David Schroettner has taken weekly ballroom dance classes throughout his high school career at Chesterton Academy of Milwaukee — and he says it’s taught him every bit as much as math, science and literature.
The best dancers, Schroettner has learned, are those who have mastered “communication, understanding, leadership and an overall trust in your partner” — in other words, the same skills required to succeed in any area of adult life.
“Many of our interactions with other people are based on these exact same values,” said the high school junior. “Not only is dancing a good party trick, literally, but it is also a gateway into so many other things.”
It may surprise people to hear that ballroom dance isn’t a hobby Schroettner has picked up in his spare time — in fact, it’s not even an extracurricular activity or an elective class. At Chesterton Academy, ballroom dance is a required class for all four years of a student’s high school career. Every Monday afternoon, freshmen through seniors report to the school cafeteria where ballroom dance instructor Joanna Maurer — an accountant by trade with a strong background in professional dance — takes them through their lessons, class by class.
“I think dancing is huge for social skills,” said Maurer. “You take a three-minute portion of your life and you spend it interacting with the opposite sex in a pretty safe environment.”
One of the critical skills the dance lessons help foster in the kids who attend the school in Menomonee Falls, Maurer said, is the lost art of small talk, which is becoming a thing of the past in today’s tech-rich social landscape.
“It’s a completely different ballgame seeing someone face-to-face and knowing how to not be awkward, how to make eye contact and smile, and know how to interact with a human being instead of a device,” she said.
Learning timeless dance-floor staples like the Virginia Reel, the waltz and the Lindy Hop is “tons of fun,” said Schroettner’s fellow junior, Mary Claire Egan.
“It provides a creative outlet, especially in the choreography projects, teaches common courtesy, gives a real love for learning, and encourages men and women to work together and trust each other,” she said.
In addition to dance, all Chesterton students take four years of choir, four years of art, one year of rhetoric and three years of drama.
“We think that the arts are a prime example of the ‘incarnational environment’ we seek to foster here,” said headmaster Dr. Eric DeMeuse. “In the fine arts, the spoken word takes on flesh on the art canvas or the theater stage, and students are introduced to a beauty which transforms them into saints and leaders.”
Students do not need to show a particular talent or inclination for the arts in order to succeed, he said.
“Just as anyone can do mathematics, we think that anyone can sing, paint, dance or act. The problem in most cases is that students have not been given the necessary foundational skills to flourish,” said DeMeuse.
“Most of my current class had never danced before in any organized manner, and yet within just a few classes, they were finding themselves to be naturals,” said Schroettner. “This, of course, boosted their overall morale and esteem, which is ever so important when entering high school.”
The program also results in school dances that are less chaotic than typical high school events, enabling students to socialize more easily and actually make lasting connections.
“Dances actually have a structure to them, not just jumping around to music,” said Egan. “People can really get to know each other while dancing, and it strengthens the bond of all the students.”
“My classmates and I have spent countless hours together dancing, and because of this, we naturally begin talking,” said Schroettner. “This cultivates positive relationships, which lead to an even closer bond within our class, and this all happened because we were forced to go up to a girl and ask her if she would like to dance.”
Along with learning the steps and choreography of the dances, DeMeuse said the classes also instruct students in proper dance etiquette and “rightly ordered relationships between men and women.”
“The men learn that they have to overcome their fears and actually ask a young lady to dance, and the ladies have to learn how to accept or how to refuse graciously,” he said.
“We focus on making sure that the guys are gentlemanly and learn how to treat a girl with respect, and also on the girls’ part, be respectful if someone asks you to dance,” said Maurer.
These skills naturally enrich the students’ current social experience in high school, but they are also assets in achieving post-graduation goals as well, said DeMeuse, quoting Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who once said manners are “the shadows of the virtues.”
“We think manners and social etiquette are essential for a culture to flourish and for healthy public discourse, and ballroom dance is one of the most informative and incarnational ways to teach them,” DeMeuse said.
An added bonus? “Additionally, it helps to teach the freshman boys a little rhythm,” he quipped.
N74 W13646 Appleton Ave., Menomonee Falls
Headmaster: Eric DeMeuse
Admissions: Abigail Hagerman (262-788-8400)
Open House: Oct. 22, 1 to 2:30 p.m.