Steps to success

David and Marian Rocker, founding couple of NJPAC dance competition, believe all children are winners.


Sometimes, great change can grow out of small moments. One good example: One night in 2005, a couple from Short Hills decided to go the movies.


"The documentary Mad Hot Ballroom was playing in Montclair, and I persuaded David to go," remembers Marian Rocker.


Her husband David recalls thinking, "Why would I want to watch a movie about ballroom dancing by young kids? But she convinced me, as she usually does."


It turned out to be a momentous decision – one that would have a huge impact on the children of Newark.


The film chronicled a season in the New York City program Dancing Classrooms ® -- in which fifth-graders from struggling schools learn the tango and the merengue, swing dancing and the waltz, and then compete against other dance students from around the city. Between dances, the students share their fears and dreams with one another.


As the film illustrated, the students learned far more than dance steps in the process.


“Dance was the hook,” explains David. “But teachers were using the vehicle of dance as a means to build character in a broad sense – how to be a gracious winner when you prevail; how to not be discouraged when you lose; to get off the canvas and get back in the fight. These are the kind of attributes that really help in life.”


"It's the only time I ever attended a movie where, when the movie finished, people stood up in their seats and applauded and yelled and hooted. We were crying because we were so caught up in the lives of these young people," says Marian.


“We walked out thinking: We have to do something. This can’t stop here.”


And because the Rockers are not just any couple, it didn’t. Passionate philanthropists involved in multiple causes, including AileyCamp Miami, the Rockers immediately set about contacting the founder of Dancing Classrooms, Pierre Dulaine, to see if the program could be expanded.


Marian was born in Newark, and had spent her early career in the 1960s teaching first grade at Newark’s McKinley School; her students’ passion for learning and the devastating poverty they struggled with never left her memory.  She wanted to see if the program could come to her hometown.


David, a Harvard Business School graduate and former Navy lieutenant, was the founder and managing partner of his own hedge fund, Rocker Partners. The success of his company, from which he has since retired, allowed him to fund causes he believed in. The Jewish expression tikkun olam – meaning healing the world – guides his giving, he says, and this particular program aligned with his ideals.


“We support programs that empower people,” David says. “We’ve been devoted to philanthropic causes that level the playing field for those less fortunate, and we especially focus on programs for children, because we feel like that’s where we can do the most good.”


When Dulaine agreed to expand the program to Newark, David and Marian decided that NJPAC – which they had supported since 1997 – would be the perfect partner for the program. They pitched the program to Lawrence Goldman, then the president of NJPAC, over dinner. Goldman was at first wary of holding a competition, but they convinced him that it was an essential part of the program.


With funding from the Rockers, NJPAC’s teaching artists learned Dulaine’s method of teaching young people ballroom dance – with lessons in discipline, good sportsmanship and social graces mixed into the curriculum as well. The very first competition, David recalls, was rough.


“It was kind of a hard-scrabble group that first year,” he recalls. “But you wouldn’t believe how it’s developed under the guidance of NJPAC.”


Fast forward a decade: Today, the Dancing Classrooms program thrives in Newark and surrounding cities; 37 public, private and religious schools participate in the NJPAC program. In June of this year, a total of 950 fifth graders finished the 10-week course in dance. It is, by a wide margin, the single most popular in-school residency program NJPAC offers.


And the final competition, dubbed the Colors of the Rainbow Team Match – for the colored sashes the dancers wear to identify their school affiliation as they perform – is a massive celebration, with the top 70 students dressed festively as they contend for the prize, and hundreds of teachers and family members massed in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater to encourage the kids.


The Rockers, who continue to fund the program, attend every year, even though they now split their time between Short Hills and Florida’s Key Biscayne.


“Not only does (Dancing Classrooms) engage the kids, it brings the parents into the process – which I think is vital. If you go see the Colors of the Rainbow Team Match at NJPAC, the audience is just filled with parents who are screaming and cheering their kids on,” says David.


“We sit in the audience, and no one knows who we are. But we hear the parents and the aunts and the uncles rooting their children on. We get emotional every time, because all those children are winners – not just the kids who walk away with the gold prize, but every single child on that stage has learned something, gained something,” says Marian.


“It’s an extraordinary experience, and I really feel blessed that we can do this,” she says.


Oct. 10, 2017