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Seattle Times Article, The Romance of Dance

William Dietrich
Date Published:
August 12, 2008

The Romance of Dance

CIVILIZATION IS hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Capitol Hill's Century Ballroom is civilized, a place where men are gentle, women are ladies, and the swirl to music in the balconied hall turns mere recreation into something romantic, the twirling couples achieving group grace.

Swing, salsa, waltz and the like are collectively called partner dancing, and — inspired by movies such as "Shall We Dance?" and television shows like "Dancing With the Stars" — its enthusiasts are recapturing what, to most of us, is a lost art.

"It makes me smile," explains Shannon Neilan, a student at Bastyr University, in her second week of Century Ballroom salsa lessons.

She means real dancing, guys. Yes, we've all gyrated to music. My boomer generation was the one that abandoned traditional technique for flailing freestyle, interspersed with shuffling, slow-dance death clinches in which one's perfume, quality of deodorant and state of sexual arousal were all too apparent. It democratized dance for the clumsy, and made Iron Butterfly's "Ina Gadda Davida" a date song. Sort of.

When "Dancing DJ" Ron Bolin played music recently for a Microsoft party of 300, about 50 actually danced, and freestyle to classic rock is what got them out on the floor.

But all civilization is a balancing act between discipline and freedom, conformity and expression, individuality and partnership. Seattle's dance floors — often old fraternal or union lodges — are where this balance becomes manifest, where persistent practice combines with artistic interpretation to create not just fun, but beauty. People dress. They converse. They have manners. And they soar. The result is a pleasant elegance, a mature conviviality, which wistfully recalls gentler times.

"If people learned this kind of dancing I think we'd treat people better," says Heather Longhurst, an instructor at Pacific Ballroom Dance Company, a Federal Way group that teaches young people. "You learn to respect your partner."

For comparison, I attended a recent West Seattle High School dance at the invitation of chaperone Megan Sheppard, a former substitute technology teacher who had written a column for The Seattle Times about today's "freak" dancing, which she memorably described as a "rut-o-rama."

The students who came seemed little different from the coltish cool I remembered from my own high school. There was an adolescent mix of cleavage and braces, energy and uncertainty.

But times have changed. The admission policy was strict past iron gates, where the students were wanded with a metal detector. Most came in packs of their own gender, instead of with a date. Some girls wore tops my generation classified as underwear. The thunderous hip-hop music was a thud as monotonous as a ship's engine room, except when strobes turned it into an artillery barrage. It was undanceable, in any traditional sense, and talk was impossible.

Most students milled, a handful twitched in front of the massive speakers, and periodically a pair would "freak" in which the girl grinds her behind into her partner's pelvis. When these porn auditions went on too long, teachers dutifully broke them up.

The kids only came to joyous life when a Michael Jackson song with actual rhythm and melody played. Suddenly they formed a snake-like line to dance to the beat — once. Then it was back to thud-thud-thud.

"That's just the style, don't get upset," advised activities director Pat Jewell, who says kids haven't really changed in her 30 years in education. "You watched MTV lately?"

No, I'm a living fossil, and firmly in the fuddy-duddy camp. The trouble with the dance I saw is that it was sexual without being sexy.

"Turn up the lights a little," Sheppard said. "It's dark, it's sexually charged, and it doesn't feel upbeat at all."

The guys had no social clue. The girls had no hint of romance. Nobody knew how to dance, because their parents and teachers don't know, either. Just one couple did a brief swing, as bright as a match in a cave. She was the daughter of an actress and had learned from Mom. He'd taken lessons at Century Ballroom.

BEFORE TELEVISION and the domination of sit-on-your-butt spectator entertainment, more people really danced. The discipline that came out of World War II lent itself to learning steps, and music was written with waltz, tango and swing in mind.

In the 1960s, individuality went to war with conformity, feminism challenged the I-lead-you-follow convention, and rock music broke from the dance-step harness.

I'm ancient enough that my junior high had a brief partner-dancing class. The advantage was that you got to hold an actual girl — 6 inches distance, mister! — and (though you would never, ever admit this in junior high) listen to some pretty nice music.

The disadvantage was you had to memorize steps. If you somehow didn't know your place on the popularity pecking order, dance class cruelly confirmed it. And there was no opportunity outside gym to put the steps to use, except the occasional wedding.

Partner dancing never entirely died, and the decades since have seen it come in waves of ballroom, disco, folk, country and swing. Still, why master complicated moves when you could just jerk? Culturally, memory eroded. The dance floor became foreign. The civilized arc from pagan fertility rite to prissy minuet came full circle, back to let-it-all-hang-out caveman bacchanalians. The daughters of feminism accept degradation even their grandmothers would have revolted against.

What may be saving American dance is immigration. Russians and Eastern Europeans have brought partner-dancing skills they learned in the old Soviet bloc. Lioudmila Popova, for example, is a nine-time Russian champion who came to Seattle in 1991 and now dances with American husband Byron Johnson at downtown's Washington Dance Club. "We started it in elementary school," she says.

Hispanics have brought the same skill from Latin America. Asians are much in evidence on local dance floors, and China claims the most ballroom dancers in the world, with 200,000 qualified for official competition.

The media has sensed a trend. Some 15 million people watched the first "Dancing With the Stars." Harry Potter just went to his first ball. Movies such as "Grease," "Dirty Dancing," "Footloose," "Saturday Night Fever," "Urban Cowboy," "Swing Kids," "Scent of a Woman" and "Strictly Ballroom" were cited by dance enthusiasts as having inspired them in the past, but more recently the Japanese and American versions of "Shall We Dance?" and the school documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" have persuaded people to give it a try.

Business at Arthur Murray studios nationally grew 30 percent last year.

Dancing has always been a reflection of society. Court dancing was deliberately complicated to ensure that only aristocrats with a lot of time on their hands could master it. The waltz position was dictated by a need to keep the hilt of the male's sword, on his left side, from poking the female's stomach. It was once considered immoral to touch a lady's waist and, if one lacked gloves, one should at least cover the fingers with a handkerchief.

The waltz itself — its glide made possible by the disappearance of hobnailed shoes and the advent of polished floors — was initially deemed scandalous and dismayingly "common." So, too, were the Charleston, the tango and the twist. The young scandalized the old with such dances as the "Funky Butt Grind" (1910) and the Boomps-a-Daisy, Hully-Gully, the Bunny Hug and the Frug.

Yet the core idea — a romantic partnership, a 3-minute flirtation set to music — has endured. Daryl Schmidt got over a paralyzing back injury by dancing at the Washington Dance Club, but when he was caught practicing tango in his work's conference room, his male colleagues razzed him unmercifully. He shut them up by asking, "Guys, how many women ask you to hold them in your arms for three minutes?"

"There's some life skills here that could save marriages," says Cherie Ponder, who runs the youth dance-performing troupe from Pacific Ballroom Dance Company. "How do you get a partner for life if you can't make a woman comfortable and secure for three minutes?"

Men, listen up. "It's a chick magnet," says Hallie Kuperman, owner of Century Ballroom. "Any boy who can dance can get a date."

"It doesn't matter how you look or what you know," agrees Michelle Boyer, another skilled dancer. "If you can dance, you're going to be a very popular guy."

"Any average guy has an above-average chance if he's a good dancer," chimes in dance student Leslie Picket.

"Females like to dance with a man who can lead," says Cassie Friedle. "I don't know a woman who won't find a man who can dance attractive."

"It's all about making the other person feel good," says Amy Williams.

"They told me I could touch girls, so I signed up," says Matt Longhurst, now an instructor with his wife. "The first thing I told Heather is she has a nice cha-cha."

CONFESSION: I don't walk the talk. I have danced, I did take jitterbug lessons once (a disaster, my wife confirms) and I did shuffle a bit recently during free-lesson time at Century Ballroom. Salsa seemed to involve stepping backward and forward, a concept that challenged my abilities. During lessons, partners rotate every couple minutes, and while every woman was sweet, their eyes couldn't help but widen in horror at how little I knew. Dancing remains on my arthritic "to-do" list.

If women merely need encouragement, men must be coaxed.

How hard is it?

You don't need a partner for lessons: Even if you bring one you'll be required in many studios to swap frequently because it accelerates learning. If you want a sober, polite, non-threatening singles scene, dance class is it.

If you do get up the nerve to go dancing in public, no one will look at you. Promise. "You only watch the hotshots," Century Ballroom's Kuperman says.

I agree: I watched a lot of dancing for this story and my eye irresistibly fastened on the good ones who want to be seen. It's hypnotic: swirling skirts, a flash of thigh, the male as powerful lever, a hoist, a twirl, taut calves, pattern steps, dip, smile, a ruddy flush, bright-eyed excitement.

"It's also very innocent," says student Neilan. Even tangos where the best entwine like anacondas have an uncrossed line that makes the chasteness all the more exciting.

"I wanted appropriate touching in a safe way," says Don Morgan with the nonprofit Northwest Dance Network. A dance is like speed-dating: When it's over you can simply say thanks and walk away. "You know it's getting serious if you go out after and have coffee."

"I had a lifetime fear of partner dancing and decided to get over it," says Dan Suchman, 47, who started a year ago. Now he dances three nights a week. "I love being able to express myself to music. I like the connection with a partner. It's like a fantasy, a person you've never met before, and will never meet again."

Or will. Many couples interviewed turned out to have met at dance lessons.

Learning to be a good dancer is as challenging as learning to be a good golfer or skier. Expect to spend three months of lessons acquiring the "muscle memory" to start moving naturally to the music, and six months to a year to gain real skill. Competitive dancing can take a lifetime.

Stanford University dance professor Richard Powers calls the activity "transcendent play" or "deep play," a fusion of the physical and mental that goes to our core. In an Internet essay, author Dean Paton describes four stages of learning to dance: unconscious incompetence, where ignorance is bliss; conscious incompetence, when you start learning from mistakes; conscious competence, where you truly enjoy it but are still thinking the next move, and finally unconscious competence, when you're "in the zone" with partner and music.

At its best, participants say, dance can become almost orgasmic or, to put it on a higher plane, equivalent to religious enlightenment.

At the top of the amateur-dance pyramid are those who enter competitive rounds. There are six regional competitions, nationals, and then world for the top two American partners. At that level dance must be a passion, says competitor Mark Tabor of USA Dance. "It does take a lot of training and hard work, and you don't see ugly people in the finals."

Monique Hrouda, owner of Lake City's DanceSport, hosts a dance team led by Mike Begley that performs and competes around the Northwest. Hrouda got hooked after seeing "Dirty Dancing," while Begley became president of the social dance club at Gonzaga University in Spokane.

"There's this tremendous joy," Begley says.

"It's a dancer's high," adds Hrouda.

She and Michael Andersson, an instructor at the University of Washington's physics department who takes dance lessons, noted that many are engineers or scientists. There's a mathematical precision to leading a partner dance, and yet it's also a release from cold logic, an opportunity for improvisation.

The dance team practices two evenings a week. Cassie Friedle wandered through the door and found "an automatic family." Carlos and Hilda Ordona bring their 7-month-old baby, Katya, to practice, pirouetting in front of her.

The routines are as intricate as a ballet, the workout intense. Kuperman put on a pedometer once and in three hours took 10,000 steps.

There's ample evidence that dancing sheds weight, increases circulation, improves balance and posture, swells confidence, aids poise and even staves off Alzheimer's. So why doesn't everyone do it?

THE STATE OF Washington lists dance as one of the four art "cores" it encourages schools to teach. "Dance is the first art form," says AnnRenè Joseph, arts supervisor for the Superintendent of Public Instruction's Office. "Without speech, and without anyone telling us, we begin to move. We were born to move. Dance teaches you how to carry yourself, to be proud of yourself. Would ballroom dancing make our schools a civic place? Yes!"

Yet few schools teach it. The Seattle district says it has no dance program. Many physical-education teachers don't know how to dance, though more are trying to learn. The arts in general are getting short shrift in an era fixated on math and reading scores. Girls are more apt to learn ballet than ballroom.

A "Gone With The Wind" ballroom scene is one of civilization's great beauties, but it takes time and discipline. Does that make it obsolete?

Dance requires empathy and connection. You can be straight or gay, young or old, white or black, tall or short, fat or thin, athletic or clumsy — I saw them all move with grace — but it requires communion through music and movement. It requires you to pay attention, not just to the steps, but to each other.

What a concept.

I don't remember much from high school history class, but I do remember the time our teacher, after a romantic night with his wife, looked like a cat who'd found the cream. "Guys," he advised us with a triumphant glow, "take her dancing."

Not bad Valentine's Day advice.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

Read the whole story with photos here.

The Swing

With its grace and good manners, ballroom is back

Intimate yet safe, the basic waltz position gives each partner a role and yet requires them to pay attention to each other.

In a celebration of swing at Seattle's Century Ballroom, Melissa Petersen goes airborne while Chris Chapman keeps the beat, proving that good dancing can take you off the earth.

Dancing is about having fun through partnership, incorporating elements of physical skill, conviviality and old-fashioned sex appeal.

At Washington Dance Club's dress-up anniversary party, Lori Talbott and Mike Kheriaty go with the flow.

The brain makes an instinctual link between music and movement, prompting us to clap, tap or dance.

Sometimes even good dancers just like to watch. Here at Washington Dance Club, competitive dancers slink and glide through a tempestuous tango that would topple ordinary mortals.

Energetic dances like swing and jitterbug channel joy while offering tremendous workouts.


Partner dancing recalls simpler, more intimate times, such as the re-creation of a 1940s-era swing radio show at Century Ballroom. Liz McCarthy steps to the mic as Sandra Singler readies to take her turn.


Partner dancing invites couples to touch, and men who do it well become "chick magnets." Here, Mia Goldsmith and Joshua Welter fuse.


Doing the swing at Century Ballroom, Rachael Ries and Mark Kihara show that dance is as athletic as it is elegant.


Century Ballroom owner Hallie Kuperman, left, demonstrates a salsa move with fellow instructor Alison Kockrill. Kuperman, a lesbian, has made her club a relaxing place to learn for both straight and gay dancers.


Step-one-two . . . Students try salsa at Century Ballroom, the women switching partners every few minutes by rotating around the circle.