Pierre Dulaine’s career is proof that a child who is introduced to the arts can be transformed, and this transformation can affect thousands of people around the world.
Dulaine is a professional dancer, now in his late 60s, and the founder of Dancing Classrooms, an international program that teaches ballroom dancing to school children worldwide, including thousands of students in Omaha. They learn the Foxtrot, Tango, Merengue, Polka, Rhumba, Swing and Waltz.
But the real purpose of Dancing Classrooms is to teach fifth graders to be ladies and gentlemen. Dulaine has said of his program, “If we can instill civility into children at the age of 10 or 11, early enough in life, we can nurture it and have it grow with them. It will only make them better human beings." He will be visiting his Omaha students on November 16 to watch them perform and the event is open to the public.
Dulaine was a ballroom dance champion who performed on Broadway in the musical Grand Hotel. His children’s dance program in New York City was the subject of a 2005 documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, which inspired the fictional movie called Take the Lead, starring Antonio Banderas. A new documentary to be released in 2013 was filmed in the town of Dulaine’s birth. Dancing in Jaffa features Israeli and Palestinian children coming together through the medium of dance. Dulaine has become a one-of-a-kind star in the world of ballroom dance.
In the 1950s he was a shy teenager whose family had immigrated from the conflict-ridden Middle East to an industrial city a hundred miles north of London. His Irish father had served in the British Army in Palestine. His mother was Palestinian and French. Dulaine knew three languages, but spoke English with an accent. He felt awkward in his new country until he learned to dance.
Dulaine writes of the experience, “It gave me everything I dreamed of. From being very shy I became confident. My accent no longer mattered to me. I learned to stand up straight and shake hands with a positive attitude that received attention. I became the champion of my dreams.” In 1995, he developed Dancing Classrooms in New York City with the faith that other children would be as transformed by dance as he was. He started with 30 students in 1995 and, to date, has brought the elegance of ballroom dancing to 300,000 children.
Locally, Dancing Classrooms is a project of the ARTery, under the direction of longtime Omaha choreographer Roxanne Nielsen. In 2005, ARTery director Marian Fey saw Mad Hot Ballroom and was so moved by the children in the film, she was determined to bring the program to Omaha. The ARTery is very proud that Omaha was the first city after New York to implement Dancing Classrooms. As of this year, they have taught in more than 25 elementary schools in OPS, District 66, Westside and recently added two private Catholic schools to the roster. This year they will be in 63 classrooms. The program is made possible by grants form the Nebraska Arts Council, The Sherwood Foundation, The Omaha Schools Foundation, Wells Fargo and Lincoln Financial Foundation.
D.J. Zenchuk was teaching a class at Liberty Elementary school first thing in the morning on the day before Halloween. The students were excited to see their dance instructor enter the room. They pushed their desks against the wall and filed into the hallway, re-entering “the ballroom” in pairs. Elementary teachers are required to participate in the dance lesson with their class to provide a disciplinary presence, but also to take the journey with the students. They changed partners frequently which seemed to prevent personality conflicts. Zenchuk spent about six minutes on each dance, ending the class with a treat, a line dance to a Hip Hop song.
As in Mad, Hot Ballroom, these 10-year olds are preparing for a dance competition at the culmination of the residency. It will be held at the TAC building on 30th and Cumming at 5 p.m. on Monday, November 19 and is open to the public free of charge. The students are all aware that only the best dancers will be selected to perform in competition. When asked if selection and elimination creates tears and disappointment, Assistant Director Mari Anne Hartman said, “We want students to win and lose with dignity. We encourage them to congratulate the people who win and celebrate their success.”
The public is welcome to meet Pierre Dulaine at a fundraiser on Friday, November 16 at the Swanson Conference Center in the Culinary Arts Building at the Fort Omaha Campus of Metropolitan Community College. The event will include live music, dancing and desserts. Tickets are $25 per person and are available by emailing or calling Roxanne Nielsen at Rnielsen@arteryomaha.org 402-672-3999.