On Stage: A Well-Deserved Bow (Or Curtsy)

January 11, 2010

I first wrote an introduction to Dancing Classrooms on CrossCurrents in September and started visiting six Pittsburgh elementary schools in October. It was undeniably seductive as the students moved from barely being able to touch and interact to a level of sophistication that was truly gratifying, as I wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This past weekend I attended Pittsburgh’s first-ever Colors of the Rainbow, a competition among the top six couples from each of the schools: Allegheny (yellow), Arlington (orange), Martin Luther King (purple), Phillips (green), Spring Hill (blue) and West Liberty (red).

Although there was only one gold medal, all of the schools were winners, from the autistic girl whoparticipated to the shy, never-to-smile boy who developed a grin of his own. The students who represented their schools at Allderdice High School were all champions.

It was heart-warming to watch the students parade down the aisle at the start. Arlington girls hadglittery black party dresses and Spring Hill had lovely blue creations. Others were all dressed to the nines and Allegheny added red ribbons in the girls’ hair. As for the boys, they all had freshly-pressed white shirts with ties to match their school colors.

Mark Rogalsky, prevention supervisor of Mercy Behavioral Health, offered opening remarks and introduced the energetic emcee, Jo Jo Graham, current director of Dancing Classrooms in Northeast Ohio and formerly a top teaching assistant to founder Pierre Dulaine. The trio of judges included Jospeh Aiken, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of USA Dance, Jennifer Christophel, site director for Dancing Classrooms in Western Maryland and Susan Gillis Krumen, dance instructor in the University of Pittsburgh’s school of education.

No one knew what to expect. For an inaugural event, all went smoothly, despite the wintery weatherconditions that threatened to throw a wrench into the event. Students demonstrated a remarkable aplomb, although they invariably got over-excited and tended to rush their ballroom patterns when enthusiastic friends and performers started to cheer.

For the record, Phillips took the gold, with Allegheny and Spring Hill coming in with the silver and Arlington, Martin Luther King and West Liberty following with the bronze. But the competitors set a very high standard for future Dancing Classrooms participants and deserved recognition all-around for their courageous performance.

Dance Notes: Point Park, Trust Ballroom, W.Va. Ballet

December 15, 2009

GOING GREEN. Point Park University has received the Trane Energy Efficiency Leader in Education Award for its new dance complex, which opened in 2007. If you haven’t seen it, plan a visit. Your best bet might be a performance at the George Roland White Performance Studio, a marvel of a black box theater that really enhances dancers. Some of the benefits to the dance students at Point Park include air quality, lighting, light and temperature, all to keep them healthy and performing at their best.

PITTSBURGH CONNECTIONS. I caught the final performance of Conservatory Dance Company’s Pittsburgh Connections, although I missed former PBT soloist Jeffrey Bullock’s ballet, which was first on the program. But Point Park alum Marissa Balzer produced a little jewel of a work, “Things Behind the Sun.” The piece, inspired by Balzer’s own newlywed status, focused on romance, sexuality and relationships in three couples.  It was intellectually astute and emotionally attractive all at once, with movements that melted into unexpected directions. I hope that Balzer, who is also a busy teacher in the area, can find time for more choreography. Patrick Franz, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director, produced “Cote Jardin,” conceptually interesting for its inspiration, rooted in the French designs of the Versailles gardens of King Louis XIV, it didn’t echo those designs among the 26-member cast. Krisofer Weinstein-Storey, on the other hand, delivered in “Stimela (what is African debt?). Political in nature, it’s primary emphasis was on low-slung movements that produced rhythmic interactions on an African theme.

“TRUST” BALLROOM. “So You Wanta Dance? asks the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. But the power there must think people do, because they’ve opened The Dance Cafe at the organization’s new Trust Educational Center at 805/807 Liberty Avenue. There are lessons Tues. through Thurs. For more information, go to the website at The Dance Cafe.

A SOUTHERN NUT. Dance Alloy’s Christopher Bandy is scheduled to choreograph excerpts from the “Nutcracker” for the Wheeling Symphony in West Virginia Dec. 18-19. Good news — he’ll be bringing former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre members with him in Aaron Ingley and Alan Obuzor. See the Wheeling Symphony for more information.

On Stage: Dancing Classrooms — The First Step

September 19, 2009

I see America dancing.

Not because of “Dancing With the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance” or any number of the dance shows that pepper the tube…although they have all contributed to the wave of dance that has swept this country onto its feet.

© Martha Rial

© Martha Rial

It’s because Pierre Dulaine came to town. Many might ask,”Who?” For the uninititated, he was Antonio Banderas (or rather, Antonio played him) in the 2006 movie, “Take the Lead.” It’s the story of a handsome ballroom teacher who feels that dancing could address any number of issues, and dives in (feet first, of course) to give his reluctant students a lesson in life.

But better yet, there was also a documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” that came out around the same time. It traced real New York City students through several months of lessons and a culminating competition called “Colors of the Rainbow,” where more there were more hues than the gold, silver and bronze medals that were awarded the participants.

If you knew, you would have recognized Pierre toward the end. He is an elegant man, winner of many international titles himself and star on Broadway in “Grand Hotel” with partner Yvonne Marceau. Pierre also happens to be a gifted teacher. Along the way he opened his own school and taught at School of American Ballet, Juilliard and Alvin Ailey.

He didn’t have to take on a gaggle of fifth graders, more than a few of whom turned up their noses at the thought (and look) of a dance style that Arthur Murray eschewed on television with his wife, Kathryn, back in the ’50’s. But his ultimate success led to Dancing Classrooms, which just last year reached over 40,000 students in 400 schools in 13 cities.

Honors, awards and fame aside, Pierre could get down with them because he spreads joy through discipline and besides, it’s just great fun to move. We could see it in the glowingly expressive faces of the “Mad Hot” dancers.

Look out, Pittsburgh. Pierre swept into the city with picture-perfect poise, missing not a step as he said, with a droll roll of the tongue, “My name is Pierr-r-r-re.”

The adults got to meet him first last Wednesday night at LaFond Galleries on the South Side. With six young ballroom dancers setting the tone out on the sidewalk, the members of the Pittsburgh Public

Photo by © Martha Rial

© Martha Rial

Schools gathered with coordinators from Mercy Behavioral Health and Dancing Classrooms teachers Terry and Rozana Sweeney, international champions themselves.

Then Pierre gave them a taste of things to come. Soon the formality of a cocktail party became something entirely different as the adults were circling the gallery with their ballroom partners.

The excitement really escalated the next morning, when all of the fifth graders from five Pittsburgh elementary schools  — Arlington Academy, Martin Luther King Elementary, Phillips Elementary, Spring Hill Elementary and West Liberty Elementary — traveled to host school Allegheny Elementary on the North Shore to meet with Pierre.

After introductions and remarks from deputy superintendent Dr. Linda Lane and Mercy Behavioral Health prevention supervisor Mark Rogalsky and clips from “Mad Hot Ballroom,”  it was Pierre’s turn to charm the audience and bring up pre-selected students to give ballroom a try.

Martin Luther King’s Edna Poland was not sure she liked ballroom at that point. She watched as the students skillfully followed instructions like “red light” and “green light” and “shake what your mama gave you.” By then there was a big smile on her face.

© Martha Rial

© Martha Rial

Arlington’s J’von Brown and Asa Jones-Martin were excited after they descended from the stage, along with West Liberty’s Michael Lacek, Victoria McCrea, Alana Morrison and Logan O’Hara. For a finale, everyone got to do the Macarena…in their seats.

It seemed like this Rainbow of dancers was eagerly awaiting the next step. But it will have to wait a bit, like everything else, until the G-20 is over.