There was no hint of social distancing, no hesitation to get in close once the polka came on.
Fifth graders at P.S. 48 in Washington Heights faced each other in two tight circles at the center of the gym, some wearing masks and others without. The upbeat pom-pom-pom music came through a small but powerful wireless speaker. Suddenly students were slapping hands and linking arms, swirling in circles to land in front of a new partner – and then did it all over again.
For two years, the COVID pandemic meant that the nonprofit Dancing Classrooms, which offers lessons at schools across New York City, had to figure out how to teach students how to waltz, swing, and rumba without touching their partners or even coming within three feet of one another. But about a month after the mandate to wear masks in schools ended in March, also marking the end of social distancing requirements, the nonprofit decided it was time for students to once again take each other by the hand.
At some schools, coming face-to-face for a fast-moving merengue or dramatic tango is still too close for comfort. A handful of the 150 campuses that Dancing Classrooms works with have decided to keep social distancing in place. But at most, including P.S. 48 in Washington Heights, students have eased back into making contact with their dance partners.
“Being separated is sort of the antithesis of being human. I think that contact, whatever kind of contact — physical, making connections with people — is part of human nature,” said Felix Pitre, the Dancing Classrooms instructor working with P.S. 48 students. “So I think it’s been unnatural for a lot of kids, and they can’t wait to get back to doing things the way they’re used to.”
Pre-pandemic, instructors like Pitre might spend weeks coaxing students to confidently, respectfully dance in pairs. COVID brought a new challenge: keeping students apart but still connected through dance.
The approach evolved along with the shifts in public health guidance. Shortly after school buildings shut down in March 2020, the organization offered asynchronous videos for students to watch on their own, and then live Zoom classes. Some socially distanced instruction began in spring of 2021, but students didn’t link arms to stride into dance class together, as they normally did. Instead, some pairs gripped the ends of a scarf or a jump rope — just something to let them feel the tension of their partner on the other side. When social distancing guidelines relaxed through the beginning of this school year, students began mirroring each other’s moves while standing three feet apart.
The first day of April marked the end of social distancing for the program. Pitre said any hesitance he sees from students is not so much from COVID fears, but rather the same kinds of barriers that made it hard, pre-pandemic, to get 10-year-olds to partner up.
Sometimes students have to dance with a classmate who has hurt their feelings, or their partner might be someone different from them. P.S. 48 integrates students into general education classrooms from a program run by District 75, which caters to students with severe disabilities. The school’s dance teams have included students in wheelchairs and on crutches.
Johan Almonte, 11, admitted that dancing with his classmates took some getting used to.
“I felt kind of weird at first because I knew a lot of people in my class, but I didn’t know them that well. We didn’t have a strong bond yet,” he said. “I feel like we have a stronger bond because now I know they’re fun to be around with, and I feel more comfortable touching them, because I’m used to them.”
Kamila Peña, 11, said she also had to ease into getting so close to her classmates.
“At first I thought it was weird because we were going to be holding hands and stuff,” she said. “Once we got more into it, I got more used to it.”
Dancing Classrooms works with classes in residencies that last for about 20 sessions over 10 weeks. Pitre has been meeting with the fifth-graders at P.S. 48 for seven weeks, twice a week. Now they fall into position, or “dance frame,” with each other quickly.
If Pitre calls for pancake hands, students lay flat palms one on top of the other. There are reminders to make “elbow sandwiches” – smashing together upright forearms like two pieces of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, connecting right down to the elbow. A “chicken wing” calls for a stiff arm around your partner, bringing them eye-to-eye.
Students are constantly switching partners so everyone eventually teams up at some point in the class. As the organization has moved towards more inclusive programming, students are randomly assigned roles, including pairs that are sometimes made of the same genders.
In one class, students seemed to be avoiding partnering with one particular student. Another girl kept her hands floating in the air rather than touching her teammate. Pitre stopped the students to ask what their favorite sport was. They called out, “Baseball!” “Soccer!” “Volleyball!”
“Can you play these sports if you’re afraid of the ball?” he asked.
“You have to take a leap of faith sometimes. You have to be able to be like, this is how this sport is played. It doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid of it, but I encourage you, when we get into a dance frame, to get into a proper dance frame,” Pitre said. “I know it might be weird and uncomfortable sometimes, but I encourage you to practice.”
Soon, the class was all dancing a swing, holding hands to spin in a circle around their partner, bouncing on their toes.
While students are once again moving together across gym floors and auditorium stages, programming for Dancing Classrooms — which catapulted into the spotlight in the 2005 documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” — is not fully back to normal. The citywide competition that usually caps the year still hasn’t been brought back, a disappointment for P.S. 48, whose students have made it to the last round of competition for 13 years.
Schools will, however, put on a performance for parents. For many campuses, it will be the first in-person event schools host in the pandemic era, just another way the program’s leaders see themselves bringing people close together again.
Yolanda Pepin, the physical education teacher at P.S. 48 and the school’s the liaison to Dancing Classrooms, said it will be an emotional reunion.
“It’s always, like, ‘Oh my gosh. Look at these kids.’ They just excel that day,” Pepin said. “And I always cry.”
Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at email@example.com.