The day after Hurricane Irma walloped the U.S. Virgin Islands in early September, some students in St. Thomas found solace in the merengue, employing school lessons in dance and grace — and in this case, grace under pressure.
The islands were stripped of their postcard-perfect vegetation; homes and schools were destroyed; lives were lost. Two weeks later, a second Category 5 storm hit.
A Carolina alumna witnessed the devastation — and the residents’ resilience — firsthand. She also is helping those around her recover.
Katie Zaytoun ’03 is executive director of Dancing Classrooms Virgin Islands, an outpost of an international nonprofit that uses ballroom dancing to develop students’ life skills and bolster self-esteem.
“There are people who lost everything and children suffering from PTSD,” Zaytoun said. “The most important thing for them, for all of us, was to get back to the things that made life here normal.”
Dance is an integral aspect of Caribbean culture, and in 2011 the former schoolteacher convinced fellow educators to launch Dancing Classrooms for fifth- and eighth-graders. More than 1,000 students took part the year before the hurricanes.
Teachers, parents and others helped Zaytoun start anew in January. As before, participants master more than the cha-cha. They learn to look their peers in the eye, strike a respectful posture balancing hands on waists and shoulders, and work together to achieve goals they never could alone.
Zaytoun notices a transformation in the students, many raised in poverty. “You see a different confidence and maturity in the children who have had the program,” she said. “Ballroom dance is a tool to foster those things.”
A Raleigh native and former UNC cheerleader, Zaytoun was introduced to formal dancing in her hometown cotillion. Classes leading up to the big dance strove to polish youngsters into ladies and gentlemen. While cotillion typically attracts the offspring of relatively well-to-do families, Dancing Classrooms aims to inspire similar confidence in students who start with far less.
As a teacher, Zaytoun saw many students with academic and emotional needs not addressed by the islands’ under-resourced public school system. She found inspiration in a 2005 documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, showcasing Dancing Classrooms students from New York who excelled. “The end goal is not Dancing with the Stars,” Zaytoun said. “It’s about joyful accomplishment, standing taller and treating one another with kindness.”
Nearly 15 years after coming to the islands — for what was to be a break after graduating with a degree in child development and family studies — she is exploring more ways to help students and families.
“I want to be impactful in other areas, including literacy and early childhood education,” said Zaytoun, who is working on her master’s in public administration and a plan to sustain Dancing Classrooms whenever she moves on. “I want to take the skills I gained at UNC, and the gifts I’ve received through this program, to do more to help my community.”
— Jill Warren Lucas
More online: Watch a video of students dancing the merengue “Dancing Classrooms style” the day after Hurricane Irma devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands in September 2017.