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Ballroom dancing.


The intimacy of ballroom dancing gives it new life in the nineties.

In the early sixties, when Chubby Checker performed the twist on American Bandstand, he changed the face of social dancing. It was the beginning of the end for "touch dancing," an era that began in the late eighteenth century with the waltz, and included such dances as the fox-trot, tango, rumba, samba, and swing, to name a few. But just as the waltz takes its dancers full circle across the dance floor, returning them to where they first began, today's baby boomers and members of Generation X are turning back to the dances of the past, embracing each other on the dance floor while embracing the dance styles of their parents and grandparents.

Since 1990 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of twenty- and thirtysomethings turning to ballroom dance. Figures shows a 110-percent increase among those under the age of thirty, and a 75-percent increase among those in their thirties and forties, according to the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association, a nationwide organization that governs and promotes ballroom dance locally, nationally, and internationally.

Social dance is a continually evolving from that reflects the spirit of the time and, in particular, the ever-changing relations between the sexes. What does this trend back to touch dancing tell us then about the status of sexual relations today?

"Monogamy is in," says Carlan Russell, ballroom dance instructor and co-owner of Aequus Dance Studio in New York City. And when relationships are in, according to Russell, so is ballroom dance. She has a point. The last time touch dancing had such a strong hold on young people was in the 1940s, during World War II, when the uncertainties of that time encouraged the intimacy of clinging together on, as well as off, the dance floor. There is uncertainty among today's young people too, the uncertainty brought on by AIDS. But the paradox of AIDS is that it encourages people to enter into monogamous relationships at the same time that it hinders from finding such relationships. Singles are apprehensive about the prospect of meeting and dating, let along making contact and touching. Ballroom dance provides a safe form of contact, so safe, it seems, that many women now go to ballroom dance clubs alone.

"I feel comfortable going by myself, because I know the people are there to dance," says Gail, a thirty-one-year-old schoolteacher. "A man typically will dance a few dances with me and then go ask another woman." Men, too, feel less threatened in an atmosphere that stresses dancing. "There's not some agenda where I have to check someone out before I dance. Who's my next partner? I don't know. I'm just going to enjoy the dance," says one man.

For some, ballroom dance is a form of "safe sex." Says Matthew, a thirty-eight-year-old computer programmer: "When I've danced with a hundred women in one week, I don't feel the need to date anybody. If I meet a woman, I'll spend all this money, go out to a restaurant and try to get to know her, talk to her, and then hopefully three or four days later we're going to dance and that will be the best part. This way I can do the best part again and again and again. So I don't have that craving for a dating situation. I come home totally, totally sated."

Figueroa, dance instructor at Stepping Out Dance Studio in New York City. "The way the dances are choreographed, you're with a partner for a while and you can talk. With freestyle dance, the music is so loud you're apart and yelling at each other." The ballroom dance club is a breed apart from the traditional club or disco, which many young people find alienating. Remarks one man, "At the discos, people eyeball each other and avoid each other and wish they weren't there. You leave feeling much lonelier than when you came and wishing you'd never gone."

In large part, the greater satisfaction given by touch dancing is due to the form and structure that determine not only the dance steps but also the interaction between the dancers. Dale Stotts, a dance instructor, points out that the steps are not the only thing students learn from ballroom dance: "It teaches you proper etiquette. A lot of people need to improve their social skills, just saying hello to someone." This structure, when it comes to the conduct between the sexes, is not new to ballroom dance. Guides and handbooks from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries presented strict guidelines to be followed by dancers in the ballroom. Such issues as how many times a man should ask a woman to dance, appropriate topics for conversation during a dance, and the significance of an introduction made in the ballroom were as relevant as learning the steps to the waltz.

And how do today's young dancers feel about such structure? One of them tells me, "It's so much better. Structure means we can do something with each other, not just at each other. When you're apart, you're both doing something sort of show-offy, but when you're doing a rumba, for example, you're totally coordinated, two bodies doing one thing." The structure that at first glance may seem cold and formal actually helps in promoting intimacy. It makes it easier to touch and hold each other. As one instructor puts it, "Ballroom dance is sort of like a buffer. People want a reason to say, 'I have to communicate with you.' They can't do the dancing without touching someone, so it's almost like someone's saying, 'You have my permission to touch this person, to hold them, to ask them to dance.'" Perhaps, then, it is not the structure that is the key, but what the structure leads to.

What it leads to is intimacy, and intimacy has always been a part of touch dancing. When the waltz hit the dance floor at the end of the eighteenth century, the dancers were not looking for structure but looking to abandon it. The waltz turned away from set forms and dance formations, from dancing at arm's length, which had been the practice for four previous centuries. It abandoned logic and rules, turned to emotion, and threw men and women into each other's arms, creating a private world in a public place. Is this what is happening today?

Rather than looking for a set of rules and guidelines to follow, today's twenty- and thirtysomethings may be looking for ways to banish such guidelines; they are tired of hearing about safe sex and sexual harassment. The trend to ballroom dancing could represent a search for the days when much about love and sex was left unsaid instead of being topics for seemingly endless debates about what is careful and correct in the matter of sexual relations. Ballroom dance offers a way to close the gap between the sexes, to achieve closeness, intimacy, passion, and romance.

"The nineties are a time for searching for new norms of behavior. How do we relate?" asks Antioch University President Alan E. Guskin, in response to his school's "sexual offense policy" (nine pages of sexual conduct codes that demand verbal consent at each minute stage of sexual interaction). But in ways that verbal communication taken to extremes, as at Antioch, pushes the sexes apart, touch dancing steps in to bring them together.

"We're alienated. This forces us to run up against each other," says Matthew. "You get this person you've never met, you're holding them in a consensual way, and it's not crossing anybody's boundaries. It allows a form of closeness, it's not an offensive thing, and it feels incredibly alive." While touch dancing is choreographed with conversation in mind, the communication that occurs during a touch dance is primarily nonverbal. "It's a way to meet people without necessarily being verbal," says Kyle Larsen, a dance instructor. "I think it's very rough today. You don't have a lot of physical contact with people. People just have contact with the people in their office. But there's something about either holding somebody in your arms or being held by somebody gently and dancing around that's really lovely. It's like you're taking care of each other."

While each dance communicates its own message, the Argentine tango is probably the most conversational. It is the one dance in which the man and woman are not the mirror image of each other. In this dance, the woman can initiate many of the moves. "It's like making love," says Regan, a thirty-nine-year-old composer. Men and women agree that of all the dances the tango is the one that most naturally evokes an image of passion. Carlan Russell claims that this is because of the music. A tango in 2/4 time has a simplistic, unrelenting rhythm similar to Ravel's Bolero. And like Bolero, it strikes a chord of emotion.

Bob Crease, president of the New York Swing Dance Society and professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, thinks this trend has ultimately to do with music. Usually new dances come in tandem with new popular music. In the Big-Band era, musicians made their living and became big names by traveling from club to club playing for kids who wanted to dance to their music. But after the war, music was increasingly produced in recording studios. "When the music detached itself from the dancing, it became something almost cerebral. There is a fundamental human need to celebrate one's body through movement," says Crease. And this need, he claims, has been denied young people.

"I think twenty- and thirty-year-olds feel like they've missed out on ballroom," says Angel Figueroa. "Now we've given it a title; it's 'ballroom dancing,' whereas to our parents it was just dancing. It didn't matter what kind it was. You could do it in the basement of your house or in the speakeasies, the little basement apartments with the little blue and red lights on them. But I think the young people are catching up with it again, and I don't think they're going to let it go this time."

How should we define Ballroom dancing? The safe sex of the nineties? The vertical expression of a horizontal thought? A satisfaction of the fundamental need to celebrate one's body through movement to music?

In Ettore Scola's 1982 film, Le Bal, life from the 1930s to the 1980s is depicted on the dance floor in a Paris dance hall. As the social and political climate changes, fashions change, faces change, even the dances change. But two things remains constant, the space in which the dancers move and the need to eliminate that distance between them. Scola's characters leave the dance hall as they entered it, alone. If this is symbolic of life, is it any wonder that we look for moments when we can share a dance, an embrace, a chance for happiness, a bit of heaven here on earth? One thing is certain: In a world in which people feel increasingly alienated, touch dancing provides a form of contact. As Irving Berlin wrote, "Heaven, I'm in heaven . . . / And I seem to find the happiness I seek / When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek."

Rebecca Smith writes on the arts and popular culture.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Smith, Rebecca
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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