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Building Respect Through Dance
Long before Dancing with the Stars brought Ballroom into living rooms around the world, I had discovered the elegance, grace and magic of Ballroom dance for myself. I secretly longed for the ability to move to music and look good doing it. Since I was unable to study dance as a child due to medical restrictions, I decided at mid-life to finally pursue the art by signing up for ballroom lessons. I was hooked from the moment my partner lifted his hand to escort me to the dance floor. What elegance! This was the charm and grace lacking in society that we so desperately needed back. I signed on for three months of weekly lessons!
About six weeks later I attended a professional conference for work on creativity and happened to be seated across from a well dressed, well spoken gentleman who was professing the virtues of ballroom dance and how it could impact kids. Had I not been personally trying to master the foxtrot myself, I might have just blown him off as a self-serving sales promoter. But I listened to what he was saying, and it made sense. Ballroom instills respect in people- almost instantaneously. There is a partnership in ballroom dance that requires two people to trust each other and respond to each other in a positive, appropriate manner. “This is what our young people need today!” he was saying. “This is what our society needs!”
His name was Adrian Flores and when I spoke with him later he revealed that he had developed a program called Building Respect Through Dance for high school students. It employed the art of ballroom dance and emphasized learning social skills and manners as well as dance technique. He was looking for a school to pilot his work. “We ‘ll take it,” I told him, “our kids need this.” Four weeks later he was at our high school teaching the tango to a core group of kids who previously were on the social fringes of the school, with less than stellar attendance and grades. Within five months the students learned six dances well enough to perform in front of two thousand people at the downtown San Jose Center for Performing Arts. Throughout the five months that they participated in the program, their school attendance improved 100%, their grades improved and they developed grace, poise and social elegance. And they were empowered.
In my 28 years of teaching I have never witnessed such a powerful transformation in kids. Our high school is in gang territory on the east side of San Jose. Our kids are socio-economically disadvantaged and school is low on their priority list. Manners and social moires are lacking. Through his consistent reinforcement of positive social interaction, I watched Adrian take twenty one kids to a place that they had never been before. When they danced before the public in their fine dress, they arrived and took their rightful place in society.
Part of the magic of the Building Respect Through Dance program is in the presence of Adrian Flores himself. His wholehearted belief in what he is trying to achieve and his passion for creating a better world is undeniable. The kids recognized his authenticity and responded to his soft spoken direction without protest or question. The results of his direction were so immediate that they were continually hungry to learn more, to challenge themselves and to perfect the steps that had painstakingly learned
In his book, Transforming Your Community Through Dance, Adrian outlines thirteen key steps that constitute the transformation process in his program. He maintains that while learning the dance steps is important, dance is only a vehicle used to cultivate respect and teamwork between people. It provides a common language of predictable behavior which inspires trust and empowers partnerships. Adrian believes that by carefully cultivating this respect for ourselves and each other through dance, we can actually build better communities and a safer and more enriched society. He welcomes anyone interested in building better relationships to read his story and try his program. I can only attest for what happened with our high school students and when you are witness to such magic, it is hard to dispute that such a claim of societal change cannot be true.
Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California.