Beyond Vassar

A Key Dance Partner

By Juliana Kiyan ’09

“It’s a curious kind of story,” says Sheila Armstrong Hoerle ’60, of how she became involved in the American Ballroom Theater (ABrT) and its highly successful program, Dancing Classrooms. After graduating from Vassar, Hoerle returned to New York City and took up dance as a form of exercise. In the early 1980s she formed a ballroom dance class for adults—in the dining room of her apartment, much to the dismay of her husband, Robert. She called up Pierre Dulaine, a well-known teacher and performer, along with partner Yvonne Marceau, to lead the dozen or so adults in a series of classes.

When Dulaine and Marceau founded ABrT in 1984, they invited several dancers to form the company’s board of directors. Hoerle has been on the board since the beginning and has served as its third president since 1998. Early on, ABrT toured with performances and held benefits; but Dulaine had a different vision. He wanted to focus on a project that would give back to the less privileged in the city and came up with the idea of teaching ballroom dancing in public schools. Hoerle and the board were skeptical at first, but Dulaine was passionate about providing children, regardless of their background or experience, with the opportunity to learn the poise and social graces of partner-dancing, free of charge.

After three years of negotiating with the city’s Department of Education to try out a curriculum-based ballroom program in schools, Dancing Classrooms was established in 1994 at two schools in Manhattan, with one instructor and 120 students. The program took off and is now licensed in 220 schools in all five boroughs, as well as in cities across the country, including Chicago; Philadelphia; Omaha, Nebraska; and Ft. Worth, Texas. In January, Hoerle says the program will expand to schools in Long Island, Denver, and Minneapolis.

ABrT now offers scholarships for students participating in the program to take additional classes on the weekend. They have also established a performing group of students ages 10 to 16, who appear at various functions.

“Having been with the program since the beginning, I’m excited that it has become so popular,” says Hoerle. “I’ve seen it benefit the children so much. Who would have thought that we could teach the fox trot and tango in New York City public schools?” ABrT works with all the school districts to keep “quality control,” she adds, sending Dulaine to train the dance instructors and helping each district evaluate how well the program is working.

Dancing Classrooms has received much media attention. In Take the Lead (2006), Antonio Banderas’ dance teacher character was inspired by Dulaine. And the program was the subject of the acclaimed 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. The film, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, follows three New York City elementary schools (from Brooklyn, TriBeCa, and Washington Heights) as they compete in the program’s annual tournament. The documentary chronicles the young dancers as they practice the steps, learn how to interact with the opposite sex, and deal with winning and losing. At the finals held in the World Financial Center, the dancers from Washington Heights ultimately come out on top, their trophy standing a good foot taller than most of the competitors. Hoerle says that requests for the program came in from schools all over the country following the movie’s release.

The nonprofit program teaches ABrT’s five core dances — the fox trot, tango, merengue, rumba, and swing — to students in fifth grade through high school. The students gain more than knowledge of the dances, however. “The program helps with their confidence and self-assurance,” says Hoerle. “It lets them know that they can achieve something.”

The self-discipline demanded of the young dancers also influences their work and behavior in the classroom, according to Hoerle. Michell, a P.S. 115 fifth-grader featured in Mad Hot Ballroom, exemplifies the overall value of the program. Principal Clarita Zeppie says they brought Dancing Classrooms to the school as a unique form of motivation for her students, most of whom come from poor Spanish-speaking homes. She highlights the turnaround in Michell who, prior to the program, was unfocused and very mischievous. By the time she competes in the finals, she has a much higher opinion of herself and has stayed out of trouble. “If that’s not a dramatic improvement,” says Zeppie, “I don’t know what is.”

The children are not the only ones who benefit from the program. “The parents are amazed, too,” says Hoerle. “It’s an eye-opening experience for everyone. They ask, ‘Is that my child?’ And they become very proud when their child competes. It’s an amazing feeling when the parents come up to you and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing for my child.’”