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Meet Margot Toppen of Dancing with Class

Today we’d like to introduce you to Margot Toppen.

Margot, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Dance has always played a central role in my life. As my mother frequently reminds me, I’ve been dancing since I could walk, and my training and experiences through dance influenced every facet of my development. It was not until I was out of college and several years into my career as a journalist, however, that I realized the power of dance to make a difference in the world.

At that point, I was “moonlighting” as a dance instructor and performer, but spent most of my days in a cubicle, writing and editing content for various media companies. I was happy and liked my work, but I had not yet experienced what it feels like to really make an impact. Then one day, I received an invitation to work as a guest artist in a public school. That invitation changed not just the course of my career, but my entire outlook on life.

I recall leaving the school that first day thinking about my interactions with students and wishing I could do that kind of work every day. I followed those instincts and before long, I was doing just that.

In 2006, I founded Dancing with Class (dancingwithclass.org), an organization guided by its mission to energize schools and communities by fostering inclusion, respect and social awareness through the joy of dance. Since its founding, Dancing with Class has provided high-quality dance experiences to more than 35,000 Chicago-area students. We hope this will keep Chicago’s social dance community vibrant and strong for many years to come!

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The road is not smooth for anyone who works in the field of public education or the arts. The challenge of adequate funding is ongoing, but I have always seen challenges as opportunities to be creative. By aligning our curriculum to Common Core Standards in language arts and social science, as well as addressing key physical education, fine arts and Social Emotional Learning goals, we have been able to help schools address a wide range of priorities through our programs.

We have also overcome many challenges by keeping an intense focus on providing a high-quality, student-centered program. It is very easy to get distracted from your mission, but we have managed to stay on track and remain nimble and responsive to changes in the education landscape.

Please tell us about Dancing with Class.
Dancing with Class provides dance education programs to schools and community centers, with an intense focus on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Teachers who work with us see their students get along better and treat others with more respect. In turn, joyful and empathetic students do better in school and in life.

The most magical moments come at the end of each of our 10-week program sessions when we hold city-wide Dance-Off events for teams of dancers from each of the schools we work with. Imagine hundreds of 5th graders coming together from every neighborhood in the city to perform waltz, swing and salsa with one another. We literally see students transform right before our eyes!

We are very proud of the macro effect we have had in introducing thousands of youth to the joy of social dance. Even more significant, however, is the micro effect we are having on individual lives. Each year, teachers and parents share stories of individual students who find so much success through this program. Most often, we hear about students with conditions such as Autism, ADHD or a physical impairment, who absolutely thrive in the environment of a DwC program. These successes tend to carry over into other aspects of their education as well.

I am also incredibly proud of my excellent staff who are passionately committed to our mission. Dancing with Class has an eclectic teaching staff with backgrounds in everything from hip-hop to Bollywood to ballroom. Our team-oriented approach to training results in a highly motivated team that benefits from the diversity of talent that exists within our staff.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
There is not much I would do differently or change about the past, but we are always looking ahead and anticipating what lies ahead.

Right now, we are keeping our eye on education technology as a way to enhance movement-based learning experiences. On the surface, that may seem like a disconnect, but in reality, there are many exciting ways that arts and physical education can be enhanced by interactive technologies. We have some exciting new initiatives underway that we hope will pave the way to some truly innovative movement-based learning that connects students to each other and the world.

We are also responding to the current political climate, trying to combat divisive rhetoric by spreading joy, inclusion and kindness. This summer, we are excited to be holding 20 Dancemakers are Peacemakers community engagement workshops in various Chicago neighborhoods as part of the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities. We will be sharing videos from these workshops throughout the summer at danceforpeacecircles.org.

Imagine a world where every school day begins with a few minutes of students dancing together. That is a world where differences are set aside and joy and kindness prevail!

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Image Credit:
Nadia Oussenko, Dawn Lara

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