CORBIN – “There’s nothing sadder than an empty dance floor.”
That’s what Corbin Middle School teacher Gary Baker tells his ballroom dancing students.
“So I try to prepare them for this situation. Ask someone to dance!” said Boulanger. the best time of her life at a wedding. Nobody was dancing and her son grabbed her hand and said, ‘Come on, mom. Let’s go dancing !’ Even though she didn’t know the dances, he was confident and moved her all over the dance floor.
These are the stories Baker loves that show why his ballroom dancing classes have grown in popularity over the 14 years he has taught them.
“The main thing I want students to learn from this course is social skills. Label. Manners matter,” Baker said. “In an age where we spend most of our time in front of a screen, this course teaches people how to interact with each other. You have to look someone in the eye, talk to them, hold their hand, stand within a foot of each other. It sounds terrifying to them, but I break it down into manageable steps and we practice every day.
Baker explained that there was a lot of pressure on schools to do well on high-stakes arts tests.
“Each student had to follow an intense general appreciation of music,” he said. “It was not good for the students or the teachers.”
When that requirement ended, Baker said many school districts across the state used it to cut back on their arts programs.
“However, Corbin saw this as an opportunity to create something new in his place,” he said of the Corbin Independent School District. “We have created many performance-based classes. I offered ballroom dancing as an option to teach music, movement, and social skills.
With the support of the headmaster, he proposed the course and it immediately sold out. Each year they had to add more sections of the classroom to keep up with demand.
With the opening of the new college building just a few years ago, the neighborhood included a custom ballroom dance studio at the opening of the Arts Wing.
In a normal year, four ballroom dancing classes will be offered. This is a nine week course with 24 students. Baker also usually offers an advanced ballroom dancing course for students who have taken the course before and want to learn more.
“In these classes we can learn special flips, tricks and turns,” he said.
Baker has a long history with ballroom dancing. He took it as a class for credit at Cumberland College.
“I loved it, so I took it up again as an elective and then again as an audit just for fun,” he said. “After graduating, I started teaching small groups for churches and social clubs.”
In 2006 he married a dancer, Lindsay, who currently teaches at Corbin’s School of Innovation, and they bought the dance studio where she worked, The Dance Center in Williamsburg. Baker taught ballroom dancing there until they sold it in 2020.
“I was even a guest instructor at my alma mater,” he said. “I always teach ballroom dancing by appointment when available. Over the years my wife and I have choreographed for many special occasions. Of course, I continued my training by taking private lessons over the years.
Her love for the arts doesn’t end with ballroom dancing, however. He also currently teaches middle school classes in rock and roll history, ukulele, and the after-school choir program at Corbin Elementary School.
“The arts are so important. Music, art, dance, theatre. These are the things that people live for; the things that make you feel alive,” Baker said. “It’s important to teach these things from an early age so students can appreciate all aspects of our lives.”
At Corbin Middle School, these classes are called exploratory classes.
“It’s a great time to try something,” Baker said. “I always tell my students that I didn’t take dance lessons until I was 21, didn’t learn to play the ukulele until I was 25, and didn’t listen to music rock until I was nearly 30. Now that’s what I do for a living! It’s never too late to try something new.
For the ballroom dance class, the social interaction and confidence gained are what Baker hopes students will take away the most.
“They may forget the steps in a few years, but nobody looks at your feet when you’re dancing. They look at your face,” he said. “At a wedding, people say, ‘Don’t they look happy?’ They don’t say look at your feet. Smile, hold a nice frame, and move your body to the beat of the music.
Of course, he wants students to learn the art of dance and the lifelong fitness part.
“Parents send me videos of their kids dancing at home or on vacation all the time,” he said. “I have videos of former students dancing in their basements and in the streets of Paris!”
“Just yesterday, I saw a former student at a football game who said, ‘Your course was definitely helpful to me at my wedding this summer.’ She looked so happy,” Baker said. “That’s the power of public education.”