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Sunday, October 14, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shall We Dance?

Partners are getting back in touch with each other as traditional ballroom steps regain their popularity

``Let's hear it for them, folks, a wonderful tango!'' Tamara Glancy and Richard Jorgensen take a few, final slinky steps in a swirl of white swans-down against elegant black. Moments later the announcer is encouraging applause for Michelle Uttke, in a flirty flamingo gown, as she floats through a bolero with Rick Pride to the strains of ``You Stepped Out of a Dream.''

Over the course of that recent Saturday at the Washington Dance Club, dozens of other couples swept across the resilient maple floor, taking part in ``Dance Fest '90.'' The same evening, hardly a Monorail ride away, hundreds of dancers in blue jeans and casual skirts found partners for the waltz, the swing and the cha-cha on the lower level of the Center House. This, too, is social dancing in Seattle, circa 1990.

``No question about it, touch dancing is back,'' says Ali Marashi, owner of an Arthur Murray studio in downtown Seattle. It's not that dancing as a contact sport ever vanished, even in the days when the contortions of the twist and related solo dances pushed men and women ever farther apart. While ``do your own thing'' became the motto for social interactions on and off the disco floor in the 1960s, many still found enjoyment in the easy give and take of dancing with a partner.

In the main, however, the romance of couple dancing was reserved for older couples with middle-class lives and memories of Irene Castle, of Fred Astaire, and of the big-band era. Then came John Travolta and ``Saturday Night Fever.'' With his high-voltage hustle in that 1978 film, Travolta showed a generation something of what they'd been missing. Suddenly, young people wanted to look good with a member of the opposite sex. And that meant learning the steps.

What's happening today may have relatively little connection with mass entertainment and more to do with changing patterns of urban life. Patrick Swayze did set hearts pounding in ``Dirty Dancing,'' and recent lambada exploitation movies tried to start a new craze, but the fact is that people are dancing mostly just to have some good, clean, non-competitive fun. ``I believe we have to quit being sold on being spectators, and instead get out to be participants,'' says Ed Long, a teacher of social dancing since 1951, and the owner of a Bellevue studio.

Long has been leading $2-a-head learning sessions preceding Seattle Center's free Saturday night dances for the past 15 years. He also is one of the instructors at the University of Washington's Experimental College, where social dancing classes are always fully booked shortly after registration opens. ``You don't have to be rich, you don't have to be smart or strong, you just have to go out there and be you,'' Long says, in explaining the immense popularity of recreational dancing.

Patricia McDaniel, a nurse from Tukwila, was one of 110 students registered for an Experimental College beginners' class last February. Since April, she's been attending Saturday night dances at the Washington Dance Club, where for $5 apiece singles and couples can enjoy the punch and each other's company as well as the music. ``It's a good way to meet people, and it's never a pickup atmosphere,'' says McDaniel, who moved here from Ohio last year.

Dorreene Proctor, a Seattle credit administrator, adds to the list of attractions for today's health-conscious young professionals: ``There's never any smoking or drinking,'' Proctor says of WDC events. Quick assessments and dismissals based on attractiveness hardly come into the picture. ``If you're a good dancer, it doesn't matter how old you are or what your physical condition is,'' Proctor says. ``You get danced with.''

Easy, nonthreatening camaraderie is one reason people are flocking to glide with the greatest of ease. Another frequent inspiration for taking lessons is the desire to shine at a special occasion. One recent Tuesday evening, 10 students took to the parquet at Marashi's downtown Seattle studio, where he instructed them in the fine points of the waltz and the samba. Among them were Beth Simon and Dana Faudree, government employees in Seattle. They were getting ready to dance at their wedding - scheduled for today.

While such couples long have been a mainstay of his business, Marashi also is delighted to watch how cultural changes continue to produce new candidates for the hesitation step and the Copa Cabana strut.

``Men are taking more dance classes than women now,'' Marashi reports. ``They don't want to fake it anymore.'' In an era of sexual equality, when many men wonder if they should hold a door for a woman, it takes some coaching to get them to lead with confidence.

It may require just as much adjustment for a woman accustomed to self-assertion to learn how to follow. Beginning social dance classes around Puget Sound stress that partnering on the dance floor is just that - an agreement between equals. ``There's only one boss out there, and that's the music,'' Long says. Fortunately, dancers can pick their boss. ``Dancing is free choice,'' Long adds. ``You do it to music you like, with a person you like, at the level you want.''

Ah, yes, the level you want. Just as the same keyboard can produce ``Chopsticks'' and Chopin, the same dance steps can be used with utter disregard or utter concentration on form. In the first case, it's social dancing with the emphasis on ``social.'' In the second, it's ballroom dancing with the emphasis on ``ball.''

``Most students when they come here, they don't know what they like,'' reports Christa Hinshaw, co-owner of the Washington Dance Club with Rick Pride and her mother, Marge Hinshaw. Rarely do novice dancers have any idea of going on to compete in amateur ballroom championships, much less taking on the challenge of professional star balls. Quite a few just want to break free from shyness. ``It's amazing what good therapy ballroom dancing is,'' Pride says.

Of course, some people - especially older women - know precisely what they like. ``If someone always wanted to be Ginger Rogers, then you do the fox trot and the other smooth dances,'' Pride explains. During the early stages of ``Dance Fest '90,'' when many WDC students performed solo routines with their teachers, it was clear that for Audrey Munk, adrift in foaming sea-green with touches of silver, a Viennese waltz with Pride was a peak experience.

At $40 an hour and up, private lessons to develop a solo routine are an investment of quite a different order than an occasional weekend outing. Costumes are another major commitment, with price tags easily exceeding $1,000 for basic garb bedecked in feathers and sequins.

Recycling, however, is old hat to experienced ballroom dancers. Christa Hinshaw occasionally performs in a black dress that her mother purchased in Hawaii from an Australian woman who had bought it originally in England - where it had been created as a replica of a gown worn by Rogers in the film ``The Gay Divorcee.''

While many casual social dancers stress the sheer pleasure of participating in exercise that is cooperative rather than competitive, the nature of ballroom dancing is far different for those performing at the advanced amateur and professional levels. Twenty hours a week of practice are barely enough to ensure a place in the finals of prestigious competitions. The payoff, for amateurs, is generally just some prize money and a sense of goals achieved. For professionals, every award is another line on a resume that can earn them well-paying positions as coaches and guest artists.

``It's like being an Olympic ice skater,'' Pride explains. ``You have to travel to compete.'' (Not coincidentally, ballroom dancing has been acknowledged as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, a step on its way to becoming an official Olympic event.) Pride, with partner Catherine Joy, has been developing a national reputation in ``rhythm'' dances such as the mambo and rumba. In September, they were named the U.S. Rising Star American Rhythm Champions at the U.S. Ballroom Championships in Miami.

Some of the rewards of ballroom dancing have nothing to do with trophies and titles. There's physical conditioning, for one thing. Pride and Joy (these are not stage names) are quite naturally in superb shape, with flexible bodies that might lead one to suspect them of being equipped with ball bearings rather than ordinary joints. But just about everybody can benefit from the heart-pumping properties of dancing - although exercise physiologists do suggest that anyone over 50 consult a doctor before starting to step out.

Then there are the unexpected benefits. Christa Hinshaw is still chuckling over the comment of an especially athletic friend. ``Dancing with a woman in a ball gown,'' he told her, ``is like skiing through powder.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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