To an extent, ballroom dancing is communicating without communicating

  • Michelle Johnson (left) helps Zoe Picard (center) of Webster and Kim Gillis of Chichester with their form during a beginner’s ballroom dance class at Let’s Dance Studio in Concord on Sept. 29. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Keith Johnson and Miranda Bonin, 17, of New London dance during a beginner’s class at Let’s Dance Studio in Concord on Sept. 29. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Students learn ballroom dancing during a beginner's class at Let’s Dance Studio in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staffJeff (right) and Cherie Farwell of Barnstead dance during a beginner's class at Let’s Dance Studio in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Bree Sowle (left), 17, of Newbury and Miranda Bonin, 17, of New London demonstrate their swing dance moves. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Bree Sowle (left), 17, of Newbury and Miranda Bonin, 17, of New London demonstrate their swing dance moves during a beginner's class at Let’s Dance Studio in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • John and Sue Caruso of Bow (couple at center) and other students practice a set of steps during a beginner's class at Let’s Dance Studio in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Kim Gillis (right) of Chichester and Zoe Picard of Webster practice a set of steps during a beginner's class at Let’s Dance Studio in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 10/10/2016 6:11:59 PM

It’s not obvious from the street, but during a recent evening on the second floor of the building at 5 N. Main St., a lesson in practical geometry was going on.

“Maintain the 45 degree angle,” announced Michelle Johnson to her class. “Keep it parallel.”

Or maybe it was a lesson in human anatomy.

“Forearm to tricep; forearm to tricep,” Johnson told the dozen students, gesturing to aid those uncertain about muscle terminology.

Or maybe it was a lesson in post-verbal communication.

“You can talk yourself through it, but I don’t think those people have the high level of enjoyment of not talking,” she said.

Actually, it was none of those, or perhaps it was all of those because as she has done here for a dozen years, Johnson was teaching grown-ups to dance.

Johnson owns Let’s Dance Studio, which has been overlooking this part of Main Street – “I wouldn’t be on the ground floor; the second floor is more mysterious” – since 2004. During that time thousands of people have climbed the narrow stairs to learn the cha-cha, rhumba, East Coast swing or waltz.

We’re not talking about Dancing With the Stars exotica, although the school does have professional teachers who give private lessons and students who have mastered intricate moves. The clientele is people of almost all ages – time-stressed parents of young children are the exception – who want to prepare for a wedding or a ball, or who are intrigued by ballroom dancing, with its twirls, dips, hand-holding and public embrace.

“We were at a street festival with some friends, and they started dancing. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s pretty incredible to pull that out of your back pocket,’ ” said Joel Pickering, 37, of Concord. He was practicing the waltz with Kelly Sheehan, 36, who had bought them lessons for his birthday.

In another part of the room Jeff and Cherie Farwell of Barnstead were learning to dance because they were going on a cruise. But that wasn’t the only reason, they said. Like many people of the rock ‘n’ roll generation – he’s 51, she’s 47 – they have long danced together, but haven’t really been together as they danced.

“We’d just go out and move around,” said Jeff, miming the unscripted flailing that can be seen on many dance floors. “Then we went to a couple of dances and watched couples out dancing.”

“They were having so much fun. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that?’ ” added Cherie.

Yes, it is nice, as this reporter can attest. After decades of unscripted dance-floor flailing, my wife and I (prodded by our adult daughter) took the plunge, and in the past year have learned some basic swing and jitterbug moves. It’s not much, but it is enough to let us dance together to rock, rhythm & blues and swing music, rather than dancing three feet apart as we have always done. We have always enjoyed going out, but now we enjoy it even more.

Michelle Johnson said we weren’t unusual in taking dance lessons after the kids have left home. “A lot of people have it on their bucket list,” said Michelle.

Most ballroom scenes will have at least one example of dance’s recuperative powers, featuring couples so old they can hardly walk.

“They’ll hobble out onto the floor, but when they start to dance all the problems go away. They’ll move around, it’s wonderful. Then it’s over and they’ll hobble off again,” said Michelle’s husband, Kevin.

But gray hair is not a requirement. Miranda Bonin, a senior at Kearsarge Regional High School, was among those at the lesson I attended, and helped me with some of the “quick-quick-slow-slow” timing.

Why is she learning these ballroom dances? “I can’t do hip-hop,” she said.

The essence of ballroom dancing is connection between the partners, which can as light as fingertip-on-fingertip or as entwined as a move known as the Cuddle Wrap, and the way it is used for the leader to let the follower know what’s about to happen. The raising or lowering of the leader’s left arm; a small pressure against the follower’s shoulder blade; the turning of the wrists in joined hand – those are the signals that make all the difference.

That’s why watching good ballroom dancing is such fun, when two individuals are thinking as one, almost by magic.

But mastering these signals can be a stumbling block to the newcomer.

“The patterns are easy to learn. It’s the leading and following that’s hard,” Johnson said.

Hence the emphasis on geometry, anatomy and nonverbal communication.

“If things go a little wonky on you, always check your frame, always check your posture,” she told the class as the Pink Panther theme music started to play. “Remember, take your body wherever you go – it’s your body dancing, not just your feet. We do tend to forget everything from neck to our ankles!”

Partners are not necessary to take lessons. Like most dance studios, Let’s Dance enforces the rule that every leader practices with every follower to help everybody learn more quickly. (Leaders are usually male and followers female, although not always, and Kevin is available to step in if there is an excess of women, which happens less than you might think.)

“Switching around is helpful. It’s intimidating, but helpful,” said Michelle Johnson. “You can’t blame your partner for not getting your lead, or for not leading properly, if you find you have the same problem with somebody else.”

Prices at Let’s Dance Studio can be as low as $15 for joining one 50-minute group lesson, or can shift well into three figures for advanced group or private lessons. Let’s Dance is one of a number of dance studios in the region, and while most focus on teaching ballet and other performance dance styles to schoolchildren, which is the bread and butter of the industry, there are plenty of places where even adults with two left feet can learn the thrill of executing a nice, clean underarm turn.

See you on the dance floor.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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