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Dancing Classrooms
Andrea Mirenda and Ember Reichgott Junge are co-presidents of Heart of Dance.
Courtesy photos.

By Andrea Mirenda and Ember Reichgott Junge

"Jovan," a Minneapolis fifth grader often suspended for behavior issues, was defiant. She was not going to touch a boy, let alone dance with him. She glared at the visiting Teaching Artist (TA) and pulled her sleeves over her hands, covering every bit of skin. She refused to place her hands on top of the boy's in "pancake position."

Then the catchy rhythm of the merengue began. "Shake what your mama gave you," invited the TA. It didn't take long. Within two classes, Jovan was standing elegantly in dance position as she danced with every gentleman in her class. She loved the dramatic tango, the elegant waltz, and the rockin' swing. And she was good.

No more suspensions. "In Dancing Classrooms, Jovan became a different person," says her mother. Classmates looked up to her. "When she was selected to represent her school in the all-school team match, it was like a light went on in her head," says her teacher. "This was the first time Jovan had been selected for anything at school based on positive behavior."

If you've seen the award-winning documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," you know Dancing Classrooms is more than its ten-week ballroom dance residency for fifth graders. It is also a proven social-emotional-learning curriculum in which students, for 20 years, have learned respect, elegance and teamwork.

The Minnesota nonprofit Heart of Dance became the 30th site of global Dancing Classrooms in 2015. In our first four semesters, 1,762 Twin Cities fifth graders (79 percent students of color) participated in 80 classrooms in 23 schools. In 2017-18, we plan to partner with 70 fifth-grade classrooms, launch an 8th grade curriculum, and expand to Duluth and Rochester.

There is no more important time to teach gender and multicultural respect than in today's world. Teachers report improved student relationships. Students share their new dance steps with schoolmates and family. Said one principal after the school showcase for parents, "I felt like a proud papa. You could see the respect from afar."

Andrea Mirenda and Ember Reichgott Junge are co-presidents of Heart of Dance.

FFI: Join the momentum. Bring Dancing Classrooms to a school you love, volunteer as a classroom assistant, audition to be a teaching artist, or sponsor or support a classroom. heartofdancemn.org

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