HINGHAM — It’s a rainy afternoon after school, and fifth-graders pack a conference room at Glastonbury Abbey for their social dance class. The boys, all in navy blazers and khakis, tug at their ties, and the girls, in white gloves, hike up their tights under their taffeta and silk dresses. One girl runs across the room, so excited to see her friends she doesn’t realize her dress isn’t zipped up all the way. A mother quickly remedies the situation.
Chairs line the walls, leaving the middle of the room empty for dancing. The boys settle on one side, the girls on the other, and they all fidget and chat while they wait for class to begin. One brave boy breaks out from the crowd and starts dancing, and everyone giggles and hoots until a teacher herds him back to his seat.
Then the class begins.
The children are here to learn social dance and etiquette. The eight-week class, run by Boston Assemblies, teaches children social skills — such as introducing yourself in a receiving line, how to escort a date, and how to make and receive a compliment.
Susan Cole and Douglas Trudeau teach the class in communities throughout Massachusetts including Brookline, Wellesley, and Weston and have been running it for three years now at Glastonbury Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that also serves the region as a center for educational, cultural, and social programs and spiritual outreach. The program, which costs $190, is advertised through the local elementary schools. For youngsters from Cohasset and Hingham, the class takes place in the late fall and early winter so as not to conflict with soccer and football.
Today’s is the second in the eight-week double-session. The first session is for Hingham students, and later in the evening, students from Cohasset. Although it sounds like the last place a fifth-grader would want to be after school, 140 children are enrolled and the majority of them seem genuinely excited to be there.
Cole, who has been working with Boston Assemblies for 25 years, boasts that she, Trudeau, and a third dance instructor, Lisa French, “convert the most reluctant participants.” She admits that the white gloves and fox trot and waltz instruction can seem anachronistic, but says throughout the class that the children are picking up subtle social skills that will help create confidence as they grow older.
“They’re learning good solid social skills that will give them a competitive edge in a competitive world,” she says. “The niceties are embedded in the dance instruction. Dancing is the fun vehicle by which they learn.”
Dr. Claire McCarthy, a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, says that a social etiquette class can definitely be helpful, but that parents need to be careful about adding to an already overbooked schedule.
“A good knowledge of manners is absolutely important for making their way in the world,” she says. “But for an overscheduled kid, this is one more thing they have to do and something they have to do well at.”
Becky Hlidek, whose son, Gordon, attends the class, says he enjoys it, despite some initial reluctance. “When the kids come, they have a good time,” she says. She also likes that the class is a chance for children to dress up and wear clothes they wouldn’t normally wear. Before class, she saw her son watching a YouTube video about tying a necktie.
To begin this evening’s class, the boys approach the girl closest to them and extend their arms to escort their “date” to the receiving lines that form in the middle of the room.
Cole then runs the children through the etiquette of a receiving line — a firm handshake, eye contact, and a confident introduction. “A firm handshake shows that you have confidence,” says Cole to the twittering crowd.
Once the receiving line is finished, Trudeau takes over and reviews the fox trot steps that the class learned last week by dancing the steps on their own. This week, he announces, the children will do the fox trot with a partner. A collective groan and nervous giggles rise from the group.
“I promise, they won’t bite,” says Trudeau, as the boys and girls tentatively take the ballroom dance position.
Trudeau guides them through the steps without music, “Step, touch, side, together.” After a couple of minutes, he turns on an iPod and Michael Jackson’s classic “Billie Jean” is pumping through the room.
“Who knew we could dance to Michael Jackson like this?” Trudeau yells as the children nervously look at their feet and occasionally at their dance partner.
The class has more girls than boys, so after a couple of minutes, Trudeau instructs the boys and girls to thank each other for the dance, and the boys move to the next girl in line, so everyone has a chance to dance with a partner.
Trudeau’s day job is as director of fine arts in the Waltham public schools, and his education background is evident as he easily engages the children with exaggerated and silly demonstrations of how not to dance.
“The biggest mistake in ballroom dancing is big steps,” he says, taking larger-than-life dance steps while the kids laugh. “Make small steps!” says Trudeau.
He then announces the boys will pick their dance partners for the next dance. Again, the children groan and nervously glance around. Trudeau tells the girls to be polite and accept a boy’s arm when he approaches her. And, “this is an equal opportunity class, so next week the girls will choose their partners,” he says.
Surprisingly, the youngsters pair up quickly and relatively painlessly. Trudeau teaches them a disco line dance. After everyone has the steps down, he turns on “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, and everyone is enthusiastically dancing.
“This breaks the tension after they had to pick their partners,” says Amy Bryant, cochairwoman of the class and a parent. Her daughter, Kendall, who is in the class, says she looks forward to it because she likes “seeing her friends dressed up.”
Courtney Sherwood, 10, agrees but declares she “doesn’t like having to dance with boys.”
Michael McPhail, 11, has a different view.
“Asking the girls to dance was fun.”
Visit www.boston.com/hingham to see more photos from a Boston Assemblies dance class.