How I teach ballroom dance

On a gray Sunday afternoon, about 30 teenagers from all five New York City boroughs pile into a midtown Manhattan dance studio. Adele’s “Rumor Has It” plays from speakers, and with students clad in dresses, suits and clip-on ties, the scene reads like a high school dance with better posture. There’s also a conspicuous absence of bumping and grinding—the teen dance standard replaced by the foxtrot and Viennese waltz.

In fact, it’s a class for advanced ballroom dancers in high school, as part of the Dancing Classrooms Academy, the next step in the ballroom outreach program developed by Otto Cappel, Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau. The students—who have completed the in-school residency and elect to attend extra ballroom classes on Saturdays and Sundays—practice a wide range of dance styles, from the quickstep to the tango. But beyond technique, they’re learning musicality, problem-solving and, perhaps most importantly, social skills and self-confidence.

Many of the students are also part of the Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company, a by-audition performance troupe directed by Alee Reed. The 24 dancers have a repertoire of five routines, which they perform in venues such as Lincoln Center, Jacob’s Pillow and Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center. But Reed is quick to point out that the dancers are not show-biz kids. “We’re different from a studio whose goal is to produce champions,” she says. “We balance everything with social awareness. From the get-go, students are learning how to touch each other and dance together with respect.”

The Youth Dance Company typically rehearses two to three times per month, and Reed navigates a fine line between drilling technique and letting the dancers be regular kids. “One of our first performances was in a park, and while the kids were waiting to go on, they found a foosball table,” she says. “They weren’t a bit nervous about performing. They were just in the moment of what they were doing: being kids.”

Reed, who came to Dancing Classrooms as a musical theater performer, uses her acting skills as a way to connect with students. “Theater people are entertaining. We have vocal variety and physical comedy skills in our nature,” she says. “You need those skills to engage the kids and break down their defenses.” The method works. The DC Youth Dance Company includes 12 teenage boys, and many more boys attend weekend classes even if they’re not in the company. “There’s a three-year term limit in order to give new kids a chance,” she says. “But many of them keep coming to the advanced class on Sundays. It tells me they value being a part of our class for social reasons, beyond the reward of performing. I just love it.”

Danny Barry, who is in his third year with the company, says that even after a full week of soccer practice and homework, he loves going to the dance classes because they are fun and relaxing, and he feels there’s a family atmosphere.

“They just have fun together. Our academy instructors are encouraging, teach with humor and joy and show them the standard of what they should strive for,” Reed says. “Most of them aren’t going to go on and dance professionally, but the qualities they learn by working in an ensemble and with a partner give them so much confidence.”

Here, Reed and students from the Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company demonstrate a basic tango step with a corte:

A graduate of the Oklahoma City University dance program, Alee Reed has performed in the European tour of 42nd Street, and the national tours of Mame, Gypsy, Big and Jolson. She joined the Dancing Classrooms Academy faculty in 2002, and she was chosen to establish and direct the Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company in 2006. Reed is also the quality-control coordinator for the Dancing Classrooms National Network, traveling worldwide to help train new teaching artists in classroom management, curriculum integration and how to set up residencies.

Joe Bacchi, 13, Kayla Dunn, 13, Elizabeth Weinstein, 12, and Danny Barry, 13, are members of the Dancing Classrooms Youth Dance Company.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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