Students Waltz Their Way to Improved Social Skills

Twice a week, a group of intermediate school girls and boys walks into class where they partner up - preparing to dance.

Twice a week, a group of intermediate school girls and boys walks into class where they partner up - preparing to dance. This is not just any class. While learning how to ballroom dance, these students are receiving a practical lesson in social skills like empathy and respect.

Principal Melanie Lewis said she brought the dance program to her school because it is a creative way to introduce her preteenage students to social and emotional learning.

“At this age, they feel all of these emotions; they’re going through puberty. So we’re teaching them how to interact with one another,” she said. “They’re from the texting generation, so we’re teaching them healthy, face-to-face interaction and manners.”

During the 10-week program, the students learn the foxtrot, tango, rumba and other classics.

“I like all of the dances,” fifth-grader Mario Edwards said.  “It’s a good exercise. Basically you’re staying in shape, and it’s fun.”

Edwards’ favorite dance so far is the foxtrot — something he said he’d be willing to teach friends who aren’t in the class. He said he likes the class because it’s a way to burn energy and have fun, a sentiment echoed by his classmates. “We didn’t realize how much the kids would love it,” Ms. Lewis said.

Frequently throughout the hour, students are instructed to thank their partners, perform a twirl and then rotate — allowing students to dance with a variety of classmates.

It’s very important for schools to teach socialization in addition to academics, Lewis said. Ballroom dancing allows students to practice good manners and conversational skills.

“Students who wouldn’t normally interact with one another in a social setting — because they may be in different homerooms, or different classes — interact with each other in a positive manner,” she said. “They don’t even have to use words; they do it through dance.”

Eric Bird, a professional ballroom dance competitor, is a staff instructor for the North Texas branch of the nonprofit Dancing Classrooms, a group dedicated to teaching kids manners, respect for others and teamwork through dance. 

The nonprofit and its work with children was featured on the 2005 award-winning documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.”

A typical lesson begins with a review, practicing steps from the previous lessons and then a new dance. Mr. Bird introduces the new dance a few steps at a time allowing students to ease into it.

“My favorite part is seeing how the students change and evolve over the 10 weeks,”  Mr. Bird said. “They go from ‘Ew, I don’t want to touch them,’ to working together as a team.”

Mr. Bird hopes the students continue with dance after the class is finished, but more than that, he hopes they remember the values they’ve learned along the way.

Principal Lewis said she hopes to continue or expand the program in the future. The class is being offered to 60 students in its inaugural year, but it’s so popular there’s already a waitlist for next time.

“They’re enjoying themselves,” Ms. Lewis said. “It is an excellent program.”