Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative partners with St. Louis Dancing Classrooms to teach kids confidence and kindness

Dancing Classrooms

Music education student Sarah Wirthlin (center) dances with a fifth grader at Gotsch Intermediate School as part of UMSL’s collaboration with St. Louis Dancing Classrooms. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As Sarah Wirthlin stood among a couple dozen fifth graders at Gotsch Intermediate School in Affton, Missouri, she could sense an air of unease. She noted the hands in pockets and eyes rolling – not unusual reactions for preteens on their first day of dance class.

Wirthlin, a music education student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and volunteer teaching assistant in the class, recalled one student in particular who could barely bring himself to touch another student’s hand or move his feet at more than a shuffle that day.

However, over the course of a few weeks, she saw him transform. He stood taller, made eye contact and volunteered in class as he learned the steps to ballroom standards such as the Foxtrot, Rumba and Waltz.

“He was realizing that it’s something fun to do, and he was feeling a bit more confident in it,” Wirthlin said. “That was really great.”

The opportunity for future educators like Wirthlin to play a role in such dramatic transformations is made possible through a partnership between the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative at UMSL, St. Louis Dancing Classrooms and St. Louis-area schools.

The collaborative was established at UMSL in 1996 with a mission to develop and expand a national model for collaborative efforts that serve the advancement of fine arts education. It works with myriad fine arts organizations in St. Louis such as the Metro Theater Company, Jazz St. Louis, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and St. Louis Dancing Classrooms.

“I have 25 partners now,” said Michael Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education and director of the collaborative. “We serve 14 school districts, who primarily are Title One schools, which means that they’re underserved populations. That’s the focus for the work of the Collaborative. That was the intent of Des Lee, who put this all together.”

Let’s dance

St. Louis Dancing Classrooms is a nonprofit social development program that aims to empower youth, teach respectful interaction and promote teamwork through the New York-based Dancing Classrooms model. Since 2008, the organization has partnered with more than 30 public and parochial schools across the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County to implement its 10-week residency program in fifth grade classes.

During two weekly classes, students learn the basic steps of six different ballroom dances as well as a few contemporary line dances and, in the process, learn about themselves and their peers.

“The mission of dancing classrooms is to teach young children valuable life skills through the joyful practice of ballroom and social dance,” said Angela Brooks, director of St. Louis Dancing Classrooms. “All of the ballroom dances we know today evolved from social dances popularized by various cultures. When we say ‘ballroom,’ we are referring to the dances as they have been adapted for the competitive ballroom dance world. However, in our program the aim is not to train children to be ballroom dancers. Instead, we focus on the social connections inherent to partner dancing and exploring how dancing with each other can make us feel. And, it’s lots of fun!”

Brooks added that fifth grade is the perfect time to introduce kids to ballroom dance.

“It’s intentional that fifth grade is the age that we work with,” she said. “In 5th grade, students have the innocence and childlike wonder customary to elementary school, but they are starting to assert more independence. They begin to view themselves and their peers in different ways.

“Around fifth grade is when students begin categorizing one another into cliques and groupings, forming social hierarchies. Our program helps them navigate this time so that it is a kinder and more pleasant experience. In the Dancing Classrooms program, students are encouraged to be inclusive, approach things with an open mind and sense of humor, and to view their peers through a lens that is helpful and positive instead of judgmental.”

This semester, five UMSL education students are working with Brooks as volunteers through the College of Education’s Community Agency Partners program. As director of the Des Lee Fine Arts Collaborative, Smith facilitated the connection. Brooks noted that it’s an ideal partnership because UMSL’s mission and values align closely with the organization.

“It’s very much a part of the St. Louis community,” Brooks said of the university. “UMSL attracts students from all over the St. Louis region. That’s special because the collaborative is all about providing access to arts programming across the St. Louis region. It’s really the perfect environment for bringing us all together.”

The volunteers learn the same dances as the kids, and twice a week they assist instructors, serving as dance partners when there are odd numbers and helping the fifth graders with form, steps and rhythm.

Step by step

When it came time to fulfill her practicum requirement for volunteer hours, Wirthlin immediately gravitated toward Dancing Classrooms due to her extensive background in music and dance.

Her father has been a voice teacher and a performing musician for more than 40 years, and she grew up surrounded by music in her father’s studio and on the road at his gigs. Later on, in high school, her love of musical theater blossomed.

It’s also where Wirthlin realized she might have a future in education. As a senior, her music teacher asked if she had considered teaching based on her work as a teacher’s assistant. Up until that point, she hadn’t, but the conversation sparked the notion.

After graduating, Wirthlin enrolled in a nondegree program at a performing art conservatory in New York. She went on to perform as a vocalist across the country, but the idea of teaching stuck with her.

“After the performing part of my life, I really started looking at teaching not just because of my own father teaching – I kind of was an associate at his studio – but also because of my own high school teachers encouraging me to pursue that, seeing what I had already demonstrated in the classroom,” she recalled. “I think that’s what led me to a formal degree in secondary education because of what those teachers did for me as a student. I wanted to do that for future students.”

The path to that degree wasn’t a straight line, however.

Wirthlin earned an associate degree and began applying to undergraduate programs in Maryland after getting married, but her husband’s career in the military as a medical officer quickly uprooted the couple. They also started a family, which made it difficult for Wirthlin to begin a bachelor’s degree program.

However, she managed to pursue her dual passions for education and performing arts in the private sector.

Over the past 15 years, Wirthlin has taught dance, music and theater at various performing arts studios. Recently, her husband finished his medical residency program, and Wirthlin knew it was the right time for her to get, as she puts it, the “actual paper degree” she’s always wanted.

“It was always the plan to go back to school,” she said. “It was just never the right time. But it’s worked out really well that I’m here at UMSL. I really, really like the program, the department and the school in general. So, it was probably just the right place, right time finally.”

A choir teacher performing with her in the St. Charles Christmas Traditions recommended UMSL’s music education program, and after investigating, she found that the university offered everything she wanted.

“The thing I like most about it is it has the facilities like a state school, so it has all the buildings, all the resources, but it feels like a liberal arts college,” Wirthlin said. “There are smaller class sizes, and the teachers are a bit more one-on-one and very communicative. It’s cool that you have large university resources and facilities but that kind of liberal arts feeling.”

Two to tango

Wirthlin has especially enjoyed the opportunity to work with St. Louis Dancing Classrooms.

She said keeping a “lost art form” alive appealed to her, and because of her previous training in the fine arts, she’s felt purposeful in classes at Gotsch Intermediate School. Though her dance training was primarily in ballet, she picked up the ballroom steps quickly due to consistent, effective curriculum.

“It’s not dumbed down because they do the actual steps, but the instructors just explain it in a way that really makes it on everyone’s level – on the kids’ as well as on an adult level,” Wirthlin said.

In addition to helping students with their form and steps, Wirthlin also takes time to talk to them about their interests and give encouragement, particularly those who are a bit shy at first. A fair number of students start out reserved, but as classes have progressed in preparation for a final ballroom performance on Dec. 13, Wirthlin has seen bonds and a sense of camaraderie form in the classroom.

Step by step, the students are learning lessons and skills that they will carry with them in the future.

“Dance can teach you more than just a step,” Wirthlin said. “It teaches you confidence. There’s an interesting confidence that comes from learning something new. That’s part of it – these kids are like, ‘Oh wow, I can totally do this and I never thought I could.’ There’s also that dance in particular is all about partners, especially ballroom. It’s not solo, so you really have to work together with someone. It’s that teamwork, encouraging each other. I think there’s a lot of relationship-building that goes on.”

Likewise, Wirthlin has learned she truly has a zeal for education and can’t wait to go from the ballroom to the classroom.

“It’s just so fun to see them, to see those kids learning and that spark in their eye,” she said. “I really, really love the experience with the kids, seeing them grow and seeing their confidence grow. That’s always an exciting thing – when you see a kid learn.”

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