Ballroom Dancing: A Moving Conversation by Steve Steiner

Ballroom Dancing: A Moving Conversation
By Steve Steiner

If you can walk, you can ballroom dance.

That’s according to most dance instructors, who add that dancing is simply walking to music.

Granted, there are certain exceptions due to physical limitations and other conditions, but even those who are afflicted with such can still move around the dance floor, albeit limited. In fact, research has proven that people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) benefit from ballroom dancing, as often do those recuperating from surgeries.

However, ask most ballroom dance instructors and they will tell you that ballroom dancing is more than simply walking to music.

“It’s a conversation,” says Mary Dague, who owns and operates Dancin’, located at 1112 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland. By that she means it’s a form of communication that differs from ordinary everyday conversation.

Ballroom dance is transcendent in that regard as it incorporates a host of methods in which one dance partner (often the male) “tells” his partner via attitude, posture, framework, placement of arms and hands, facial expression as well as the music itself, where, how and what to do as he choreographs.

However, it is not a dictatorship.

“Dancing is a partnership,” says Kris Kohlhaas. “You have to ‘ask’ and the lady has to say, ‘OK.’” Kohlhaas and Sho Rich recently began Masquerade Ballroom and teach at the Stardust Ballroom, located at 3613 Citrus Tree Court, Plant City.

It is already well-documented that ballroom dancing has numerous benefits. There are the mental aspects of learning the various dance steps and for the men, learning how to lead and choreograph. In that regard, ballroom dancing has been demonstrated to aid with cognition. Of all forms of mental exercise, ballroom dancing has proven the most effective addressing the onslaught of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. (The second most effective exercise, doing crossword puzzles, lags far behind.)

Of course, there’s the physical aspect. It’s a great form of exercise for people of all ages, but particularly those older, as most dances are of a low-impact nature. Also, as earlier stated, it helps in recovering from surgeries.

For Nancy Egbert, who studies with Masquerade Ballroom (and elsewhere prior to Masquerade, which only recently began), it was a way to recuperate from a broken leg three years ago.

“I knew nothing about ballroom dancing,” says Egbert. “Once I got into it I never stopped. I absolutely love it.”

It shows. Not only is it impossible to believe she ever suffered a broken leg, it also is not unusual for people to approach her and ask if she is a dance instructor.

There is also the social aspect and that may be the most important aspect of all. Research has shown that often following a traumatic event in one’s life, such as the death of a spouse or loved one, that people, especially older adults, often tend to withdraw from contact with friends and relatives. In other situations, people withdraw from the grieving person. Regardless, the end result is loneliness and detachment. It can lead to a downward spiral. Ballroom dancing counters that as it engages people.

This is especially true of the group dance lessons, as many who decide to learn find this the best introduction since many who sign up also are single, mixed in with a goodly smattering of couples.

“It’s a safe venue to meet people,” says Dague. This is particularly so for those none too keen going to a bar or nightclub, such as Michael and Michelle Hall, who are taking group lessons with Mary Dague at the Kelly Rec Center.

Like many, the Halls are first-timers to ballroom dancing and they find the social atmosphere comfortable. As a result, in addition to learning to dance they have already established contacts with fellow classmates, most who are “in the same boat” as they are: novices not necessarily knowing their right foot from their left.

“It’s getting to know the others in the class,” says Michelle Hall.

It’s also a more relaxing way to learn, according to Michael Hall.

“We’re having a great time being bad at it,” jokes Michael, who adds he definitely fits the category of lacking grace. “I have no rhythm and no ability to dance.”

He’s not the only one who might lay claim to being awkward, but what he says makes the learning fun is the lack of pressure.

Kevin Rios, who owns and runs Just Dance, located at 124 S. Kentucky Ave., Lakeland, says that group lessons break down barriers and creates community.

“What we try to do is make dancers feel like a family,” says Rios.

Of course, there’s always the question of having someone to dance with. Depending upon which dance instructor you ask, there is either a shortage or an over-abundance of men taking lessons. For Susan Staton, who teaches group lessons at the Chain Of Lakes Complex in Winter Haven, located at 210 Cypress Gardens Blvd. SW, it’s the latter as more often than not, there aren’t enough ladies for the men to learn to dance with. For her, though, it is not that unusual.

“I used to teach at the Red Rose,” says Staton. “I used to have more men than women.” (The Red Rose was a well-known hotel and restaurant complex off Interstate 4 in Plant City that closed a number of years ago). Yet for Staton, regardless of venue, the same is holding true thus far at the lessons she teaches in Winter Haven.

Still, it is not always easy to get started.

“The hardest part is getting in the door,” says Theresa Hanken, who runs the Hanken School of Dance, located at 1437 Resmondo Drive, Lake Wales. From her experience and observations, this is more so with men. Many women, especially wives, will attest to that and the stories how they convinced their husbands seem to follow a thread: that of she being willing and he being resistant.

“I had always wanted to dance,” says Lynne Hulen, who with her husband, Bob, have been taking dance lessons the past several years with Theresa Hanken,  “I had to drag him.” She thinks it’s finally beginning to pay off. “I think he’s beginning to enjoy it.”

The Hulens take semi-private lessons with another couple, Curtis and Paula Templeton. The Templetons began taking lessons about 10 years ago.

“It was something we could do together,” says Paula, who adds each of them had different interests from one another.

“It’s cheaper than marriage counseling,” says Curtis. Judging by the fact he immediately laughs it is apparent he is joking.

What is interesting as they dance is the look on their faces. Lynne and Paula are smiling while Bob and Curtis appear more serious. Hanken says it’s because a lot of what takes place on the dance floor is up to the men and learning to lead and choreograph is not as simple as it looks.

Just as it is in any sport — and incidentally, competitive ballroom dancing is recognized as such and is called DanceSport — it takes practice in order to not only get good, but more so, to get comfortable on the dance floor.

It’s the combination of mentally learning the basics and then melding it into what is termed muscle memory. Shortly after, creativity — and self-assuredness — follow.

One of the misperceptions each instructor says they face is the belief that only older people are taking ballroom dance lessons. While erroneous overall, there is some validity.

“For some, ballroom dancing is a luxury,” says Sho Rich, who runs Masquerade Ballroom in Plant City. Once children are out of the house and on their own, older people have the financial wherewithal to take up ballroom dancing.

However, while there appears to be the patina of truth to that, it isn’t necessarily so, according to Kevin Rios, who owns and operates Just Dance.

“I’ve got people who love to dance who are in their 90s, and I have some in their 20s,” says Rios.

Hanken has observed something similar.

“It seems the younger generation is getting interested in ballroom,” she says.

Whatever the reason for taking ballroom dance lessons, for instructors the overriding goal is singular: Getting people to dance. It sounds obvious, but scratch beneath the surface and what seems plain and simple quite often is complex.

Beginners are self-conscious. If you don’t believe that, consider the cliché, “Dance as if no one is watching.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. Ergo, dance instructors encourage their students to do more than just attend class and then practice at home.

“My goal is to get you dancing on the dance floor as quickly as possible and have you feel comfortable,” says Staton. The same holds true for Mary Dague, who adds there is an additional bonus.

“I want people to learn how to do it, to get out and dance. It creates memories,” she says.

Still, there is that fear, that reluctance. Hanken urges people not to let their fear hold them back and instead be bold and decisive.

“For couples sitting on the fence? Take that first step,” says Hanken, no pun intended.

One doesn’t have to be proficient, just willing to get out on the dance floor, says Rios.

“It creates magic,” says Rios. “There’s no other industry like that.”

Sho Rich says not to be concerned how you do as long as you dance.

“It’s always going to be the timeless joy of life,” he says. “Dancing is a celebration and it’s always going to be that way.”

More info:

To learn

Almost all the ballroom dance instructors listed below teach private lessons as well as group lessons.

Mary Dague teaches a group dance lesson on Tuesdays at the Kelly Rec Center, 40 Imperial Blvd., Lakeland. The beginner class runs 7 – 8 p.m., and is followed from 8 – 9 p.m., for the intermediate class. Her studio, Dancin’, is located at 1112 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland. Call 863-683-6314.

Theresa Hanken teaches but not on a set schedule as of this writing. Rather, she teaches group classes when enough people have signed up. Her studio is located at 1437 Resmondo Drive, Lake Wales. Call 863-324-7068.

Sho Rich/Kris Kohlhaas currently teach a group lesson at the Stardust Ballroom, 3613 Citrus Tree Court, Plant City, on Thursdays. The first class starts at 6 p.m., with the second class at 7 p.m. A different dance is taught per session. Afterwards, students may stay an additional hour in which to practice what they have been taught. Call Sho Rich at 813-944-8145, or Nancy Egbert at 813-431-1567.

Kevin Rios, along with other instructors, teach an assortment of group lessons on various days. His studio, Just Dance, is located at 124 S. Kentucky Ave., Lakeland. Call either 863-940-4701, or 863-877-7807

Susan Staton currently does not operate a private studio. She instead teaches group classes starting 6 p.m., on Wednesdays at the Chain of Lakes complex, 210 Cypress Gardens Blvd. SW, Winter Haven. Call 863-604-5060.

Other instructors include Buddy Johnston (Dancer Buds), who teaches at various locations, including the homes or community centers of the student. Call 352-638-4122; Al Campaneria (Magic of Dance). Call 863-602-7847; starting September and running through May (with the exception of December) George and Connie Wilkerson will be teaching a group class from 4:30-5:30 p.m., on Mondays at the Lake Ashton Health and Fitness Center, Lake Wales. Call 863-875-6728.

Dance venues

There are several places to go dancing in Polk County and neighboring Plant City, in Hillsborough County. All have admission fees/cover charges. The following are the ones most known:

On Fridays, starting at 7:30 p.m., Mary Dague’s students are invited to a semi-social dance at her studio, Dancin’, 1112 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland. On the third Sunday of each month, she hosts the Fellowship of Ballroom Dancers at the First Presbyterian Church, 175 Lake Hollingsworth Drive, Lakeland. Dancing from 3-5:30 p.m.

On the first two Fridays of each month, starting at 8 p.m., there is dancing at Just Dance, 124 S. Kentucky Ave., Lakeland.. It then switches to Saturdays the remainder of the month.

Following a summer hiatus, the Four Seasons at Magnolia, 702 E. Orange St., Lakeland, hosts a dance starting at 7:30 p.m., on Thursdays. There will be only one dance for the month of August, tentatively scheduled for the third week. Starting in September, dances will be held weekly.

There are dances many, if not most, Sundays at the Stardust Ballroom, 3613 Citrus Tree Court, Plant City. For times/fees, call Nancy Egbert at 813-431-1567.

Starting Sept. 1, from 4-7 p.m., on Fridays there will be dancing at the Lake Ashton Health and Fitness Center. Also starting in September there will be dancing at the clubhouse at Lake Ashton.