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Giving Ballroom A Whirl

By Norman Schreiber

Was it so recently that ballroom dancing seemed to be a poignant curiosity -- not unlike the study of Latin or the display of good manners? It never really went away; but, for many people ballroom had the slight whiff of camphor.

Style simply does not go out of style. And it would seem that, in recent years, couples have waltzed out of the closet and onto the dance floor. K.C. Patrick, editor of the Raleigh (N.C.) based, national magazine Dance Teacher Now, has been clipping stories about ballroom resurgence since she joined the magazine over seven years ago. She wryly notes that the "resurgence" has been going on since the turn of the [previous] century. "People say it's coming back," she adds, "when they discover it personally."

Patrick quickly traced the cultural bumps that send the public's senses (and bodies) spinning: Irene and Vernon Castle; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; the Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire franchised dance schools ("Arthur Murray literally taught Howard Johnson about franchising."); the Arthur Murray television show and all the various film showcases, such as Scent of a Woman and True Lies.

Even if the public has just kept on dancing, there do seem to be more dance studios and more public gatherings where this sort of thing goes on.

How do you find just the right studio? Where should you go to take lessons?

"It's subjective," says Karen Trimble Dance Director of First Step Dance Studios in Baltimore. Trimble, a teacher for 18 years, then gave some guidelines.

"Any studio should offer some sort of complimentary lesson or introduction," says Trimble. "Go in; look around; talk to a teacher or students. Check the studio out when it has an open dance. Always ask what kind of credentials the studio and instructors have."
Trimble concedes a piece of paper does not necessarily a good teacher make. You can assume, according to Trimble, that a teacher or studio that has gone through the certification process is pretty conscientious.

"The most important thing is that you feel comfortable and have rapport with the teacher. If you can't, you're not going to learn."

Why do the very terms tango and waltz and merengue and, yes, even cha-cha-cha quicken the pulse?

We are told it's a splendid form of exercise and it is. But this '90s kind of virtue is tangential. Although ballroom dancers know they are getting a workout, the dance studio is not just another health club.

During her seven years as a ballroom dance instructor, Justine Orlow of Justine Orlow Dance Dimensions in New York City has seen people seduced by ballroom dance. The 27-year-old Orlow says many students appear at studios for the most practical of reasons. Stock brokers desperately want lessons because -- harrumph, harrumph -- they're expected to take their clients to a night of dinner and dance. Also, people are going to weddings -- perhaps their own -- and naturally they'll have to um-you know -dance. And they all find they like it.

What hooks them?

"Monogamous relationships are in," says Orlow, "and glamour has come back in fashion and in dance."

And whoomp! There it is! Ballroom dancing is about glamour. Sophisticated dresses for the women; perhaps a string of pearls; neatly pressed suits for the men and leave the power tie at home.

And it's about relationships. The ballroomists refer to what they do as "partner dancing." It's something you do with not at someone else. And people do attend classes and go to dances to meet people. Exhibit A: the New York Times August 27 wedding announcements page tells of a glamorous young just-wed couple who met at a ballroom dance class. Their wedding program proudly proclaims, "While we are not great dancers, we have become wonderful partners."

And it's also about structure. As with classical music, ballroom dancing honors form -- steady rhythms and defined steps. Each couple that slips onto the dance floor joins a community that transcends that moment and that place. It is as if they are dancing beside all who ever danced those steps to that song with that beat. It is a timeless caravan.

Travelers please note: The ballroom dance community extends beyond your neighborhood and city. You don't have to miss dancing just because you are on the road. You can check with the hotel concierge to learn of dancing opportunities. Orlow and Trimble recommend another method. Dance instructors have a grapevine, so ask your studio for recommendations in other cities. If you're already away from home, call the local studios to see if they have something cooking that night or can give you the skinny on local ballroom activities. Trimble recommends that being specific about what you want would help them help you. For example, do you want Latino dancing? Do you dance in competitions and want a place to practice? Do you want the music to be live or recorded?

No matter where or when you dance, it all comes down to that intimate moment when you and your partner know you are in synch, you are together.

"All of a sudden you are looking at each other," said Orlow. "The lady is not trying to predict what is going to happen next. There is no 'slow, slow, slow; quick, quick, quick' running through your mind. You feel that bond of trust. The muscle memory kicks in, and finally you can hear the music."

And the melody lingers on.


Illustration  http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0040399.html  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/