Their true Colors


To cheers, NJPAC students step into a dance — and so much more


There was a crowd shaking metallic pompoms in the air and chanting. Little children waved colored flags. Fans hoisted placards with the names of their favorite players handwritten in foot-high letters.


And when the teams in their color-coordinated uniforms appeared, the whooping and hollering in the hall reached rock-concert decibels.


But this wasn’t the World Cup, the Super Bowl, or a Springsteen concert.


It was a middle-school ballroom dance program.


Dancing Classrooms™, NJPAC’s most popular in-classroom residency, teaches fifth- and eighth-grade students to perform ballroom dances including the merengue, the tango, swing dance and the rumba.


But baked into the program’s 10 weeks of dance lessons are social and emotional skills useful to the students both on and off the dance floor: Respect for one’s self and others, poise, teamwork, cooperation, persistence and acceptance are all part of this unique curriculum. The Arts Center is the New Jersey home of this national program, which was founded by acclaimed ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine and was the subject of the documentary film, Mad Hot Ballroom.


At the program’s grand finale, a dance-off called the Colors of the Rainbow Team Match, both the dance steps and the character growth the students take home were very much on display.


After two rounds of semi-final competitions, teams of dancers from six schools took to the stage for the eighth annual NJPAC Colors match in the Arts Center’s Victoria Theater earlier this month. Each dancer wore a sash, a vest, or a jaunty fascinator in his or her school’s assigned shade, turning the stage into a kaleidoscope of swirling colors for every round.


Goya Foods, a sponsor of the program, added to the festival atmosphere by offering treats in the theater lobby. Each tidbit was a recipe from Goya’s MyPlate/MiPlato healthy cooking initiative – and each represented the culture that produced one of the ballroom dances demonstrated on the stage. (Jambalaya, for example, represented the African American culture that also produced swing dancing.) David and Marion Rocker, longtime NJPAC supporters who introduced the Dancing Classrooms program to the Arts Center years ago, also sponsor the program.


Up on stage, chosen from the 782 students who participated in the Dancing Classrooms residencies, were teams from All Saints Catholic Academy in Bayonne, Notre Dame Academy in Palisades Park, St. John Vianney School in Colonia, and George Washington Elementary School, St. Francis Academy and Veterans Memorial Elementary, all in Union City. Their families and teachers packed the Victoria Theater, waving signs in their team’s color and cheering so loudly that Rodney Lopez, the executive director of the national Dancing Classrooms program, who served as the evening’s emcee, occasionally had to shush the crowd and re-start a dance so the students could hear the music.


Thanks to their training, the children on stage smiled and took these interruptions in stride.


“The magic of Dancing Classrooms is that children get to walk a little bit taller ... on the dance floor, they have confidence,” Lopez said.


Dancer and choreographer Nai-Ni Chen, NJPAC teaching artist Josef Woodson and Patricia Vizcaino — a public relations professional at Goya who also studied at the National Conservatory for Dance and Music in her native Dominican Republic — judged the dancers on their steps and demeanor.


And in the end, the orange team, students from Veterans Memorial Elementary, took top honors, including golden medals for the 12 participating dancers and a glittering trophy. Both the ladies and gentlemen (as they are called throughout the program) on the team dissolved into tears on the stage when they were announced the winners.


It was the second year in a row that a team from Veterans Memorial had taken home the trophy.


“I really think it was a transformative experience for them,” said the group’s teaching artist, Lisa Gunn-Becker, who’s been teaching the program since 2010.  (Her very first assigned classroom was also at Veterans Memorial, as it happens; she said she had former students “now taller than I am” coming up to her at the school to reminisce about performing in the Match years ago.) This year, she taught about 100 students at the school the Dancing Classroom curriculum — which starts with learning each dance with “imagination partners” and then proceeds to dancing in couples, while smiling, making eye contact and navigating deftly around other pairs.


“This group of kids was so kind, and their growth during the program was just amazing,” said Gunn-Becker, who brought her own grown daughters to the match to cheer on her kids.


“And my last lesson with them was in May, and I thought: ‘Oh boy, I hope they remember.’ And they did! I think they were just so invested and they really brought their best selves onto that stage.”


July 2, 2019