I used to think the only thing I do really well is draw; now I know I can dance, too.

[Originally posted in October 2010.]


One Saturday in 1997 I got a call from a stranger. Our new classroom building for the Waldorf School of Baltimore had just had an open house and the caller had been through the tour. He was interested in the effects of architecture and design on the education of students and asked many insightful questions. He was interested in the ways light, color, form, and particularly meaning could be employed as pedogogical tools. In the two hour conversation that ensued we covered a lot of territory. Bill Staffa, the caller, had left a job working with dolphins at the National Aquarium and was embarking on a career with the Children's Guild, an innovative program for children with learning disabilities. The Children's Guild was also one of our clients.


One topic that intrigued me was his description of how he used ballroom dancing as a teaching tool for inner city students. He spoke of how students at first found themselves almost frozen in fear at the prospect of dancing with a partner and following rules and a routine. It struck a nerve with me. I was one of those people who feared dancing. He talked about building on the little victories of each lesson. Ultimately the progress becomes recognizable and the students take the experience, of building on little these victories, into the classroom in other subject areas, such as math or reading.


A week earlier I had seen a video on the work of Douglas Cooper, then Head of the Architecture Department of my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon. At the end of the video, professor Cooper says, "I used to think the only thing I do really well is draw; now I know I can dance, too."


Needless to say, by the end of the conversation with Bill Staffa, I was getting schedules for his recommended dance lesson venues. Over the past thirteen years I got to know Bill through the Children's Guild. I worked with him on Transformation Station, Kanner and Debusky Houses--the group homes, renovations to the Children's Guild Chillum Campus, and recently the Monarch Academy in Glen Burnie. His contributions are obvious on each project. Most striking to me was his passion researching Glen Burnie for the Monarch Academy. He was determined the children in the new school would understand the history and contributions of their community and could take pride in their community. The story is told in a rich display of murals and compositions prepared by Nancy Scheinman with direction from Bill.


I would also run into him where ever there was ballroom dancing. I have made many little victories with dancing: ballroom, latin, and swing. But dancing is only one part of it, for as Billy said, once you overcome your fears, you realize you can learn anything, you can do anything.


Last week, we lost Billy Staffa. He passed in his sleep. In his 48 years he made a positive impact on the lives of thousands of disadvantaged children. His presence will be missed by all who knew him. I used to think the only thing I do really well is draw; but, thanks to Billy, I know I can dance, too.


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