…. No one is quite sure when New York City children began celebrating spring by dancing in schoolyards, their teachers leading them, often awkwardly, through the steps, their proud parents gathered round, snapping pictures and clapping along. It is a peculiar urban rite — called Dance Festival in most of the city, and May Fete on Staten Island — that has been around, it seems, for as long as the public school system itself.
“I really can’t tell you how and when and why the very first Dance Festival took place,” said Sylvia Schachter, a retired teacher and administrator who was the school system’s director of physical education from 1980 to 1990. “There have been Dance Festivals going on in various schools and various districts for as far back as I can remember.”
Indeed, Dance Festival is stamped in the memories of public school graduates from Rick Gimeranez, the chief custodian at P.S. 163, to Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor. Mr. Gimeranez, 47, who was up early on Dance Festival morning last week to tie bouquets of balloons to the schoolyard fence, took a break from snapping pictures of the children to recall his own Dance Festivals in Brooklyn in the 1960’s, at P.S. 282 in Park Slope and P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens.
“I remember doing the maypole, the hokey-pokey, the jitterbug,” said Mr. Gimeranez, who, like the students, wore a Dance Festival T-shirt, which was designed by a fifth grader. “I love this time of year.”
Chancellor Klein, 59, recalled Dance Festival at P.S. 151 in Woodside, Queens. “We had a maypole,” he said. “I remember the Alley Cat and the hokey-pokey and all of that.”
Unlike the serious training spotlighted in “Mad Hot Ballroom,” the 2005 documentary about Manhattan students learning to fox-trot and tango for competition, the Dance Festivals are end-of-year events in which all students participate. No ability to dance or even to keep a beat is required.
The origins, scholars of the school system surmise, lie in the 19th-century maypole dances by English schoolchildren, a custom rooted in pagan fertility rituals centuries earlier. But just as Dance Festival occurs on different days in different schools throughout May and June, it no longer centers on the maypole.
Over decades, folk dances and classics like the hokey-pokey were joined by contemporary favorites like the twist. (For a brief, perhaps forgettable, stretch in the 90’s, the macarena was the hugest thing.) More recent additions include the Cha Cha Slide Part 2 by Casper, the Chicago D.J.
“It is a tradition; we do it every single year,” said Melodie Mashel, 52, the principal of P.S. 81 in Riverdale, who recalled “being a little frightened” at Dance Festival more than 40 years ago as a student at P.S. 92 and P.S. 93 in the Bronx. “I needed to make sure that all of my steps were going to be correct,” she said.
Around the city, Dance Festival makes for curious sights, like first graders in tie-dyed shirts at P.S. 32 in Flushing, Queens, simulating swim strokes and wriggling to the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and second graders in sombreros at P.S. 21 on Staten Island, doing the Mexican hat dance.
Historians are largely mystified — not just by the tradition’s obscure origins but by how it survived the tumult of the school system and the vast changes in student population, from the European immigrants in the early 1900’s to the dizzyingly multiethnic, largely black and Hispanic student body today.
Stephan F. Brumberg, an education professor at Brooklyn College, said the tradition dates to the 19th century. “New York City had an exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900,” he said. “They had wonderful pictures of the schools at that time, including pictures of kids doing group dances.”
Professor Brumberg, whose children, now grown, had Dance Festival at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, said schools may have shifted to ethnic folk dancing in response to Communism. “Lots of places danced around the maypole until the Russian Revolution,” he said.
If the exact provenance of Dance Festival is impossible to discern, it seems of no import to the smiling parents, armed with camcorders, lining the schoolyard fences. [….]
Some educators worry that the tradition might fade. Carol Ildebrando, a retired principal of P.S. 21, which has held May Fete for generations, said that some principals were reluctant to take time from regular lessons. “There is so much more emphasis on accountability and assessment, it has become very hard in the spring to participate in an event like this,” she said. “It’s just a different atmosphere.”
But don’t tell the children.
Courtney Sergile, 7, a first grader at P.S. 45, danced with her classmates to a remix of the Jackson Five’s “ABC.” Through the rest of the festival, she danced from her seat on the playground floor, often singing along. “The dances they do are cool,” she said.
Prince Riggins, 9, a fourth grader, said: “I think it’s cool. You can dance all the time, and then you can dance even more.”
Principals said that the dancing can give a life-changing confidence boost to students who do not excel at academics but shine in creative arts and that it helps broaden the children’s thinking. “Children do learn by learning lyrics and dance steps,” said Ms. Mashel, the principal of P.S. 81. “Certainly it provides a lot of meta-cognitive experiences.”
Group dances have long been part of the physical education curriculum. In many schools, each grade was assigned an ethnic folk dance.
“I remember trying to teach my class the polka, and believe me I couldn’t dance the polka,” said Carmen Fariña, a deputy schools chancellor, recalling Dance Festival at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn in the 1960’s. “The idea was that you would be more of a social human being if you learned how to do these dances.”
Lori Benson, the Education Department’s director of physical education, said there was no official effort to preserve Dance Festival and no official count of how many of the more than 600 elementary schools hold them. “It’s done because it’s sort of always been done, perhaps,” she said. Maryann Wasmuth, 58, said she remembered Dance Festival as a child at P.S. 233 in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Two years ago, when she became principal of P.S. 163, Ms. Wasmuth insisted on procuring a maypole. Her staff made one using an umbrella stand and a pole bought at Home Depot.
Rachel Wurman, P.S. 163’s dance teacher, said she matched dances to each grade’s personality: disco for the playful second graders; African for the rambunctious third graders; hip-hop for the supercool fifth graders heading off to junior high.
Ms. Wurman, who grew up in Pittsburgh, said she had never heard of Dance Festival before P.S. 163. “It’s definitely one of those times in your life where you say, ‘Only in New York,’ ” she said. “There are so many things about New York City that outsiders look at it and say, ‘I just don’t get it.’ “
NYC tradition indeed.