JoJo Graham was 13 years old when she strapped on her first pair of tap shoes and dreamt of stardom. “I wanted to be a Radio City Rockette,” says the Hinckley native. “But I wasn’t tall enough.”
Determined not to let her height stand in the way, she kept on with the classes and found she was learning more than just dance steps. “Dance enriched my self-esteem; it taught me an incredible amount of self-discipline ... and provided me the opportunity to build my confidence through something I excelled in,” Graham recalls.
Today, as the executive director of the Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio, she has brought dance programs to four Cleveland schools: Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Bolton Elementary School and John W. Raper Elementary School, as well as the Elite Academy of the Arts and The Intergenerational School — both charter schools.
Graham’s passion for dance led her to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, where she studied musical theater. There she learned about Dancing Classrooms, a program that teaches cooperation, respect and cultural awareness to young, inner-city students through ballroom dance.
Working as a teaching artist, Graham saw how the program paired students with different partners for each session, allowing them to interact and connect. “I realized I was part of something incredible,” she says. “The program not only impacts the students and their families, but the school’s entire culture in an extremely positive way.”
She pitched the idea of bringing the program to Cleveland to founder Pierre Dulaine. With his support, she returned ready to teach. “There was no program like this for me growing up,” she reflects. “I am fortunate to be able to bring it to the place that is still home."