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Breaking down cultural barriers with dance

In a program called Dancing Classrooms, kids not only learn how to dance, they also learn how to respect one another. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

Reporter's notebook by Anne Thompson, NBC News

In a world where social graces are increasingly an endangered species, one man is trying to instill civility and respect in children by teaching them ballroom dancing. 

Pierre Dulaine's theory about the importance of the foxtrot, rhumba and tango is very simple. 

"Sitting next to each other doesn't get you to know another person in the classroom," said Dulaine. "But having danced with one another somehow is a different thing.  And I think this is a success of Dancing Classrooms."

Dulaine, a champion ballroom dancer and former cast member of Broadway's "Grand Hotel," started Dancing Classrooms 18 years ago in one New York City public school.  It is now in 600 schools around the world including Israel, Germany and Switzerland.

In New York City, ballroom dancing is taught to 5th graders in some 200 public schools twice a week. "Nightly News" went to Brooklyn's P.S. 160 to see the 16-week program for ourselves. 

You can't help but smile when you watch the children. The girls are often taller than the boys.  Boys and girls are still uncomfortable having to stand close to each other, clasp hands and hold each other.  They have to look each other in the eye, and it is not always easy.

The teacher will call out, "What color is your partner's eyes?"  Everyone must answer. More than a few wipe off sweaty hands on their clothes.  The awkwardness is absolutely charming.

These are not the dancing classes of the past.  No white gloves, navy blue blazers and dresses.

Many of the students wear sweatpants and sneakers, although a few of the girls favor sparkly shoes.  But what is the same is the discovery of the joy of dancing, how much fun it is to glide across the floor in perfect rhythm with another person. 

The students have fun being elegant and polite.  The young men smile as they escort the young ladies into the classroom.  "Thank you," is said each time they change partners.  It is a wonderful 50 minute class.

Principal Margaret Russo brought Dancing Classrooms to P.S.160 when she arrived eight years ago. Russo told "Nightly News" that her school, where 62 percent of the students are enrolled in English as a Second Language classes, dancing helps breakdown cultural barriers. It gets children who may not interact with each other to know each other at least for one dance.  That, she said, improves the entire school. 

"On that dance floor we're all the same so we're one community and I think that's really important," Russo said.

Ballroom dancing really is a gift. Your posture improves, your confidence improves and awkwardness is replaced with physical grace.  Dulaine says it transformed him from a shy 14-year-old to a confident young man.  It is a skill that stays with you your whole life and always makes you want to get out on the dance floor. 

"One of our teaching artists tell us that we are teaching children life lessons wrapped around ballroom dancing," Dulaine said. "And I think that puts the nail on the head."

Jean-Marie Kennedy, a teacher at the Walter Francis Bishop elementary school in New York on the poise, confidence and good manners gained through ballroom dancing.