Reflections on 10 years of Dancing Classrooms Philly

Written by: Talia Yellin Fisher

“It takes a village. It was the right time, and people just gravitated to the program.”

These are the words of Joyce Burd, one of the three founders of Dancing Classrooms Philly (DCP) along with Jane Brooks and Harvey Kimmel who launched DCP ten years ago. Based on the New York City ballroom dance program founded by award-winning ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine, DCP now is the second-largest Dancing Classrooms program in the world and has served more than 20,000 fifth and eighth graders, including those with special-needs, in public, charter and parochial schools.


How it all started

Burd and Brooks saw the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, which chronicled the lives of New York City fifth graders from three schools during the ten weeks preceding a final city-wide ballroom dance competition.  Burd and Brooks observed the way the students in the film were encouraged to develop teamwork and a sense of accomplishment, and they were inspired to start a Philadelphia chapter of the program. Burd, who was a dance therapist for 14 years, believed that ballroom dance was a skill that almost everyone could learn. “Ballroom dance can take you through your whole life, from childhood to adulthood. I think all children need civility, self-esteem, and respect, and I thought that this would be a good addition to Philadelphia schools.”


They then recruited Harvey Kimmel, a long-time supporter of the arts, who agreed to provide seed money and board leadership. “It is a unique program that teaches kids civility and how to treat others,” said Kimmel, who believes that cities are desperate for these types of programs.


Burd, Brooks, and Kimmel agreed that the outlook for arts funding in Philadelphia schools in 2007 was grim.  Still, they forged ahead.  “Although the Philadelphia schools were losing arts funding, we felt that DCP was a wonderful program to bring to the city,” said Brooks. The three founders began to meet with school principals, funders, and other school officials, and soon had a core group of schools that offered the 10-week program. In fact, DCP served fifty classrooms during the 2007-08 academic year–more than any other pilot program in the country at that time. “We got a lot of copies of Mad Hot Ballroom, and that really helped to sell the program,” said Burd. “Pierre Dulaine also attended a fundraiser for Dancing Classrooms Philly. Those who attended learned that this is a program from which students could benefit.” Things really began to take off after that. “I don’t think any of us expected the success we had in those first few years,” said Kimmel. “We even had to back off for a while, because we couldn’t handle the level of requests!”


The impact

The positive effects of the program quickly became apparent. As Brooks has said, “Dancing is beautiful, and through it, there are life lessons you can teach kids. Pierre designed it to be a very effective program.”  Kimmel notes “comparing a class from the first session to the last, you don’t believe that you’re looking at the same students. The results are so visible.”


Bess Witcosky, the program’s Artistic and Education Director from 2008-13, observed that once the program takes root in a school, its positivity becomes infectious. “To me, the first year of Dancing Classrooms at a particular school is the seed year,” she said. “You plant the seed of respect, teamwork and elegance. The students, who have most likely never seen the program before, slowly warm up to the idea of dancing with a partner and really ‘becoming’ a Lady and a Gentleman.”  Donna Boyle, a teaching artist with the program since 2007 said, “Students feel uncomfortable at first holding hands and dancing with each other. By the end of the residency, you see they are more focused, working as a team, and are much more polite toward each other.”


Witcosky agrees, saying “Sometimes we plant a seed, and although we don’t necessarily see it fully grow, it’s there, and at some point, it will show.” To illustrate, Witcosky tells a story of one student who wouldn’t look people in the eye during the residency and always had her head down. By the last class, Witcosky says that the young lady’s head was up, which was a huge development for her. And, at the school’s culminating event, the once-shy student finally wanted to dance. Witcosky remembers that the school’s principal, after attending the event, said that they had to have the program back the following year!


DCP Academy and Allstars

To meet the unexpectedly high demand of students who wanted to continue their DCP experience, the founders created a weekend program for graduates of the in-school program. Initially called the Saturday Scholarship Program and renamed the DCP Academy in 2015, the weekend classes offered more advanced dance lessons over a 10-week course. “We wanted to get the Saturday program going as quickly as possible,” said Brooks. “You have the 10-week residency, but then what? For those students who were really interested, we wanted to have something for them to aspire to.”


The increased level of interest by DCP “alumni” also led to the formation of the DCP Allstars, an exhibition dance troupe, consisting of some of the most passionate dancers from the DCP Academy. The Allstars have had the opportunity to perform at various events throughout the region. “The Allstar dance troupe is a great way to get those students who love it to shine,” said Burd. Kate Lombardi, who started as a teaching artist in 2008 and became Artistic and Education Director in 2013 said, “Many of our Allstars were shy, introverted fifth graders. But after the in-school residency and continuing with the Academy and Allstars, they have blossomed. They step out of their comfort zone, interact with their peers, and develop skills that will help them to be successful as college students and beyond.” Dawn McCann, an Allstar parent, concurs: “The program definitely helped my daughter and son bloom into a lady and a gentleman and to be proud of themselves. It changed their lives for the better, because in the neighborhood where they live, they do not have opportunities like this. I wish that all children had this opportunity in their schools.”


Jalyn Green, an alumna who participated in the program as a fifth grader in 2010 and continued on in the Academy and Allstars for two years said, “The most important thing I learned while in the program was how to trust other people on the dance floor and stay in sync,” she said. “It takes a lot of trust to be okay with being dipped by someone you don’t know. DCP also inspired me to be open minded to all styles of dance. I think everyone should broaden his or her horizons. You never know if you will like something until you try it.”


A sense of community

Building community is also an important element of the program. “Dancing Classrooms grows beyond the school walls and out into the community,” Witcosky says. “I think that is truly impactful–the idea that a ballroom program can reach out to parents and the community in a way that the school hasn’t seen before. I can’t tell you how many principals have said that they have never seen more parents show up at their school than for a Dancing Classrooms Culminating Event.”


Lynne Millard, principal of Kennedy C. Crossan Academics Plus Elementary School since 2009, explained that the program had only been at her school for two years when she first became principal, but it was already a part of the school’s culture and a point of pride.  “As a first-year principal, I was fortunate to inherit this program,” she said. “I was intrigued to learn that the mission of Dancing Classrooms Philly was to foster self-esteem, social awareness, and joy through ballroom dance. I can honestly say and attest that, consistently for the past ten years, the mission becomes a reality for young people.” Millard also acknowledges that it is easy to embrace a program that aligns with the many goals she has for her students, and that the impact of the program is life-long.


“The lasting impact on the students is profound and their confidence, sense of community, and perseverance is going to positively affect the community in the years to come,” says Lombardi. “DCP was lucky to have three inspired leaders in the community in Harvey Kimmel, Jane Brooks, and Joyce Burd, who set a strong foundation for the organization. Having a large initial school enrollment and solid financial support allowed DCP to head in the right direction from the beginning.” That direction has allowed Dancing Classrooms Philly to continue to thrive: DCP served more than 3,200 students in 122 classrooms from 57 schools during the 2016-17 year.  In addition, more than 100 students participated in the DCP Academy and twelve 7th-11th grade students performed in the Allstars.


Looking ahead to the next ten years, DCP will work to bring its programs to as many schools and students as possible. “Our goal for all children, regardless of circumstances, is to have the opportunity to be educated, inspired and transformed by dance,” says Executive Director Denise Kinney. “Each time we give a child the floor, we’re encouraging him or her to take pride in all the hard work and discipline that went into creating that moment – building both confidence and creativity.  While exposure to the arts is not a cure all, there is compelling evidence of the positive impact on academics and the arts’ ability to provide a path to success for our young people.”  With that path in mind, DCP looks forward to introducing tens of thousands of more students to the benefits – and great fun – of ballroom dance.