Transforming Students One Step at a Time


Writer Grace Hill
Photo credit Elizabeth Juhl Photography

Finding a program for school-aged children that successfully instills confidence, promotes healthy peer relationships and supports academic studies — well that would be like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

However, unlike that elusive pot of gold, a program with those results does in fact exist. But with a name like Dancing Classrooms, it’s going to be an unconventional one.

Dancing Classrooms was created in 1994 by Pierre Dulaine as a project of the American Ballroom Theater in New York City. Since its conception, 31 Dancing Classrooms have started worldwide, reaching over 600 schools and impacting more than 50,000 students — a growth contributed to the documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom.”

It’s a documentary that changed the course of Heather Wright Schlichting’s life.

“Once I watched ‘Mad Hot Ballroom,’ the documentary that chronicles the schools in New York City where Dancing Classrooms originated, I was hooked,” says Schlichting. “The film highlights children from culturally diverse schools who learn ballroom dance and compete in a citywide competition. Told from the children’s perspective, it’s truly an inspiring story where at first many of the children are hesitant, but after 10 weeks, they, their parents and teachers share how they all have been transformed because of this unique program.”

Schlichting, a lifelong dancer, immediately set to work to bring the program to Phoenix. With the help of the New York office and Dulaine who traveled to Arizona to introduce the program, Schlichting achieved her goal. In 2011, the non-profit Dancing Classrooms Phoenix came to life and began its mission.

“The mission of Dancing Classrooms Phoenix is to cultivate essential life skills in children through the practice of social dance,” Schlichting explains. “In a world filled with technology that encourages isolation with little human interaction, our program offers children a place where they can connect with their peers and their teachers in a safe environment in which to thrive. They are taught how to work with and accept one another regardless of their differences.”

To provide more assistance with the educational side of the program, Schlichting joined forces with Tebble Dickerson who initially was involved in Dancing Classrooms of Northeast Ohio but who now functions as partner and site director of Dancing Classrooms Phoenix. As an educator with over 15 years of experience, Dickerson understands what makes this program successful in the classroom.

Dickerson says, “Dancing Classrooms uses a curriculum-based teaching approach to achieve social awareness and build self-esteem. Students are taught the vocabulary of various contemporary social dances as well as discover the origin and history behind each dance. The students complete a journal entry after each lesson to show the progression of success with the program. Dancing Classrooms improves self-confidence, communication, and cooperation, and teaches acceptance of others even if they are different. These skills transform the students’ self-esteem which gives them the confidence and assurance to persevere through difficult tasks in all academic areas.”

The program accomplishes all that through a developmentally designed 10-week program for fifth-grade students and includes 20 45-minute sessions, that teach various ballroom dances. The final class of the program then showcases the hard work of the student participants to the rest of the school and their families. Some children will even go on to compete in the annual Colors of the Rainbow competition. For students who have already completed the fifth-grade program, they also have the option of continuing lessons during an advanced course in eighth grade

All the students involve flourish in unimaginable ways. As Schlichting describes, “Both academic and post-program research with our school partners have shown that Dancing Classrooms Phoenix substantially advances confidence, motivation, civility, self-esteem, teaming skills, focus, determination and joy in the children. Happier children make for happier and more successful students. Participating schools have seen attendance problems decrease, grades increase and behavioral issues improve dramatically.”

Dickerson specifically recalls one of those students with behavioral issues. She says, “The most memorable moment in the program for me was when I had a student who consistently had behavior problems before becoming a part of my classroom…I visited him a couple of years later, and he thanked me for allowing him to participate in the competition and said that he had continued to do well in school because of the confidence he now had in himself.”

To have results like that, results that positively impact a student’s life, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

MAD Hot Dance Off!
March 25
6 to 10 p.m.
Arthur Murray Dance Studio
1210 E. Indian School Rd.
Tickets: $20
Join the fun as a spectator or a competitor.
All proceeds benefit Dancing Classrooms Phoenix.

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