Waltzing Through Middle School Ballroom Dancing Comes to New Century and Crain's Creek
By Andrew Soboeiro
Ballroom dance is hardly the quintessential middle school activity. When one thinks of how middle schoolers spend their time, video games, haphazard activities that resemble sports, and emotional torture come to mind.
Few would believe that a ballroom dance program would have any success in a middle school setting.
Yet Debby Hasson and Tricia Athans, of Pinehurst's Fred Astaire Dance Studio, have achieved exactly that.
The two have organized ballroom dance clubs at Crain's Creek and New Century, bringing class and art to the otherwise crude middle school environment.
"I feel that ballroom dancing should be brought to the next generation," says Hasson, who manages the studio with her husband, Bruce. "It's really beneficial to the social community of the kids of this generation. Their social skills have gone down in the texting generation, so this lets them be face to face with each other and actually carry on a conversation."
Tricia Athans, Hasson's acolyte, agrees.
"This is a good place to start if we want to have better high school dances," she says. "If you want high schoolers to do this, you can't start teaching in high school; you have to start in middle school."
Athans' daughter Eliza is a sixth-grader at New Century, and has long studied ballroom dance at Fred Astaire. She has taken a leadership role in the new club, encouraging other students to get involved and to take lessons at the studio.
"My parents started dancing and would always teach me what they learned," says Eliza Athans, "and eventually they convinced me to come to a party at the studio. I became really involved and have been dancing ever since. ... I'm really glad that we have this club at the school because it's been a really good way to meet friends, especially friends who are upperclassmen."
The students learn swing, rumba, waltz, foxtrot, tango and cha-cha. The instructors also teach samba and merengue, although these are not part of the official program.
"My favorite dance is the tango," says Jada Gaddy, a sixth-grader at New Century. "I don't really know why; it's just a lot of fun."
Crain's Creek eighth-grader Lizzy Gibbon agrees.
"The tango is my favorite dance," she says.
Jake Munguia, a New Century sixth-grader, favors swing.
"It's fast, and I know a lot of different moves, so I can do a lot of interesting stuff with it," he says.
One would expect teaching ballroom dance to middle schoolers to be nearly impossible.
The stereotypical pre-teen is crude, rowdy and easily distracted. Putting 30 such children together in a room with music playing would seem a catalyst for disaster.
Yet Hasson and Athans have little trouble making their students behave.
"Middle schoolers are fun," says Hasson. "I like their sarcasm, their independence, and their spirit. There've been a few instances of 'I don't want to dance with that person' and that sort of thing, but for the most part everyone's been a good team player."
Robin Calcutt, principal of New Century Middle School, believes that the club has actually improved the behavior of her students. "Ballroom dance programs have a very strong impact on student etiquette and spirit," she says. "They focus on discipline with an art form and gradually give students a sense of their culture. That's why I was so interested when Debby offered to start the club here."
"It's made them work well with each other," says Crain's Creek club coordinator William Chisholm. "There's a lot of diversity in our group; they're all from very different backgrounds, but they've learned to adjust to this for the benefit of working together. They've learned to not look at the individual they're dancing with, but rather the dance itself."
In addition to improving students' behavior, the ballroom dance clubs have enhanced the schools' performance arts programs.
Greg Pilson, New Century's chorus teacher and director of the yearly spring musical, has started including ballroom dance in his performances.
"This year we did the play 'Guys and Dolls,'" says Pilson. "There's this scene where they're in a club in Havana. I asked Jake Munguia and Eliza Athans to do a dance routine for this scene. They learned that routine in less than a week, got it together, and performed it for that scene in the play and again during the intermission. ... I'd like to make use of them in the future because they're very talented, so we could do lots of other things and different shows. Hopefully they'll be able to teach the routines, though, because I'm pretty limited in formal dance."
More broadly, ballroom dance has helped teach students stage presence, making them comfortable performing in front of others.
"We did a musical for the first time this year, 'Oklahoma Junior,'" says Rose Cooper, principal of Crain's Creek. "A lot of the ballroom dance kids were in it, and you could tell it had helped them with their stage presence."
All of this has left the Fred Astaire instructors in high demand at other schools in the area.
West Pine, Southern Middle and the high schools all want to establish ballroom dance clubs of their own. Hasson and Athans are happy to oblige them, and plan to expand as soon as possible.
"We already teach at a number of the private schools in the area," says Hasson. "As soon as I get word from the principals, we're going do this at West Pine and Southern Middle. We also want to teach at Pinecrest and Union Pines; the faculty there wants us to do something especially for prom, because they're tired of all the grinding."
Meanwhile, the New Century and Crain's Creek faculty express enormous gratitude toward Fred Astaire for introducing this program.
"I want to send a big thank-you to the Fred Astaire group," says Chisholm. "Many of these kids wouldn't be able to afford these lessons on their own. They're getting a chance they wouldn't have without Fred Astaire stepping up and helping us."
The first annual Junior Ballroom Team Match, featuring Crain's Creek and New Century middle schools, will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 2, in the New Century Middle School Multipurpose Room. Tickets are $5 for adults and $2.50 for students.
Contact Andrew Soboeiro at andrew@
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