Forget afterschool sports, forget piano lessons, forget karate and fencing. The hottest extracurricular class for Wilton’s pre-teen fifth graders is ballroom dance.
A staple in town since it was first offered 56 years ago, the Walter Schalk School of Dance Ballroom Cotillion class has long been a popular weekly activity for 9-to-11-year-olds. Walter Schalk, who owns his namesake school, says the mix of dance lessons and etiquette instruction is a sure-fire bet for parents who want to give their kids an advantage in life.
“The father of a [former] student told me his son came to him and said, ‘Dad, you sent me to the best high school, you sent me to private school, you sent me to college. But the best thing you ever did is send me to Walter Schalk’s ballroom,’” Schalk proudly recounted, adding, “Just the other day, I was sitting in a restaurant in New Canaan, and the gentleman next to me said, ‘The money I spent sending my kids to your program was nothing compared to what they got out of it. My son is now at Oxford, and out of thousands of students, he was the only one who could dance.’”
The class seems to be a rite of passage for Wilton children. One bit of advice passed down from Wilton moms with older kids to those with younger ones: When your children are in fifth grade, you must sign them up for Walter Schalk’s Ballroom class.
“That’s what people have been saying—this is the 56th year we’ve been offering this, and that’s been said quite often,” agreed Schalk. “I’ve taught three generations of the same family. Children, children’s children, and children’s children’s children.”
Indeed, the class does have quite a following. Interestingly, parents of boys are often the most avid promoters of the class, urging their friends with younger boys to make sure their children enroll in the class. This year, there are currently more boys than girls enrolled—although Schalk was confident the numbers will even up by the first class on Oct. 16, and he encouraged parents of girls, especially, who want to consider enrolling to get in touch with him. As of press time, there are 46 boys and 38 girls registered to participate in the class.
Schalk knows that most of the kids, especially the boys, are initially reticent to take the class.
“We start the class off, they sit boy-girl-boy-girl around the room. When they get up to dance with a partner, I’ll just say, ‘Boys, dance with the girl to your left!’ They get up, the first couple times, they don’t even want to touch, and their hands are very far apart. But I have a few games I play. One of them is after a week or two, the music stops and they have to get another partner before it starts again or their out of the game. Now, there’s no problem for a boy to grab a girl or a girl to grab a boy and get back in dance position. That breaks the ice.”
Central to the class is a core principal of teaching manners. “We teach them how to walk their partners back, how to say, ‘Good evening, my name is…, may I introduce you to…’ for a receiving line. We talk about looking people in the eye. I say, ‘You better know who your partner is, because if you don’t know her name when I ask you, then you’re out,’” Schalk explained.
There’s another trick he holds up his sleeve to keep the kids on their toes and engaged in the class. Sometimes he rewards a right answer or good dancing with a dollar bill. Bribery? Perhaps, but “whether that’s good or bad, you have to have a way to get them to do it.”
There is a formality, especially when it comes to attire and behavior in the class. Boys wear jackets and ties and dress shoes, while the girls wear dresses and skirts—and white gloves. “We don’t make the boys wear white gloves anymore, and there’s no curtsy. That’s gone out of style now. But everything else we do I consider important to a guy and a girl, no matter where they are.
But by the end of the year, Schalk promised, the kids will really know how to dance. “You’ll be amazed. They’ll know how to do seven or eight dances. We start off with a cha-cha, because that’s more exciting. Then we move to the waltz, and then they do western line dances, and more rock-contemporary line dances, to keep them up with the music of today. Then there’s a lot of jitterbug and swing, the rumba.
For kids who really enjoy the program—or whose parents really want them to stay in the program, they are able to enroll in a second year when they’re in sixth grade. Sadly, said Schalk, the emphasis many Wilton families place on sports activities over this kind of class is what he holds responsible for the enrollment drop-off from 5th to 6th grade. “We don’t have the interest as much as we did before. With soccer practice four times a week, they’ve got to run cross country, they’re doing two or three spring sports as well. You can’t compete.”