Ballroom Basix Offers More than Fun and Fancy Footwork at PAW

“We felt like stars!” says eighth-grader Cindy Jean-Francois, a former participant of Ballroom Basix (BBX) at M.S. 283 Preparatory Academy for Writers’ afterschool program, “Play After Work” (PAW). Creating opportunities for our students to build self-confidence and shine is just one of the many facets of The Child Center’s afterschool-enrichment programs — and it’s just one of the benefits of this innovative activity, now in its second year at PAW.

“Dance, and partner dancing specifically, has a huge impact on social and emotional learning,” says The Child Center’s PAW Program Director Carolyn Johnson. “By its very nature, partner dancing is about teamwork. It teaches our kids about working with a partner, about being respectful of your partner.” And, as a result, “parents and educators herald BBX as a unique deterrent to bullying,” says founder and artistic director Sidney “Dr. Dance” Grant, who launched BBX in a single Harlem middle school in 2008 and now operates it at more than 100 schools across NYC’s five boroughs.

Beyond instructing students in the “basix” of a variety of partner dances, such as merengue, tango, swing, foxtrot, salsa, waltz, and the barn dance, BBX sessions provide “an effective antidote to the isolation and addiction of today’s technology — cell phones, tablets, gaming devices — by getting kids hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, and eye-to-eye, respectfully and rotationally with one another, in ‘real time,’” says Grant.

Grant is a firm believer in partner dancing as a social artform and created BBX, he says, to emphasize the poise and sociality that are inherent facets of ballroom and Latin dance. According to Johnson, “I’ve seen kids who are shy open up more and come out of their shell. They make eye contact and smile now, and they feel free to express themselves and their individuality. It’s truly a wonderful thing to witness.”

Preparatory Academy for Writers Principal Charles Anderson concurs. “It surprised me how some of our most challenging students found the structure and etiquette of Ballroom Basix to be so enjoyable.”

“Ballroom Basix provides an effective antidote to the isolation and addiction of today’s technology — cell phones, tablets, gaming devices — by getting kids hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, and eye-to-eye, respectfully and rotationally with one another, in ‘real time.’”

Beyond the social-emotional lessons in respect and self-esteem, students’ exposure to cultural learning cannot be understated. A large part of BBX is an emphasis on bringing students a holistic understanding of their dance moves. A typical lesson for the merengue, for instance, includes not only steps of the dance but its derivation, and even a little bit of Spanish. “What kind of a dance is meringue? Five letters beginning with L and it’s not ‘Loser,’” asks a learning instructor. “Latin!” the students reply. “And in Espanol? Como se dice.” “Latino!” “And what country is it originally from?” “Dominican Republic!” “And what’s the capital?” “Santo Domingo!”

As with many Child Center afterschool programs, BBX also offers a unique way to strengthen communities, both in school and at large. Each season includes a staff and student orientation, an in-school assembly, and culminates with BBX’s signature event, the non-competitive Ballroom Basix Bash, at which students from two schools come together to celebrate and showcase their skills. (Check out the videos for PAW’s Valentine’s Day Bash and June 2019 Bash, where, in Grant’s words, “We don’t beat the other school, we meet the other school!”)

Johnson is quick to give credit to NYC Council Member Donovan Richards and his former Community Liaison Jordan Bishop for implementing BBX at The Child Center’s PAW afterschool program. “We simply wouldn’t have Ballroom Basix without them,” she says, explaining that Richards’ office immediately understood the far-reaching value of the program, referred it to Johnson, and provided the funding. She says that she and students in the midst of this fall’s residency program are excited to again perform at tree-lighting ceremonies hosted by Council Member Richards this holiday season. Says another eighth-grader Miss Cindy — as she was referred to in class — who performed last year, “We love [instructor] Ms. Zoe and Dr. Dance, and we really had fun dancing and performing at events.”

“The opportunity to get up there and perform — to show your stuff and what you’ve learned — it really is so meaningful to the kids and impacts their sense of accomplishment of self-worth,” says Johnson. “Ballroom Basix really does let these kids be stars.”

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