Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ballroom Dancing Without the Stars

BOSTON-(Nov. 20, 2008)--Boston University students practice their tango under the guidance of ballroom dance instructor John Paul in the University’s Student Activities Center.

By Margaret DeJesus (

“Slow, quick, quick, slow,” John Paul instructed his ballroom dance students. He glided across the floor in his shiny black shoes chanting the words over and over. It created a rhythm for the American style tango that only they seemed to understand.

When watching the students of the Thursday night advanced ballroom dance class it became clear that every turn of the head, snap of the wrist or twirl of the foot mattered and had to be executed perfectly.

Precision, memory and grace were on display in Boston University’s activities center.
Ballroom dancing originated centuries ago as the elegant dance of choice for the old and wealthy. Today it has a much broader reach beyond the gala or wedding hall.

You don’t necessarily have to be Fred Astaire to enjoy the art form, competitive sport, or recreational pastime. College students and even couch potatoes are taking notice and looking to get in on the fun.

Ballroom dancing encompasses 19 types of dances ranging from the upbeat jive to the provocative tango. The dances are divided into the two categories of American or International. Since it’s a partner style dance that requires a man and a woman to work together in unison, it’s not uncommon for sparks of romance to develop.

Anne Marie Paul met her husband John at a dance teacher seminar where he asked her to save him a dance, and she obliged.

The pair have danced together professionally in competitions and each teaches at local colleges like BU and at DanceSport Boston, the studio they co-own.

Although sparks can fly, Paul said in a telephone interview that ballroom dancing is a wonderful and unique art form that can also be a great social tool and form of exercise.

“It’s an exercise that a man and a woman can do together where they just socialize as friends, move to the music and grow as people. Where else are you going to get that?”

Paul has been teaching ballroom dance for over 20 years. She got hooked after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design with a degree in fashion design.

She meshed her love of fashion with her desire to dance and answered an ad in the paper looking for people interested in being trained to teach ballroom dance.

“Next thing I knew I had a partner and was competing professionally. I found something I really loved to do 26 years ago when I answered that ad,” she said.

The popular television show “Dancing with the Stars” may be awakening the inner dancer in others.

Whether she’s getting her nails done or waiting on line at the supermarket, Paul said she hears people talking about moves from the show all the time.

“It’s educating people on what a quickstep is or what a paso doble looks like. At least they have a clue now,” said Paul, who trained some South Shore realtors for the ‘Dancing with the Realtors’ charity competition for Habitat for Humanity.

“I think ‘Dancing with the Stars’ changed the perception of it (ballroom dancing) and showed people that ‘Yes, the average person can do this,’” said Paul. “It really helps us (teachers), because before, people were in the dark about it. They thought it was just something their grandmother did.”

But, she admitted that the average person doesn’t have the gift of time. A grueling work schedule would be required to replicate some of the dances so quickly. Getting the arms, head and feet to cooperate with the musicality, presentation and timing technique isn’t as easy as it looks.

“It might take two or three years for the average person to get it down like that, since they can’t come in four hours a day for six days of the week like they do on the show,” she said about the time commitment necessary to learn at such a fast pace.

Allison Chang, co-president of MIT’s Ballroom Dance Club had a different opinion of the show’s effect.

“The show is very entertaining to watch, but it also illustrates how difficult ballroom dancing can be,” she said in an email. “While I do believe more people are now more aware of what ballroom dancing means, they don't necessarily feel more encouraged to try it themselves.”

Chang started ballroom dancing at MIT with her sister Emily because it “seemed like a lot of fun and because it's a nice social skill to have.”

Ballroom dancing has a presence on many of Boston’s college campuses like Northeastern University, Harvard, Tufts and BU. It’s even the inspiration for various groups on social networking sites like Facebook and its “I ballroom danced before Dancing with the Stars made it cool” group.

And ballroom dancing doesn’t just work with the traditional classical instrumentation but there’s even room for the hip hop and pop music of the present to make its way on the competitive dance floor.

“Each dance has a specific rhythm and tempo. As long as the music fits the rhythm and tempo requirements, whether it's more traditional or contemporary, it will work,” said Emily Chang, a sophomore MIT graduate student and co-president of the club with her sister Allison.

Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over” and the Pussycat Dolls “Don’t Cha” can be good tunes to practice the cha-cha while Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” could work well with a samba according to the BU Ballroom Dance Club’s website.

Even though the stars on TV make it look effortless, they’re following very specific patterns that can be learned with patience and practice.

“Learning the basic steps does not take long. Usually one or two beginner workshops are sufficient. In order to really master the techniques and look comfortable, though, you would mostlikely have to practice several times each week,” said Chang.

And although the list of dances, 19 to be exact, may look intimidating, knowing one or two goes a long way.

“There are many different styles, but some of them are related. Foxtrot is a little bit like quickstep, cha-cha is a little bit like rumba and salsa. So knowing one dance can help you learn another one faster,” said Chang.

Dancers need to be in great shape if they want to swing to a samba or have the stamina to fox trot in style.

“If you’ve never exercised in 20 years, we got some work to do,” said Anne Marie Paul, who’s been teaching since 1984. “Not everyone has the same goals, abilities or talents. There’s going to be highs and lows, injuries and setbacks. Part of the fun is getting there,” she said.

Paul said she’s seen a recent surge in people age 30 to 60 coming into the studio to learn the dance moves.

“When they try it out, it’s like finding a hidden gem they didn’t know they had before,” she said.
Paul said her studio has something for everyone, with showcases and competitions for the experts and fun parties for the rookies to show off their new moves.

“You can go out and use the skills you learn at the nightclub or you could have fun being a star or a Cinderella for the night with the glittery dress or big gown. And that goes for the guys too who just love the limelight and wish they could be in it.”

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