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Lessons from the Dance Floor

By Belinda Elliott Daily Life Producer

CBN.comAn invisible hero, that’s how Pierre Dulaine has been described.

Dulaine is the founder and co-artistic director of the American Ballroom Theater Company. While he is well known in the world of dance, mainstream America could have easily overlooked the life of this English gentleman, but Hollywood couldn’t let that happen.

His little known tale of success is highlighted in Take the Lead, a new film starring Antonio Banderas (The Return of Zorro). You may also remember hearing about him through a documentary released last year, Mad Hot Ballroom.

Dulaine began dancing at the age of 14 in Birmingham, England. At age 21 he became a full member of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. He quickly went on to win numerous awards for his dancing.
He is the four-time winner of the World Exhibition Championship and received the Astaire Award for “best dancing on Broadway” in the hit musical Grand Hotel. He also captured the All England Professional Latin American Championship.

Prestigious awards aside, perhaps the accomplishment that he is most proud of is his company’s educational outreach program, Dancing Classrooms – the focus of the new movie inspired by his life.

In 1994 Dulaine founded the program to take the art of ballroom dancing into elementary schools. Fifth graders in New York City public schools were the first to put on their dancing shoes for the new series of classes. Originally he was met with resistance, but school administrators soon saw the benefits that Dulaine promised ballroom dance lessons would bring for their students.

The students do learn to dance, Pierre said, but they also learn much more.

 “With "Dancing Classrooms," we're able to reach children in existing classroom settings and address fundamental issues of mutual respect and self esteem -- issues that social dance puts into practice," Pierre said. The program is important because these are lessons that the students will carry with them through life.

Filmmakers immediately recognized the significance of Dulaine’s program. Producer Diane Nabatoff heard about the dance champion turned teacher from a morning news show. She became fascinated with the idea of a man teaching young inner city kids to ballroom dance. "I knew immediately that I had to tell this story, no matter how long it took to get it on screen," Nabatoff said.

Once director Liz Friedlander met the man behind the story, she caught the vision as well.

“He is just a good man in the simplest way that you can say. That’s rare. He is a very ordinary guy who just one day did something that was not ordinary,” Friedlander said.

One of the biggest issues the filmmakers faced in bringing his story to the screen was to find an actor who could accurately portray Dulaine’s warmth and compassion.

“If you think about it,” Nabatoff said, “the role requires a man who is charismatic, enthusiastic, is a fish out of water, is European and elegant, but has a sense of fun and can walk into an impossible situation and turn these kids around. When you see the qualities that Pierre has it’s hard to replicate.”

Their first (and only) choice was Banderas. At first, the actor was not interested – until he met Dulaine for himself.

“When I met this guy, (I thought) how warm this man was and how steady, and how emotional, and how loving,” Banderas said. “What I like about him actually is that he has no pretension, no spotlight; there was no money involved. It’s very difficult to find people in our day that do something for others with nothing in return. People like Pierre Dulaine are people that societies need in order to be better.”

His impact is evident in the lives of the children he taught. Dulaine tells one story of a fifth grader who was extremely shy and refused to dance when the program was first presented to his class. After a few classes, Dulaine was able to bring the young man out of his shell and he went on to become the champion dancer of his class. It’s a story that Dulaine has seen played out numerous times since he started the program.

Writer Dianne Houston was faced with the challenge of creating fictional students for the film and depicting on screen the changes in their lives that came from a dance program like Dulaine’s. Having taught for many years as an artist in residence in New York public schools, Houston has experience with high school students who are said to be “at risk” because of their economic backgrounds or unstable home life. She has seen first hand what is needed to make a difference in their lives.

“There is something that the real Pierre, and also the movie Pierre, brings to his students that is an awakening and that is an opening,” Houston said. She explained that for the kids to overcome the obstacles in their lives and become successful, a teacher needs to give them back their sense of self work and make them see that their lives are important. This is what Pierre offers them through Dancing Classrooms.

His emphasis is on nurturing them and imparting values that will help them in life. Whether they are checking to see that they have the correct form, or dusting off their best manners to ask a classmate to dance, they learn to carry themselves with confidence and treat others with courtesy and respect. In addition, once they see that they can learn to dance, they learn that with hard work they can accomplish anything they want in life.

After working with Dulaine in preparation for the movie, actress YaYa DaCosta said it was easy to imagine herself as one of his students like the girl she portrays in the film.

“It’s such an experience,” DaCosta said. “And it wasn’t hard to understand what those kids were going through and how much he inspired them.”

It seems that he inspires people wherever he goes, whether on or off the dance floor.

Cast members said after working with Dulaine they found themselves being more polite to people. They noticed that they opened more doors for strangers and even used their turn signals more often when driving.

“I felt like I had good manners to begin with,” said Rob Brown who also plays one of Dulaine’s students in the film. “I felt like I was raised well, but it is definitely more salient to me now. (I have more) discipline and respect for others after meeting him.”

Dancing Classrooms recently expanded to Chicago, and Dulaine is now teaching older students in addition to those in elementary school. He hopes to eventually expand the program to schools across the nation.

Learn more about Dancing Classrooms.

Related Articles:

Movie Review: Take the Lead

Calling Teens to 'Take the Lead'

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