Ballroom dancing in the Capital area
I happen to love Sunday afternoon dances at Glen Echo, and was sad to learn that the La Salle Orchestra won't be playing there this year. On Feb. 24, 2008, we danced (for my first time) to The New Hots Jazz Orchestra, with a lesson in quickstep beforehand, taught by instructor Todd Borzych. I came in late on the first part of the lesson but thought the second part superb (where does he usually teach? I want to sign up!), and there was a surprisingly large turnout for that lesson. Won't someone PLEASE give quickstep lessons at some length in that wonderful ballroom so we can all learn how to do it? Anyway, I'm sorry LaSalle isn't there, but Jack Elder's band,, The New Hots Jazz Orchestra, is good most days. The numbers are short and tend to be peppier and more varied than those of LaSalle. Those of you who decided to sit this one out, come back!
Links to dance venues in the DC area:
Goddard Dance Club (for members of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center community in Greenbelt, Maryland and their guests). DJ and instructor, Chip Atwood
Greenbelt Ballroom Dancing Party. Monthly, Community Center (15 Crescent Road, Greenbelt, MD 20770). A fee of $10 includes a dance class at 7 pm, followed by general ballroom dancing from 8-9:30.
Learning how to ballroom dance
When I first published Dancing: A Guide to the Capital Area, all of the information it contained about studio lessons was accurate. Now, in the DC area, anyway, there don't seem to be so many rip-off studios. There are many places where you can learn on a pay-as-you-go basis, or where you aren't pressured to buy a quantity of dance lessons up front.
There are two basic schools of studio dancing: “international style” and “American style.” In both categories, there are competitive and noncompetitive (“social dancing”) levels. Social dancing is more forgiving — the kind of free-flowing ballroom dancing you would do in a nightclub. The emphasis in “social dancing” is on enjoying yourself and being able to dance with nearly everyone. A studio is going to love it if you decide to become competitive — moving up step by step through bronze, silver, and gold levels — because they'll sell more lessons. But you should probably start by taking classes in social dancing.
In international style there are two categories: standard (waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, and, at the advanced level, the quickstep, which is like a fast foxtrot), and Latin American (rumba, paso doble, samba, cha-cha and jive — no mambo).
The equivalent categories in American style are smooth (waltz, foxtrot, tango, and Viennese Waltz — no quickstep but, at the advanced level, the Peabody) and rhythm (a fast rumba, a slow bolero, a mambo, cha-cha, and swing — a slower version of jive). In the lower levels of competition they also do the merengue and samba.
In the American “smooth,” competition dancers are allowed to open up and do more flowing movements, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In international standard, the man never releases his dance hold in standard dances; the woman is always held in “frame” — by the man's right arm. American style is more free-flowing than International, and the Latin dances are more free-flowing in both styles. To the extent that there is dance snobbery — and there is — International seems to be higher on the pecking order.
Competitive dancing, particularly competitive International, is more rule-bound, with precise standards geared to competition. It looks elegant, but there is a “precise” way to do everything, a correct way to align your bodies, hold your elbows and head, move your feet. Every championship has competition for both American and International standards, but most instruction is in the more relaxed social standard. “Competitive,” says one instructor, “while it is a beautiful standard of dancing, is something you can dance only with your instructor, a trained partner, or another exhibition dancer. Where are you going to go to a nightclub where they dance the Peabody, the quickstep, and the paso doble?”
Competitive dancers never seem to stop taking lessons or practicing; they are always refining their style. This vastly narrows the range of dancers they enjoy dancing with. Regular social dancing may come to bore them or seem too undisciplined. Free-form dancing and the music to which it is danced may set their teeth on edge. One dancer, who had been dancing international for years, has gone back to social dancing because he was lonely: “Not that many people dance international, and if you don't have a regular partner, it's hard to find people to dance with.” Serious dancers often keep their dancing and their love lives separate. You can always get another significant other; it's hard to find a good dance partner.
So start with social dancing. Try two or three studios to find the one you are most comfortable with. And if you take lessons as a couple, make an effort to dance with other people, not just the partner you came with. Dancing with a lot of partners is the best way for men to learn how to lead, and for women to learn how to follow. And then, when you get back with your regular partner, if you have one, you can show each other new steps you've picked up.
Advice to designated followers: Women sometimes fail to realize that ballroom dancing is a lot easier for them than it is for men. Think about how easy it would be for you to lead someone into a corner turn going left, or to come up with enough variations to keep a dance interesting, while also trying to keep up your end of a conversation. So be patient, followers. If you finally drag your man off to a dance studio after he has resisted, when you finally do get him there, if he doesn't do things quite right, bite your tongue. Let the dance instructor gently lead him into better styling, and don't nag him all night (“No, no, she said to do it like this. You're doing it all wrong!”). It is more important for him to develop confidence than it is for him to hold his elbow or point his toe just so. And resist the temptation to lead — with your body or with your mouth. It's not your role. Keep things light!
Be wary of the hu$tle. The cost of lessons — or national name recognition — does not necessarily reflect the quality of the instruction. The Friday night dance party at many local studios costs very little, includes good lessons in two different dances, and you don't get hustled to sign a contract. Don't be shy about shopping around for the instructor who suits your learning style and budget to a T, and don't assume that you have to pay more to get the best instruction. Be aware that some studios offer dance packages — by contract (you sign a contract committing yourself to X dollars worth of classes, and after your free lesson/dance evaluation they generally start by offering you their most expensive package) — and some operate on a pay-as-you-go (or pay-for-a-series) basis.
Be smart: Don't sign a long-term contract for several hundred dollars until you have had a chance to check out the instructors and studios that don't push such heavy financial commitments, or until you have had a chance to find out if you are happy with the studio. The “counselors” at some studios, I am told by one of them, are trained as much in “emotional sales techniques” as they are in dance techniques. You go for a free half-hour lesson or two, where you are told you have natural ability but need training to develop your style. Then you are taken in an office and told first about the most expensive plan, and if you say no to it, they move on down (if you keep saying no) until you are told about the single-unit plan: one each of a private lesson, a group lesson, and a party. We were greeted warmly after our first free lesson at Dance World, but after we didn't sign up we got an icy shoulder; we were discouraged from returning for the rest of the free lessons to which their offer entitled us. To be fair, many dancers — including one man who spent more than $80,000 at Arthur Murray's — have been happy with their experience at the contract studios. And one plus of these plans is that some studios charge the same price if you are single or a couple, so it pays to split the tab with someone of the opposite sex (you needn't be sweethearts — a buddy or even a stranger is fine). Except for the cost, which can be considerable — the “contract” studios have in some cases proved to be a comfort for newly widowed and divorced people, among others, as a ready-made social network and schedule. A friend tell me that when she was looking for a way to escape loneliness and learn to dance, she found the heavy social schedule of dance parties at a local studio comforting — and she became an excellent dancer. Once she knew how to dance, she had more confidence in herself socially — especially at dances. Other dancers overlook a shortfall in social graces if you are a good dancer.
The range of prices on dance instruction is enormous. And the cost for a particular instructor may be $50 an hour when he teaches in Fancy Studio and only $25 when he teaches in the local junior high school (which he may do for many reasons: to fill up his calendar; because he's a dance nut; to reach a wider audience, etc.). Sometimes you can ask an instructor to give you private lessons in your home — alone, or for a small group — at the same price you would pay for a group lesson at the studio, or less.
Copyright (c) by Pat McNees. Do not reprint without permission (for which, contact the author at pat at patmcnees dot com).
Other dance pages on Pat's website
• Dancing: A guide to the Capital area (Dancing in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia)
• Ballroom Dance
• Ceilis (Irish céilís and set dances)
• Country Western Dancing
• Folk dancing in the Capital area (Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish)
• Love at First Waltz (by Cheryl Kollin)
• Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp (Pat McNees)
• Swing, lindy, jitterbug, shag, and hand-dancing
• Dating -- again! (that's extra, but often relevant -- dancing is one way to restore your social self, after separation)
Many of the stories by Pat McNees posted here appeared first in the Washington Post