Chairs line the dance floor in the synagogue social hall. Parents sit in rows to one side, shifting in their chairs, some remembering when they were on the dance floor 20, 30, even 40 years earlier.

In the front rows, fidgety 11-year-olds sit in their chairs. Nervous laughter and furtive glances convey their unease at being in a class mostly their parents made them sign up for. Relief that kids they know sit nearby.

The boys wear slacks, button-down shirts, a tie here or there. Dress shoes, no sneakers. The girls are in dresses and skirts. They haven’t yet learned to cross their feet at the ankles. They will tonight.

Steve Jasgur or Rebecca Schlussel or another seasoned dance instructor steps to the center of the parquet and the room hushes, waiting for what comes next. This night is familiar. The parents come only tonight, to learn what their children will be embarking upon, in their first opposite-sex interaction, supervised, guided and implanted with lessons that many parents want their children to learn but aren’t sure how to do it themselves.

The teacher explains that this is going to be fun, that this is going to be easy. The kids learn that they don’t say no when someone asks them to dance. The girls learn to cross their feet at the ankles. Then they get up and dance. Awkwardly, shifty, giggling over their shoulders, for at this age, kids have not interacted this closely, in this way, with the opposite gender.

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Joe Cornell Entertainment: In the business of knowing the trends, making them fun in a social setting and still teaching respect and kindness.

It’s a safe place to explore their curiosity, guided by propriety, swaddled in fun. By January, at their graduation dance, there will be no awkwardness, no wondering if they fit in, no this-is-so-weird misgivings running through their heads. By then, the kids will be dancing and shouting and jumping and smiling without even noticing.

They’ll have new friends and know how to interact with that cute girl across the room. Their parents will be there that night too, watching from the sidelines once again, proud of the investment of time and money into this 13-week class. They’ll feel really good about the teachers who led their children down this path. And they’ll feel happiest of all that their children feel good about themselves and their abilities.

Welcome to the Joe Cornell 6th Grade Dance Program.

It’s never been easy being a kid.

More than 50 years ago, a guy named Joe Cornell came along and made growing up a little bit more fun. Joe (the man) created a company where kids could hang out, learn popular and classic dance steps, and subtly learn how to grow up with grace.

Although he left his namesake company, Joe Cornell Entertainment, in the early 1990s, the principles on which it was founded haven’t disappeared. In fact, under the leadership of brother-sister team Steve Jasgur and Rebecca Schlussel, who took over when they were in college, this company at the heart of the Jewish community has grown exponentially while retaining its core values and staying cool through several generations.

Becca Schlussel and Steve Jasgur

Joe Cornell’s brother-sister team, Becca Schlussel and Steve Jasgur

“We’re in the business of knowing the trends, making them fun and still transmitting age-old values of how to be a good person and interact with kindness,” says Schlussel.

Last fall, the New York Times featured Joe Cornell in its Sunday Style section, in an article titled, “Teaching Respect to the Faithful.” Nationally-celebrated writer Bruce Feiler pondered the question of whether kids today behave appropriately on the bar/bat mitzvah scene. The answer: not really. The solution: Joe Cornell.

“It was a dream come true to have what we do every day, and what we believe in, gain national exposure,” says Jasgur. “But these are really our universal truths. You can make it cool to be a nice person. We do it in everything we do.”

While Joe Cornell’s Annual Event Planning Expo is mere days away (Oct. 6th at the JCC, followed by an Oct. 7th Corporate Event-Planning Blitz at the same location), the company’s main purview is its tween dance program.

Classes begin every fall and run for 13 weeks.

Sixth-graders learn popular and classic dance moves, true to the company’s initial mission, and have fun at the same time. But the real undercurrent of what they gain is confidence in interpersonal relationships and solid manners as they head toward the middle-school social scene.

Some of the most loyal Joe Cornell families started with a kid in the 6th Grade Dance Program. Then they hired a Joe Cornell DJ for that kid’s simcha. Then it’s another sibling and another, and suddenly the family has been guided through three major life cycle occasions by Steve and Becca, who spends her days on the phone, offering suggestions, contact information and advice to harried mothers in the midst of high-pressure party-planning.

Laurie Raab’s two sons went through the Joe Cornell program and Joe Cornell DJ’s provided the music at their bar mitzvah parties. “With my most recent one, Becca really helped me plan the party,” says Raab, a Farmington Hills resident. “She came to the venue, gave me tips and decorating ideas. They were like friends. Working with Joe Cornell is like working with my friend.”

Raab says from the kid’s perspective, the Joe Cornell Experience introduces awkward tweens to the bar/bat mitzvah scene “in terms of socially acceptable behavior, how to behave at services, at the party. It’s more than just teaching the kids to dance.”

She notes that in the dance program, kids don’t always hang with their own friends. They’re forced to meet new people in ways that are easy to digest – opening their world to new possibilities and the etiquette of being nice. “They have to learn to dance with whoever they’re partnered with,” says Raab, a great metaphor for life.

While the company seems, at first glance, to sell dance lessons and DJ services, Raab insists that’s just the cover. The real content – and the benefit of engaging with Joe Cornell – is that they’re business owners who care.

“They offer the personal touch. They offer a lot more than people realize – they’re more than just the DJ,” says Raab.

Given the company’s deep roots in Southeast Michigan, many local families have two and three generations who’ve gone through Joe Cornell – from the dance program to hiring a DJ, to having kids who do the same.

Navigating the 7th grade social scene, building confidence

“We don’t see what we do as teaching dance,” says Jasgur, who leads dance classes as does his sister. They rarely DJ a party, but can for a premium. Their team of entertainers, DJs and dance instructors implements programs across the state, including in local schools. “Each new class of Joe Cornell students are excited and nervous about what lies ahead. We prepare them for what can be an awkward process of growing up. It doesn’t have to be. And we show them how to build confidence, feel good about who they are at every stage and walk through life with ease.”

In a recent letter to parents, Steve and Becca talked about helping kids navigate the “7th grade social scene.” A year peppered with bar and bat mitzvahs, parties and services one after the next. Has anything really changed?

Sure, kids are still giggling in the bathroom or shuffling through the rows during services. Ushers shhh the young audience, and rabbis, teachers and parents encourage attention and silence. But kids will be kids, right?

For many, Joe Cornell’s dance program is their first experience in a boy-girl social setting without parents hovering overhead. The fun program is laced with subtle lessons that address positive peer interaction and kindness. No smart phones allowed for the hour that they’re there. No jeans, either.

Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.” At a time when most youth-driven interactions take place by thumbs pressing abbreviated messages into a technological device, and eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart is becoming an antiquated communication method, what Joe Cornell teaches is priceless. The art of looking someone in the eye. The importance of empathy.

“We hope kids walk away from our dance program with a greater sense of confidence and an understanding of how powerful person-to-person interaction is,” says Jasgur. “Of course, we don’t say that – we’d get instant eye-rolls. But that’s the point of what we do. Always in the guise of fun.”

Registration is ON for the 2014-2015 Season! Registration forms are available at www.joecornell.com.

Try it out! Joe Cornell’s Annual 5th Grade Dance Party is Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. For information, 248-356-6000 or becca@joecornell.com.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is the author of The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. The owner of Your People LLC (www.yourppl.com), a public relations firm in Southfield. Lynne and her team specialize in spiritual entrepreneurship.

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