Students at Dancing Classrooms NEO learn to respect, embrace differences

Jo Jo Carcioppolo loves to dance. As the founding executive director at Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio, she gets to help kids in grades five through eight learn all about ballroom dancing. But dancing is only a small part of what she aims to teach her students.

“We always say our program is not about the dance,” Carcioppolo says. “I believe that to my core and I repeat it all the time, as does everybody on our team. At the end of the day, I’m not interested in how well they dance the merengue, the foxtrot or the tango. Dancing is a tool to teach people to be respectful to one another. Above and beyond that, it teaches them to stretch outside their comfort zone and it builds self-confidence.”

Prior to launching Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio, Carcioppolo worked as a teaching artist in New York with Pierre Dulaine, founder of Dancing Classrooms in the Big Apple, while pursuing her dream of a career in musical theater.

“I trained and began teaching in schools throughout New York City,” she says. “I was still auditioning. But I would find myself in what they call cattle call auditions with 100 other girls who look like me in a different leotard auditioning to do ‘Singing in the Rain’ in the middle of nowhere for $100 a week. I wasn’t fulfilled in the same way I was when I was doing Dancing Classrooms.”

Carcioppolo approached Dulaine about her desire to take his program and expand it to Ohio. She left the idea of a career in musical theater, and New York, behind. By September 2008, she was open for business.

Life lessons
Carcioppolo faced a number of challenges getting Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio off the ground. She was still in New York, trying to launch a new organization nearly 500 miles away in Ohio while the global economy was spiraling downward into what would become known as the Great Recession.

“Here I am saying, ‘Let’s start a new nonprofit,’ when there are nothing but cutbacks everywhere,” she says. “But through my experience teaching and seeing the transformation of the students in the program, I believed in it and knew what it was capable of doing.”

Dancing Classrooms is an arts-in-education program that provides an in-school residency for every child, regardless of background or experience.

“The program is implemented during the school day as part of the required academic curriculum,” she says. “It’s not an optional or elective program, so a principal brings the program into the school for fifth-grade students. If you child is a fifth-grader in that school, he or she is receiving dance class just like they would take language arts or social studies. The classroom teacher is an active part of the residency.”

Carcioppolo had to start a nonprofit organization, create a board of directors and get contracts with Northeast Ohio schools. It proved to be a significant undertaking, but she found a way to make it happen.

“That first year, we served 24 classrooms throughout the area,” she says. “Our second school year, we doubled it and served 48 classrooms. In the year we just finished, we served 103 classrooms. To think that now, we’re going into our 10th year and I get to wake up and do this, it’s very rewarding.”

The dance classes are structured so that students never have a permanent partner.

“Every 30 seconds to a minute, they have to say, ‘Thank you, partner. Hello, new partner,’” Carcioppolo says. “The idea is they might be able to tolerate or get along well with the person they are in front of at the moment. But in five minutes, they might be connected to someone else who they don’t get along with well. The life lesson is regardless of your differences, you have to be respectful to one another.”

Believers wanted
Carcioppolo has succeeded through her strong will and determination, along with her ability to admit when she needs help.

“I grew up with the organization in many ways,” she says. “If nine years ago I were to walk into our organization as it is present day, I would have been pretty lost. But because it was literally starting from scratch, I learned as I went.”

As she assembled her board of directors in Ohio from New York, she looked for people who had experience that she lacked. But the distance proved to be a challenge.

“They believed in the mission and believed in what it was we were trying to do,” she says. “Especially when you’re starting from the ground floor, you don’t have anything to show them. I was miles away in another state saying, ‘This program does this and this and this.’ I couldn’t say, ‘Come join me at this school and see it for yourself.’ You have to find people who really get it and believe in you and your mission.”

Looking to the future, Carcioppolo says Dancing Classrooms is always establishing new goals to continue growing.

“Our goal is to reach as many children or schools as we possibly can,” she says. “We also want to help schools improve their family and community engagement. And we’re always clarifying that it’s not about the dance. The minute somebody sees and experiences it, they fully understand it’s experiential.”

How to reach: Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio, (440) 230-5170 or dancingclassroomsneo.org