Pierre Dulaine... Dancing Classrooms Dances Into The Movies

In 1994 Pierre Dulaine began volunteering his time in the New York City Public Schools, teaching ballroom dance to the students. His pioneer program, Dancing Classrooms, has grown immensely sine then. Pierre's endeavors have spawned two films, as well as

Date added to ADN: Sunday, Jan 01 2006
Originally Published: Sunday, Jan 01 2006
By Christine Zona

In 1994 Pierre Dulaine began volunteering his time in the New York City Public Schools, teaching ballroom dance to the students. His pioneer program, Dancing Classrooms, has grown immensely sine then. Pierre’s endeavors have spawned two films, as well as countless written articles and television clips, which chronicle his journey with the children. Last year, the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, was a huge success all over the country. And Take The Lead, starring Antonio Banderas as Pierre, will be released this spring. Both films follow the children through the ups and downs of dancing and how it has affected their lives. Pierre’s love for the children and the Dancing Classrooms program shows in every thing he does. He has opened a whole new world for these inner city kids and is truly an ambassador for ballroom dancing and children.

When were you approached about the movie, Take The Lead?

I signed the contract in 2001 but it had been a long, long time in the process. I first signed with MGM and then it was taken over by New Line Cinema. New Line Cinema found a screenwriter, Dianne Houston, to write the story. It’s not about my dancing life. It’s about the first time I went into a public school in New York and took dancing to the kids. Everything else is made up from there.

Is it a true story of what happened?

It’s inspired by the Pierre Dulaine story. And my story is that I went into a New York City public school and started teaching the children ballroom dancing with the civility and etiquette that goes along with it. That’s really what it’s all about.

Did you have any input in what was written?

I did not tell the scriptwriter, Dianne Houston, what to say or what not to say. She followed me for ten days in New York City going to the various schools and then wrote the story. And of course there have been many rewrites since, with the director, etc., but I know the script very well, it’s a pleasant script. It’s not based entirely on what we do. My program in the New York City public schools is called Dancing Classrooms and is based on children about 10 years old—4th and 5th graders. The movie is based on high school students, 17 years old --11th and 12th graders. They wanted to have some other side stories… sex, drugs, violence, that are challenging situations for the children coming from the neighborhoods. They wanted to portray the typical life of a young teenager. So that’s what it was changed to.

How did the movie studio find out about you?

In 2000 the CBS Sunday morning news program with Charles Osgood did a piece on our program. Bill Geist is the reporter who covered our story. He came and taped one of the schools, PS 11, and then followed them through to the dance competition. It was a seven minute segment that became like a mini-documentary of us. Diane Nabatof, a movie producer, happened to see it that morning. She heard my name and eventually got through to me. We met and I signed a contract with her, giving her the right to sell my story to Hollywood, and also for stage and TV rights. So she sold the story.

Why did you decide to actually sign with her? Was it hard to sign it over?

No, not at all. I gave her exclusive rights. She said, “I think there’s a movie here. Will you give me permission to represent you?” So I said, “Fine, by all means!” We had a contract for a year.

What did you think when she approached you? Was it a surprise?

It was a surprise. I knew it was a wonderful program, and it was like a time bomb waiting to go off. She was one of the first people to see it. Then nothing happened. I re-signed with her again the following year, because she had been getting some bites. Then MGM dropped it and New Line Cinema picked it up and that’s where we are now. It takes time, that’s for sure.

And you were involved with the shooting of the movie.

I was, yes. They filmed it in Toronto, even though they built things as a New York scene. I went there for the month of April as a consultant and teaching choreographer to work with the entire cast, I taught them... these 18, 19, 20 year old men and women who are supposedly my students... or Antonio’s students in the movie The shooting started at the very end of April and went into May and June. And of course I had to have a cameo role! I have my own dancing academy in the script, as well as go to the schools. There is a competition and I play the lead judge. So that’s my cameo. How much of that is cut, I don’t know, because I haven’t seen the movie.

When will it be released?

April 7 I’m told, but I don’t know for sure.

So it’s not completely cut and finished. Will you see the finished product?

It is cut. It’s finished. What they call the director’s cut. They had two test screenings to decide on the advertising budget, which is the norm for a Hollywood movie. They show the director’s cut, which is not the final cut. They test it out, the average score would be 55% with Hispanics and African Americans, and they got a score of 82%. Then they tested it with only white, upper class people and they got an 87%. So they are really happy because it has played very well in the test screenings. Now they have to re-shoot a couple of incidental things to make the final cut. But they believe it will be finished and ready to go out on April 7.

Was this the first time you were ever involved in a movie?

Such a feature movie, yes.

Was it an interesting experience?

It’s interesting. It’s a very slow process. We worked 14, 15 hour days, ten hours just waiting. It’s a lot of wait, wait, wait, then rush, rush, rush, take, take. They would do every scene from this side, then the other side. What takes the time is not the actual filming of the scene, as much as arranging the lights and the people. There were 400 extras sitting at a ballroom competition and they had to move them from one side of the room to the other side of the room.

What was Antonio Banderas like? Did you enjoy the time you spent with him?

Very, very much. I’m so thrilled that Antonio said yes to play myself. I was so glad he was a European and Spanish because Spanish people have so much emotion… they come with emotion; they speak with their hands. And he is so full of emotion. I’m that kind of person. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and he does too. So we got on very, very well. I believe he liked me. I love this man and he’s a wonderful human being. His wife is Melanie Griffith, another wonderful lady. When I found out he was going to do it, I managed to find a photograph of Antonio and his eight year old daughter, Stella. There was a photograph of them at a baseball or football game, and he was hugging her. The way he was hugging her, and the emotion on his face… the love he has for kids, can be compared to my love for kids. And because of that, I’m so, so thrilled he was chosen to play me.

So you like the way he portrayed you?

I’ve seen some rushes, some dailies and there were a couple of scenes that I just cried. Some are very touching.

How did the movie Mad Hot Ballroom come about?

That came about because Amy Sewell was asked to write a piece on our program, for the Tribeca Tribune. She followed the school very closely, came to the competition and fell in love with it. She approached us and said that she would like to do a documentary .But we already had the other movie coming out. To cut a long story short, we did a documentary.

You didn’t want to do it at first? Because of the movie?

It was two different things. I’d already signed with New Line and so I couldn’t be featured in Mad Hot Ballroom. There’s no mention of me in Mad Hot Ballroom because of legal rights.

Did you have much to do with Mad Hot Ballroom?

All of it, it was our program, but Dancing Classrooms was not mentioned. We helped them with the music, the teachers, the schools. We opened up the school doors for them… got permission for them to go into the schools. It was through us that they were able to do it. There was a lot more work that they did and I don’t understand all of that, but we made it possible for them to go through the doors.

Has all this exposure helped your program to grow?

Yes. In ‘94 we had two schools, and in 2005-06 we have 115 schools, so you can see the growth we’ve done in 12 years. When the movie came out we had about 50 schools, then last year we were in 68 schools and now we’re 115 schools. And the program is being piloted, it has been licensed to Chicago, Omaha, Lexington, Newark. We’re talking to people in many other cities too.

What will you have to do with the other cities?

They will pay us a royalty on the number of classes they do, and they pay me a fee to go and teach their teachers. I do not work with individual dance teachers. I work with the actual Board of Education of the City. American Ballroom Theater does not want to be financially responsible for a hub in each city. The Board of Education has to want to do it, an individual has to be in charge of getting teachers for them, and then we will tell them how much it will cost. It’s expensive for me to go there, I’m not cheap! I go and train the teachers, etc. But the program is really incredible. It really, really works. And we show them how to do it, and also how to do the Colors Of The Rainbow Team Match. It’s not a franchise, but it becomes similar to that. It’s a licensing situation. The organizer pays American Ballroom an annual royalty after the first royalty, and then they pay me directly for my training. I come out for four days and train the teachers, and it would be videotaped. Then they are on their own. They can continue with whatever they want to do, but would be part of our extended family.

Do you check up on them too?

Yes. And that would be on a consultation basis.

When you first started this back in ‘94, did you ever think that it would grow to this extent?

No. I did not think... I love doing it. It’s my passion. Children are my passion. When you retire from competing you move onto something else. The teachers for our kids’ program have to go through a 60 hour teacher’s training course with me. They do five weeks, three days a week, four hours a day. 60 hours before I let them go to go into a school. And they have to go and witness my other teachers at a school. There’s a way of teaching a teacher to teach children. I figured that out. That’s what’s unique about what I have... and I’ve got it all down on paper.

How did you figure it out?

Just by doing it, by having passion for it. That’s what people are paying my big fees for. When there are 30 kids in the classroom that don’t necessarily want to be there, and at 10 years old they usually don’t want to dance with each other. They might want to subconsciously, but they’re not going to admit it. They have a 10 second attention span. You’ve got to know how to get them. I found a way to do it. And I found a way of teaching other people to do it, so that it can expand. That’s what I’m really thrilled about.

Have you always been interested in children?

Yes and no. Yes in a way that you come to a stage in your life, where you want to give back to society. The reason I started Dancing Classrooms is because I was shy as a kid and dancing brought out so much in me. I found myself having extra time in 1992 when I was in the show, Grand Hotel. I volunteered at a school and we’ve taken it from there.

So you went into the school yourself and just volunteered to teach the children?

Yes. Nobody paid me. It’s incredible how doing something for nothing can result in this! That alone is a great thing for people to know.

Where does the money come from for the Dancing Classrooms program?

We are a not-for-profit 501c3 organization. The schools pay us 40% to 50% of our costs. We fund raise the other part ourselves. It costs us money to pay our teachers, the overhead, the training and everything else.

Is it complicated working with all the rules of a non profit organization?

Well, I have people working for me, I have an office. At the beginning I did everything. I still do a lot, but now I delegate and let other people do things. The next thing for me is to get assistants and associates for me to continue my work. I believe this program is much bigger than myself, and you, and everybody put together. What we do for the children is unbelievable.

You started dancing in England as a child?

When I was 14, in Birmingham.

Do you teach the children the way you were taught or did you change it completely?

My very first dancing teacher was the pits! She was so bad. And I was not good at all, but she was so, so, so bad. I’ll never, ever forget her. How disrespectful she was to me. I was a foreigner and I couldn’t hear the “One, two, three,” she was shouting it down my throat. It didn’t help. I didn’t hear anything. But the owner of the school was a nice woman, so I stuck with it because of her.

When you first started this, did the children take to it as well as they do now?

Yes! Of course! But the incredible thing about the program is that I write down everything and then I’m able to teach it to the teachers so they can teach the children. That for me is a much more important thing. I know I can go out and do it... I can teach a horse to dance! We went from 34 teachers last school year to 45 teachers this year. So that’s a big jump of teachers to handle all of our schools.

Do you find that all of the teachers who go through the training class can do it, or are there some that just don’t get it?

We have auditions. I had 28 people come to me for the first six days of training this session, and I promised them after two weeks I would say, “Thank you” or “No thank you,” which I did, and now I have 17 new teachers. You can’t really tell the first time.

What characteristics do they have to have?

My best teachers are non-ballroom dancers. Our best teachers are former or still ballet-jazz dancers, actors, theater people, who are used to performing. And you have to be a performer to be in the middle of a classroom. I don’t need experts. I need fun people! Fun! That’s what we teach our teachers to teach… to teach correctly but in a wonderful way, a fun way, a respectful way. And the best teachers are actors.

The way you teach is completely different than a lot of the other competitive teachers teach.

A teacher’s job is to be a guide to the student, no matter what you’re teaching. I was taught a long time ago, to try and leave the word “I” out of the sentence, as you’re discussing things with people. Teaching means guiding them on what they can do as a student, not how “I” used to do it, when “I” did this and “I” did that.

Teaching people is taking them on a journey of learning… empowering them with the power of knowing something on their journey, rather than “put the elbow here, bend it, put the arm up here,” without giving them the reason why or how to get it so that they can go and practice it for themselves rather than just copy. The students end up copying the championship coach, rather than learning how to get to it themselves. One of the biggest reasons that I never stuck just to the competition world of ballroom dancing during my own dancing career, was because I never agreed with the teaching of it. The teachers did not come from a place of knowledge, of how to get there... they were very good; I’m not degrading what they’ve done. I am not being an enemy to them at all. What they achieved, they achieved with very hard work, a lot of blood and sweat. But from my point of view, it is better for a person to learn how to get there from the ultimate educated point of view rather than a bandaged point of view.

I see on your calendar you teach an adult advanced class. Is that what you try to teach them?

No. This is social dancing. I give them fun. I accept whatever they give me in a wonderful way, correct them in a wonderful way and they have fun in a wonderful way. I’m not into turning people into champions. A few couples used to come to me... wonderful couples as they were. They came for adagio work, and they would book an hour. Just one hour to learn a lift or two because they had a show next week. How can you give them forty years of experience in an hour? Or they tell you they’ll call and they never call again. I’m not interested in people like that, who want a quick fix. But I don’t blame their thinking because that’s how they’ve been taught to think. Have an hour with this judge, have an hour with that judge, and get a mark here, get a mark there. I don’t do that. I only had one teacher in my life in England and one teacher here.

Who were your teachers?

In England it was John Del-Roy. And in this country, my adagio teacher was John Roudis. I’ve had a few other teachers here and there, from the world of ballroom. I’ve worked with Sonny Binnick and Bill Irvine and a few others when I was trying to do a bit of ballroom

What has been most rewarding for you in your school program?

Something that I take pride in is that you see so much color on the ballroom floor when I bring my kids to a competition. America is a country with many, many nationalities, and somehow only the white people ballroom dance. 99.9% are white people. I don’t think the ballroom world does that on purpose, but it’s such a money-hungry situation when it comes to the competitions that it shuts out many, many people. If there’s anybody out there listening, we’ve really got to open up doors and find ways of getting another audience that is more typical of the American look. I’m just so proud that we have a complete mixture… Asian. Hispanic. Black and White kids. And they are so well behaved, unlike others that go to the competitions and are so arrogant. When I take my kids to the various comps in the area, the judges are so surprised because they are so elegant. Our kids are not dressed obnoxiously, but as 10-11 year old kids. The dancing is unbelievably good because it’s not competition style; it’s actually from the heart. That is what’s missing in the competition ballroom world, as wonderful as it is, it is not natural. And it cannot open doors to other people. It’s plastic. It’s artificial. I’m really not saying anything against it. The people are wonderful, but it doesn’t open itself to the outside world enough. There are a lot of TV programs right now. Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and Bootcamp, but it’s all the same situation… costumes and Vegas. It can only appeal to a certain number of people. But the way our kids dance is so appealing. I’m not saying I am better and the others are bad, I’m just showing a reality… a realistic comparison of why something becomes popular or a hit and why something else doesn’t. And god knows, the ballroom world has been trying to get a hit, but it has not worked. I hope very much that Take The Lead will bring in the young people. I’m glad the movie has been set on teenagers, 18 year old kids. I hope it will encourage the African American people and the Hispanic people to come into the dancing schools. And if that happens, I hope that the dancing schools around the country and around the world will open their doors at a discounted price to allow these people to come in.

Do the different students’ nationalities react differently to you, or are they about the same as kids?

You are the ringleader; they’re going to follow you. Many of the kids come from challenging homes. They might not have a father that they know. Maybe he’s in prison, maybe he’s away. So it doesn’t matter what color they are from that point of view. But giving them ballroom dancing gives them another look at life, and they can use their imagination. They are in a ballroom, maybe a prince or a princess. It’s pretend. You go with their fantasy; you take them on a journey. Then once you’ve taken them on a journey, you’ve set it up; you can get anything out of them.

Originally published in DanceNotes on Jan/Feb 2006 by Christine Zona

About the Author:

A health major in college, Christine Zona has always been interested in physical, emotional and mental wellness. She is currently working on combining her dance expertise and healthy lifestyle knowledge to give dancers a lifestyle program that will increase their energy, enhance their performance and reshape their bodies.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the AccessDance Network. Be aware that imagery is copyrighted and often licensed for use on AccessDance only. Copying of images is strictly prohibited.

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