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SSIR to host Dancing Classrooms benefit

"When I first entered the gym I thought, 'This is it; this is where my life ends.' I was so scared, my legs were shaking and I was so afraid that I would have to dance alone."

This quote is on the wall in the Dancing Classrooms New York City studio and describes the initial terror that a student faced before taking his first dance lesson. From 6-10 p.m. on Friday, April 19, University of Richmond students will have the opportunity to feel that dread firsthand.

Members of Children's Health, one of the Sophomore Scholars in Residence living and learning communities, have organized a gala to benefit Dancing Classrooms' Greater Richmond chapter as their final capstone project, said sophomore Gwen Setterberg, who is on the event's fundraising team.

The event, titled Dancing Classrooms: One Step at a Time, will be held in the Gottwald Atrium, Setterberg said, where attendees can take a basic merengue dance lesson. There will also be a silent auction and raffles for a month of free dance lessons at Rigby's Jig dance studio on West Broad Street, among other prizes, Setterberg said. Richmond's on-campus bossa nova and swing jazz ensembles will perform as well.

Founded in New York City in 1984, Dancing Classrooms was created as a nonprofit project by the American Ballroom Theater Company. The group's mission is to work with fifth and eighth grade students, to "build social awareness, confidence and self-esteem in children through the practice of social dance," according to the program's Web site. The Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond chapter was established in 2012.

The idea for the benefit was inspired by the SSIR's trip to New York City, where the students met with the principal of a middle school and the executive director of New York City education to discuss child development and education, Setterberg said. They then visited the Dancing Classrooms studio in Manhattan where they met one of the founders, Pierre Dulaine.

The group then had a dancing lesson. Despite everyone being almost 20 years old, the students were given the same lesson that the elementary and middle school students are taught. The Richmond students were told to stand with their feet "chopsticks length apart," and to start dancing when the instructor said, "green light," Setterberg said. The instructor equated their hands and cocked arms to "pancakes" and "chicken wings," as well. By using friendlier and more accessible terms, as opposed to "stand in front of your partner," a potentially intimidating instructor seems more on the younger students' level, Setterberg said.

Setterberg has salsa danced before, but it is always intimidating to dance with a new partner, she said. In the half-hour lesson she said she saw her self-confidence improve. "Imagine how that is for a fifth grader," Setterberg said.

The SSIR has studied the problems with the American educational system and why certain schools struggle and have lower test scores, Setterberg said. It turns out that the successful students are those who have more recess and less homework. "The pressure on kids to perform well takes away from the learning experience. Test taking and constantly sitting does not help," Setterberg said.

Consequently, the interaction between students and developing the brain outside of academia has suffered, which is why Dancing Classrooms emphasizes moving and interacting with peers in a non-academic environment.

Dancing Classroom's Greater Richmond chapter was set up following the success of the nearby D.C. area program, said DCGRVA instructor Maria Visotska. While the Richmond chapter is still small, Setterberg envisions it growing because there are so many struggling schools in the area, she said. So far the chapter has been implemented in three Richmond schools: Swansboro, ESH Greene and Chimborazo elementary schools, Setterberg said. Visotska said every school in the Greater Richmond area should have the program.

Children's Health hopes to raise $2,000 from the benefit, which would go toward funding the program in another Richmond-area school, Setterberg said. Currently, Dancing Classrooms' Greater Richmond chapter fundraises in the community to pay for 50 percent of the cost of the lessons and the participating school pays for the other half, according to DCGRVA's website.

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Visotska goes to a school twice a week for two-and-a-half months and teaches 20 lessons total, she said. She makes it a priority to involve every student, no matter the circumstances. One class had a student in a wheelchair, and although it was not easy, Visotska made sure he was able to participate in the dancing, she said. Another girl was not allowed to dance because of her religion, but Visotska asked her to be the DJ for the music.

Dancing Classrooms has expanded to more than 20 U.S. cities and internationally to Canada, Europe and Israel and has inspired two documentaries and a Hollywood film. The 2005 documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" follows students who competed in the "Colors of the Rainbow" partner dance competition. The 2006 movie "Take the Lead" stars Antonio Banderas as Pierre Dulaine and depicts a fictional story of him teaching dance to at-risk high school students. "Dancing in Jaffa" is a 2012 documentary that follows Dulaine uniting Palestinian Israeli and Jewish Israeli boys and girls as dance partners. Trailers for all three films will be shown at the Benefit.

Initial reactions from the now participating schools were skeptical, Visotska said, especially upon hearing that the twice-a-week lessons would take time away from social studies, music and physical education classes. "But it's not simply ballroom dancing lessons," Visotska said. "It's a social development program."

Contact reporter Renee Ruggeri at

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