Introducing our first-ever Guild Spotlight! We’re excited for this opportunity to continue connecting and sharing with folks within the community arts education field. Throughout this year, we hope to further uplift the community participation, healing, and care that’s embedded within your amazing work, and to amplify its impact on communities nationwide.
Recently we had the pleasure of connecting with Nancy Kleaver (she/her), executive director of Dancing Classrooms! As the largest dance education provider for New York City public schools, Dancing Classrooms also supports an affiliate network of sites around the country, cultivating engaged learners and collaborative leaders through the joyful art and practice of social dance.
Learn more about how her organization amplifies connection, joy, inclusivity, and more through dance on a local and national scale.
Hi Nancy! Tell us about yourself and your organization.
My name is Nancy Kleaver and I'm the executive director of Dancing Classrooms. I've been the executive director here for about three years, and my entire career has been in community arts education. Coming out of college, I started working at a theater company in upstate New York and developing their school tours and residency programs. I found my direction. I found my niche, my place.
Dancing Classrooms loomed large in my understanding of the arts education landscape. The organization is going to be 30 years old next year, and it's probably best known for the documentary film Mad Hot Ballroom, though we've evolved in and do more than what is known from that program today.
We're the largest dance education provider to New York City public schools. We serve over 15,000 kids just in New York City alone, and also support an affiliate network of ten sites around the country. It's an honor and a privilege to get to lead this company at this time in our history.
Our community is anyone who has always wanted to dance, but never felt brave enough to try.
Where are you located? Who is your community?
Schools, particularly public schools, are our community. Students who never thought of themselves as dancers before are our community. We have been remote since 2016, 2017; they got rid of their office and studio space before I came on board. Even before the pandemic we were kind of everywhere and nowhere. We have school partners in all five boroughs and other districts in the metropolitan area. Most of the schools we work with have been partnering with us for more than 10 years—some over 20 years—so we have very close relationships with our school partners. We're really proud to see them through changes in leadership, and changes in neighborhood demographics.
Our community is anyone who has always wanted to dance, but never felt brave enough to try. We teach social dance and partner dance—dances that originated and are rooted in cultures and communities for community purposes. I like to think that—I do think, I know this is true because I see it happen—the dances we teach are more accessible than dance with a capital D, with a very serious choreographic vision. We teach dance to build connection and joy, and to create inclusive spaces. That's more important to us than the skills that students take away, and we do a lot of it.
How has community arts education supported in healing and/or meeting the needs of your community?
We were really moved and touched around this time last year, because of culminating events. We do a showcase with the kids at each school at the end of a residency. It was the first time our school partners had opened up their building to families and their community, and we got to be an integral part of that homecoming. You could just see it in the room: parents there to cheer their kids on, and also super excited to see other parents and teachers and folks they haven't actually seen in person in two years.
We kept dancing with the kids online, hybrid, socially-distanced. We did every variation you can imagine to keep them moving, and to keep them connected to music and culture and each other. What we heard again and again from the kids is, “I feel better.” “I have more energy.” “I didn't want to be here when we started the class, but by the end of the class, I'm really energized.”
Dance is the most efficient and effective for student learning right now, because it does all three things: the mind-body-soul connection — it just hits all of those zones. Kids are creating these new neural pathways, and they're more ready to learn. They're more ready to deal with each other. They’re more able to reflect on how they're doing, how they're feeling, and I think we saw that across the board over the last three years.
Students at their Culminating Event (PS 175Q) dancing the merengue (March 2022). Photo courtesy of Dancing Classrooms.
What are some challenges that your organization is currently facing?
I think there's two: one is kind of a social challenge, and another is financial. I think the social one, which is bigger than us but that I hope we're in a place to help with, is gender inclusion. During the three years that I've been at Dancing Classrooms, we've been going on a journey in truly making our programs gender-inclusive, which is a big deal in a genre that is known to be very normative. We needed to dispel the idea that what we teach is how to be a lady and a gentleman. That's too limiting, and it's not inclusive. So we're really busting those myths through our programs: We walk into a classroom and we just go *points* “1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2.” Everybody dances with everybody in this class. That's always been a part of our program.
Before the pandemic, it was more common that schools would automatically put them in lines — who they thought were boys and who they thought were girls, calling them ladies and calling them gentlemen. We're not doing it that way. When we come to a school, we're really about teaching teamwork and this art form, and understanding the cultural significance of the dances. The kids are growing into compassionate and collaborative human beings.
With the kids it's working out beautifully, but it takes some uncomfortable conversations with the adults to get there sometimes. And we’re happy to have that, and just hope that through what we’re doing, we can introduce schools to the idea of gender inclusion in a way that’s less scary.
Financially, it’s like every arts organization, especially if you're working with schools, and your business model really relies on school budgets in New York City. I don't think we really know what's coming down the pike with the city budget next year, and the ebbs and flows of money that's available for the arts. This is a constant worry, a constant fear.
What do you love about the work you do, and the community you work in?
I really love the footprint that our organization is able to have on New York City. Over the last couple of years, we've created a TikTok account, and you can just see it bubble up there: People will post a video of kids dancing, and all these kids from around the city going, “I did that dance!” “Miss Mary! I remember her! I was in that program!” Even just meeting people day-to-day: I tell them I'm from Dancing Classrooms, and they're like, “My kid had Dancing Classrooms at their school!” Teaching artists tell me they bumped into kids they taught on the playground in their neighborhood. Our impact really is there, even if they're not dancers themselves.
Left: Student with a walking assistance device dancing with another student.
Right: Couple in dance frame in their school gym (PS 1M) during their fall residency.
Photos courtesy of Dancing Classrooms.
Do you have any highlights or stories regarding your work that you’d like to share?
This year, we were able to relaunch an after-school program for kids who really got into partner and social dance, so they can take it to the next level. There’s a student named H* who found out about it somewhere online. H is on the spectrum. He's in middle school and has a hard time making friends. He saw the program and asked his parents about it, and they showed him some videos from Mad Hot Ballroom, and he wanted to do it!
They took him to the first lesson and, immediately, it was the only thing he would talk about; every day he would ask whether there was another class, and if he could go back. His mom watched the lessons and couldn't believe that, by the third lesson, here was her son dancing with multiple people in the circle, making eye contact each time, and talking to them just spontaneously. She said she had never seen that before; he had never been able to just strike up a conversation. There was something in the space we created, and in the way we danced together that motivated him, and allowed him to feel safe enough to start making friends. There's nothing better than that.
Lastly, what does community arts education mean to you?
It’s art for the people! By the people! It's art that's not created to be sold or bought. It's inclusion. It’s a space of belonging.
*Name removed for privacy.
Student performance at Dancing Classrooms' annual fundraising gala MAD HOT BALL 2022 at Edison Ballroom (May 2022). Photo by Properpix Photos - Victor Nechay.
If you'd like to be featured as one of our future Guild Spotlights, then be sure to fill out our interest form! If you have any questions on how to do so, please reach out to email@example.com.
Published: March 29, 2023