Musician Jeff Anderson and Northview Elementary School student Cameron Arnold

Cameron Arnold, a fifth-grader at Jennings (Mo.) Northview Elementary School, dons the electric bass of musician Jeff Anderson in an impromptu meet and greet on stage at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Merengue music blares out of a boom box as a group of about 40 fifth-graders at Buder Elementary School in south St. Louis walk arm-in-arm into the school gymnasium. The curriculum for the next hour – ballroom dancing.

Putting the group through its paces is Angie Brooks, program manager for St. Louis Dancing Classrooms and a teaching artist.

“We’re going to have fun,” Brooks says to the students. “We’re going to enjoy ourselves, but we also still need to be serious about dancing.”

This is the third of 20 visits she will make to the school as part of the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Recently, the collaborative was selected by the Arts and Education Council to receive a 2014 St. Louis Arts Awards in the category of “Arts Collaboration.” The collaborative was honored for enriching St. Louis’ arts and cultural community.

This is Brooks’ fourth year teaching dance in schools as part of the collaborative, and she’s a huge fan of the program. She says while the kids think they’re learning to dance, they’re actually getting so much more out of the experience.

“I love the fact that St. Louis Dancing Classrooms is able to use dance to build character and promote positive interaction within the kids. It’s not just about moving around, it’s about getting along with one another and seeing your classmates in a different way.”

Watching from the sidelines this morning is Robert Nordman, the director of the collaborative and the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education at UMSL. He even fills in as a dance partner for a young student who is sans partner.

“I’m constantly amazed by how quickly children in elementary school can learn things,” he says. “They learn the dances much quicker than adults who spend a lot of money to go to ballroom dance lessons.”

Generally fifth grade is that awkward stage where the girls are taller than the boys and touching the opposite gender elicits eye-rolling and facial grimaces. But the ick factor falls to the wayside as the students concentrate on nailing down the dance routines.

“They get over that really quickly with these dance instructors,” Nordman says. “There is a considerable amount of social grace tied to this. In addition to learning the various ballroom dances, they also learn the ‘old fashion’ way of addressing each other. ”

And there’s nothing but praise from the student dancers.

Dancing fifth-graders at Buder Elementary School in south St. Louis

Fifth-graders from Buder Elementary School in south St. Louis learn to ballroom dance courtesy of St. Louis Dancing Classrooms, which is part of the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

“My favorite part was the merengue,” says Jonathan Samieth, 10, who used to get nervous about taking the dance floor, but not anymore.

John Nunn, 11, says dancing is “really fun.” His classmate Katelyn Moore, 10, shares the same sentiment.

“I really like it. I mostly like the part when we twirl,” she says.

Nordman says there is national anecdotal evidence about classroom behavior improving tremendously during and after this program.

“That’s not its prime purpose of course, but it’s a great result,” he says.

In the three years the program has been at Buder Elementary, no child has opted out of the dance activity.

In addition to Nordman, the St. Louis Arts Awards also recognized E. Louis Lankford, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Art Education at UMSL. The pair was honored for their vision, leadership and generosity in linking key organizations, schools and individuals to facilitate creative arts programming and engagement opportunities for children, teachers, families and the community.

Nordman says he was pleasantly surprised to learn of the arts honor and is quick to point out that it’s a communal effort.

“The collaborative deserves it and not because of me. We have a wonderful advisory board of 32 people. They are very, very helpful to me in every sense,” he says.

Established in 1996, the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative works in partnership with a myriad of St. Louis arts organizations including St. Louis Dancing Classrooms, Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Dance St. Louis and the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries.

The collaborative has grown from three school districts to 15 and from three arts institutions to 17, which provide a wide range of in-school and off-campus fine arts learning experiences for students in addition to professional development opportunities for fine arts teachers.

The collaborative is part of the Des Lee Collaborative Vision, which is administered through UMSL. The DLCV brings together key educational, cultural, governmental and social service institutions to establish programs and share resources that benefit the St. Louis community. This is accomplished through the collaboration of more than 30 endowed professors with more than 100 partner and community organizations both in the St. Louis region and worldwide.

The St. Louis Arts Awards is the preeminent award ceremony honoring individuals who achieve a legacy of artistic excellence, and organizations and businesses that enrich St. Louis’ arts and cultural community.

This story was originally published in the fall 2013 issue of UMSL Magazine.

Myra Lopez

Myra Lopez