The Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company Goes to Israel.
Saturday, members of the Youth Dance Company and their loved ones watched the private screening with family and friends at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Produced by SingularDTV, the 18-minute documentary captured individual interviews and sweeping drone shots during the company's 2017 trip to Israel for the Karmiel Dance Festival. Dancers in the audience, now a year older, cheered as they viewed younger versions of themselves on the movie screen.
Assisted by four chaperones and artistic director Alee Reed, they had adult supervision. For many of the kids, this was their first time away from home, not to mention their first time out of the country. They were nervous. One YDC member admitted in the film, "I kind of rely on my parents for everything."
Reed teaching at Jacobs Pillow. Photo by Morah Geist, courtesy of Jacobs Pillow Dance
But at the airport in Tel Aviv, they were welcomed by members of the Karmiel Flowers, a group of ballroom dancers who were just about their age. On the bus ride from Tel Aviv to Karmiel, the Flowers and the YDC learned each other's names.
Highlights of the documentary include one of four cultural exchange workshops, when the YDC taught American swing to Arab teens. The YDC in turn learned the debka, a folk dance similar to the hora.
"Dance is something that is different in styles around the world but still the same in our heartbeat," said a YDC dancer.
The climax was the festival's opening ceremonies, when the YDC performed "Sing, Sing, Sing" in red costumes. In an amphitheater with 35,000 seats, this was the largest audience the YDC had ever seen. The crowd roared for them.
The kids were sad to leave Israel. As hosts, the Karmiel Flowers had introduced them to international style ballroom, the city of Karmiel and really good hummus.
"At least now we have people from Israel on Snapchat," said a YDC dancer at the end of the film.
When the lights came on after the screening, Reed joined six YDC dancers for a Q&A led by Rodney Lopez, executive director of Dancing Classrooms. Made famous by the 2005 film Mad Hot Ballroom, the nonprofit teaches social dance to school children in the United States and abroad.
All dancers on the panel had experienced Dancing Classrooms in lower grades in public school. They learned to walk elegantly and use "Miss" and "Mister" before first names. The curriculum taught them basic steps and communication skills, like asking someone to dance.
To get into the YDC, a more elite performance company, they had to audition and commit to weekend rehearsals. A few dancers didn't get into the company the first time they auditioned. Their grit helped them try again, make the team and become captains. In the company, they met students from other boroughs of New York City. That would have been enough. But the weeklong trip to Israel bonded them professionally and personally. Not only did they have to problem-solve on the dance floor, they had to share rooms in a hostel and an "absorption center" for temporary living.
In addition to meeting students from Dancing Classrooms Israel, they visited historic sites for an expanded worldview.
"It made me more comfortable with other people," said sophomore Sophia Astor.
For senior Angela Sun, the dance trip serves as an excellent topic for college essays. "I know from my experience coming into this, I wasn't a very confident person," Sun said. "I didn't think my dancing was that great. I thought that being accepted to the team was luck. So being able to be a part of it, growing as a person and becoming more confident in myself, I realize this huge chunk of my life spent with these people meant so much to me. It's shaped the person I am today."
KDF rehearsal. Photo courtesy of YDC
Reed—also known as "Miss Alee"—explained that YDC was the only group representing the United States at this world-class festival. Unlike some private dance studios, Dancing Classrooms specializes in accessibility, not competitions and international travel. But she kept trying to generate funds for the trip through a variety of sources. When a major grant from the U.S. Embassy in Israel fell through, Reed grieved. But then she reapplied and won.
"I was crying ugly face tears [during the parade performance in Karmiel]," Reed said. "I was directed to stand onstage with the company as they danced, holding the American flag that we had borrowed from the U.S. Embassy and carried in the parade. When I felt the applause and warmth from the audience as the company danced, I was filled with pride to be representing the United States and to be so welcomed, proud of my dancers, too, and I was also so grateful that the whole thing had come about after two years of trying."
Reed later described her favorite moment of the journey, when all performances were over and the company splashed around in the Mediterranean Sea. Without prompting, they performed their disco medley and mambo routine in the water, just for the joy of it.
"You can't dance with a bad attitude," said senior Christian Lee.
All of this openness started in elementary school, explained senior Andrew Chin. As a little boy in Dancing Classrooms, he learned to ask: "May I have this dance, please?"
For more information about YDC and when the documentary will be available online click here. The film is being submitted to dance and children-focused festivals around the world.