Matt Jones interviews the dance instructor about how his unique 'Dancing Classrooms' project is teaching young people life skills through dance.
Matt Jones: How do young people get to hear about Pierre Dulaine's dance classes?
Pierre Dulaine: We have a programme called 'Dancing Classrooms' in which we go into New York City public schools. It's a programme for 10 weeks with 20 lessons and young people learn dancing as part of their school curriculum. The whole class goes together. At the end of the school year we send them an invitation to come to our dance studio.
We cover five boroughs and we teach close to 30,000 children in a year. Some children stay for three, four or even five years and take dancing through to high school and university.
MJ: You need to have a lot of passion and plenty of ambition to continue to come to the classes. How much determination does it take for these guys?
PD: The unfortunate thing is that out of 30,000 each year we only get four to five hundred returning, which is not a very high percentage, but these are the children that have the passion for it. Their parents also have to be committed to bringing their children for 35 weeks of the school year, but they do this because they recognise that their children are getting to meet other children from different schools, boroughs and a variety of ethnic backgrounds. They get to mix and dance with each other and that to me is superb.
MJ: What makes a good dancer?
PD: OK I'll ask you a question. How do you get to Carnegie Hall or the Royal Albert Hall? Practise, practise, practise! However practise is only hard work if it's just practise. For some of these children it's not hard work because they love to dance.
In my experiences of the competitive dancing world the dancers are made to do things on count, so you have to put your arms up on count, move this way and that way, etc. The way that we work with our children is that we bring out what is best inside of them. We want the children to shake what their momma gave them, to have fun and enjoy themselves and I think this is what keeps them coming to our dance classes.
This is a social development programme that gets them mixing with the opposite sex and different backgrounds. They must always stand in the escort position which shows respect and honour for each other. These are the life lessons that stay with them. As our teachers would say 'We teach life lessons wrapped around ballroom dancing.'
The good thing about our company is that we are a not for profit organisation so we subsidise a lot of the costs for those who can't afford it and we have scholarship money to help children to continue because there is so much talent.
MJ: Do the children realise what they are gaining from your classes?
PD: Their body language tells me yes and for me it's all about body language. I teach with my body and I jump around because I want them to feel at ease and bring out what is inside of them.
I think a teacher should be a guide, not a dictator. When you give a gift to someone you cannot tell them 'Hey, I paid a lot of money for this gift, you'd better appreciate it.' I believe the children will realise later on in life what they have gained through these classes.
MJ: As well as all the fun that we see in these classes, there's also lot of hard work that goes into it. How much hard work goes into learning a new routine?
PD: It's just like learning the alphabet. You start learning the letters then the words. You learn how to put those words into sentences and then paragraphs. This is how we build our dance and our structure.
I call this the Dulaine method and all of my fellow teachers teach in the same way. There should be an escalation of the degree in difficulty. When you read a book you don't start with chapter 10, you read from the beginning and then you build on this.
MJ: When we are practising or training for something, there always needs to be an end product. What exactly are you looking for in these children?
PD: My honest answer is that they learn to be ladies and gentleman, and that's all I want. That to me is a life lesson and my end product. If they go on to be world champions or New York City champions, then that is wonderful, but that is their choice and their life.
MJ: You have a special gala event coming up in March 2010 which is going to be fantastic for the children. Is that a type of reward for them?
As we have such a big pot of talent with our children, we have the Youth Dance company, which consists of 12 ladies and 12 gentlemen. They have auditioned the 500 children that attend the dance studio to select some to be on this team.
These children go out and do performances at various special events. They've danced at Madison Square Gardens, the United States Tennis Open Championships in New York City in 2009 and they've danced at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. We have also just entered information to dance at the White House.
This year's 2010 gala will be inspired by the movie Take the Lead with Antonio Banderas. As well as the Youth Dance Company we have six ladies and six gentleman around 17 years of age performing a routine to the music of Take the Lead as well as a medley. It will be a wonderful evening.
MJ: Take the Lead was a fantastic film with the superstar Antonio Banderas portraying you. How inspiring was that for young people?
PD: It has been wonderful for me personally and wonderful for the children because they can now associate a big star, Antonio Banderas, a man, doing ballroom dancing as well as fellow young ladies and gentleman doing streetwise dancing. So they can see that if dancing is ok for them, then they can do it too.
MJ: Can you teach anyone to dance?
PD: I promise you the answer is yes. Doing the steps on your own is one thing. Doing it at close proximity with another human being is something else. Some people are more challenging than others, but if dancing and the steps are presented in a fun and simplistic way, then anyone can learn.
It's all about taking your life in your own hands and not being afraid to ask and try things.
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