From samba and swing to the tango and foxtrot, ballroom dancing has become an unlikely hit in New York schools - and the craze is already waltzing its way across the Atlantic. Julie Hunter reports
Step into any one of more than 100 New York schools this year and you'll see 12 and 13-year-olds swaying to swing or mastering the merengue. They're joining the boom in ballroom dancing captured in a new film, Mad Hot Ballroom, which follows the successes and failures of three very different schools, two from Manhattan and one from Brooklyn, as they vie for honours in a city-wide contest.
The documentary, which opens in the UK next month, is in the same mould as Spellbound, the 2002 film that followed teenagers on their quest to win the national US spelling contest. If the popularity of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing is anything to go by, Mad Hot Ballroom could be a hit on this side of the Atlantic, where ballroom mania is already spreading to school halls (see panel).
PS (Public School) 115 is a predominantly Dominican school in Washington Heights where 97 per cent of pupils live below the poverty line. Then there are the sophisticated youngsters of Tribeca's PS150 who seem to have stepped off the set of television's Dawson's Creek. And finally there's PS112 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, with its mix of somewhat innocent Italian and South-east Asian youngsters.
Fifth-graders from these schools can take a 10-week dance course called Dancing Classrooms as part of the curriculum; the programme is run by the not-for-profit organisation American Ballroom Theater Company (ABTC). After completing the course in swing, merengue, rumba, tango and foxtrot, the best pairings get the chance to compete against other schools to win a huge trophy that towers over the young dancers.
The wonderfully flamboyant Pierre Dulaine, a British-trained ballroom champion who set up Dancing Classrooms in 1992, says the driving force behind the idea was his treatment at the hands of bullies at a Birmingham secondary modern more than 40 years ago. "My accent was funny (born in Palestine, Mr Dulaine moved to Birmingham in 1957). I was shy and I looked different to the other kids and, of course, they teased me because of it. I felt discriminated against.
"Some kids in my class were going to dance school. I took a paper round so I could pay for lessons and, because I was good at it, I began to be accepted. Dance helped me fit in, it gave me options I would not have had otherwise. That is why I wanted to start this. I wanted to show these kids there are options. And I have quickly learnt never to underestimate children."
Mr Dulaine moved to the US in 1971 to dance on Broadway, and set up the ABTC in Manhattan in 1984 with his dance partner Yvonne Marceau. Initially he spent his days coaching wealthy socialites and wedding couples; then he started using his coaching skills to help deprived kids, and Dancing Classrooms was born. "I thought he was crazy," recalls Ms Marceau, "but, for the most part, kids loved it. It is so different from what they do all day long."
Mad Hot Ballroom shows an ecstatic PS115 taking the 2004 title, but it is the youngsters' devotion to dance which is the centrepiece of the film.
There's Wilson, for example, recently arrived from the Dominican Republic and speaking no English; but what he lacks in language he makes up for in moves. And then there are Kelvin and Michelle, both of whom were heading down the wrong tracks, according to former PS115 principal Clarita Zeppie, who credits dance with helping them get back on course. "They'd lost sight that there was a world outside of Washington Heights and they were limiting their horizons to drugs and teen pregnancies.
"Kelvin was a roughneck. He was getting into fights. Dance has really turned things around for him. I could see Michelle being a school dropout.
She would cut class and, when she was there, she wouldn't do her work.
Dance gave her a focus and made her concentrate. Her mother cannot believe she is the same child now.
"And for Wilson, it really helped him fit in and be accepted." All three are still dancing, and continue to do well at school.
Ms Zeppie introduced the programme three years ago after seeing a demonstration by the ABTC. A dance teacher works alongside a classroom teacher twice a week for 10 weeks, and Ms Zeppie admits there was some initial resistance from teachers concerned it would take time away from core subjects, especially as English is a second language for many pupils.
"But we managed to shave a few minutes off here and there, and everybody was converted when they saw how much the kids got out of it."
The pupils weren't too keen at the start, either; they didn't, for instance, want to touch each other. "But our dance teacher Rodney was a great role model," says Ms Zeppie. "The kids were mesmerised by him and I figured that given a bit of time they would see it was OK. Dance and music is so much a part of their culture, and after four weeks they were really getting into it.
"I realised how much they loved it when I heard one sport-mad boy had told his basketball coach he couldn't turn up for training because he had a commitment to practise with his dance partner. But what impressed me most was the way the kids encouraged and supported each other. It was great for team building, something we hadn't seen at the school."
In the film, Allison Sheniak, a teacher at the Tribeca school, struggles with the programme's competitiveness. But even she is won round in the end.
"It was amazing," she says. "I watched them go through the stages of learning dance and maturing as fifth-graders."
Zeb Liburd, 14, one of Ms Sheniak's pupils when the film was shot, says he wasn't a good dancer when he started. "I didn't really know how I would do in front of all those people. I just focused on my partner, dancing and doing what I really needed to do. The first time I danced with a girl, holding her and stuff, it was really weird, just the thought of it, you know?" But he admits he "got used to it".
One of his co-stars, Michael Vaccaro, 13, also from Tribeca, adds: "It was really something doing ballroom dancing the first time. My favourite is the merengue, most definitely, because it is very easy. The swing made me most nervous. It's complicated. Every time you dance it, it just gets harder."
Pierre Dulaine says fifth-graders are "still malleable... They're young enough to be controlled and old enough to take instructions and control their bodies." It's important the teachers get fully involved, he adds.
"They're the boss. We are on their territory; we are guests in their school and cannot take over from them. We certainly don't discipline.
"It's a unique situation; good for mixing, for social skills. We teach them manners and etiquette, we address them as ladies and gentlemen. They learn deportment and style, they learn how to walk." They also learn to concentrate and engage with others: eye contact is a must on the dance floor.
"Dancing can really change these kids' lives. We have 20 to 30 who have come through the programme who have stuck with dancing. Who knows where it will take them?"
As news has spread of the scheme's success, Mr Dulaine has had interest from education departments outside New York and even from New South Wales in Australia. He'd love to bring it to the UK - as would the British Dance Council. It set up its Everyone is Born to Dance committee in 2001, determined that ballroom dancing become accepted in British schools.
There's been a successful pilot in London, but plans to launch throughout the UK are yet to be finalised.
"Kids are kids all over the world," says Mr Dulaine. "What is wonderful about dancing is that it brings everybody together. Ballroom may not always be the height of fashion but I don't think it will ever disappear. It is currently in a resurgence and I think that is a reaction to the isolated way people lead their lives today. A lot of kids lead a very solitary existence: PlayStations, iPod, internet chatrooms. Dancing is the opposite of this. People like to be held; we need human contact with each other."
For more information go to www.madhotballroom.com.