By Barbara Pinckney
One day in late August, Louise Giuliano received a phone call from the president of the United States Imperial Society Teachers of Dance, informing her that the national organization’s first chapter would be located in the Capital Region.
The Albany/Upstate NY USISTD Chapter No. 1 was organized by the Albany Dancesport Club, which Giuliano started five years ago to support the area’s competitive ballroom dancers. She said the USISTD—a nonprofit organization which trains dance teachers and judges and offers proficiency exams for dancers—actually approached her to form its first chapter because it knew there would be strong local support.
And that is because of something many people do not know: This region has a rather vibrant ballroom dance scene.
An abounding calendar
“There is a lot going on in the Capital District,” said Giuliano, who has traveled the world for dance. “I would say much more than I have seen in other regions.” In fact, between studios, dancehalls, and social clubs, it is possible to attend a dance every night of the week. “Monday night you can go to a studio for a dance, Tuesday night you can do West Coast swing, Wednesday night you can do salsa…” said Anita Riccio, publicity director for Capital Region USA Dance, an organization dedicated to creating ballroom dancing opportunities in the area. “If I want to go out tonight I have a choice of about three different places to go dancing.” To see your options, visit ballroomdances.org, where former dance teacher and competitor Ralph Kenyon keeps a calendar of every public ballroom event in Western Massachusetts and the Capital Region. The site, which updates every Monday, gets more than 900 hits a month.
A welcoming community
Attend a dance, and it is likely that you and your partner will share the floor with anywhere from 30 to 100 others. Attendance dips in the summer, when there are so many other things to do in the region, but picks up again this time of year and will remain steady through the spring.
Most of your fellow attendees will be social dancers, people who just want to have fun and get some exercise and maybe enjoy a little romance. Others will be competitive dancers, a little more focused on their form and technique. They will be all ages, although most will be over 40. If you don’t have a date, there are likely to be other single dancers with whom you can partner up. And just about everyone is likely to know one another, by sight if not by name.
But in many ways, this ballroom culture is one of the region’s best-kept secrets.
“It is sort of like a gray margin that you don’t really know about unless you’re in it,” Giuliano said. “Then once you’re in it and talking to people, all these venues start opening up. Once you go to one dance, you see fliers for other dances, and you think ‘Oh we have to try this or that…’.”
Cha-cha or Waltz
There is a lot to try. In addition to the studios—of which there are several throughout the region—there are various groups dedicated to particular types of dance. “There are at least two Argentine Tango groups in our area,” Giuliano said.
“There are swing societies. There are salsa clubs…that is a vibrant scene in itself. The young people are very into salsa.”
Capital District USA Dance—which celebrated its 20th anniversary in April—and its sister, Adirondack USA Dance in Glens Falls—are working to make this world a little less of a secret, and get more people interested in trying “this or that.” In late September, for example, the Capital District chapter hosted a ballroom demonstration—including a “flash mob” featuring American Swing and the Fox Trot–outside Boscov’s in Colonie Center.
“We want to bring ballroom to the public,” Riccio said. “I hear so many people say, ‘Oh I always wanted to dance’ or ‘Oh, I have two left feet…’ and I say, ‘not for long!’”
It does not take a big financial commitment to give ballroom a whirl. Most local dances cost less than $15 to attend and start with a free lesson.
You can thank Kenyon for that. He does not allow advertising of any kind on his website and proposed free, pre-dance lessons as a solution to those who wanted to promote their tutelage. “If they include a lesson with the price of a dance, they can include the lesson on their page,” he said, referring to the page visitors to ballroomdances.org reach when they click on a calendar listing.
“If they charge extra for lessons they may not list them on their page. That, I think, has encouraged people to include lessons before the dance.”
There are several reasons to try ballroom. It is great for burning fat and calories, building endurance, toning your muscles, improving flexibility and increasing bone density, which can prevent osteoporosis. Furthermore, a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience concluded that ballroom, as well as other forms of social dancing, improves spatial memory and therefore can help prevent the onset of dementia in the elderly.
Plus, it is fun, social, and romantic.
“It is a great lifestyle,” Giuliano said.
“You meet a lot of great people and because everyone is passionate about dancing a lot of friendships result and, actually, a lot of relationships. A lot of marriages have come out of the dance world.”
Popular interest spiked in 2005, when “Dancing with the Stars” debuted and brought the grace and beauty of ballroom into living rooms all over the country. Kenyon said that amateur dance teachers were “coming out of the woodwork” locally, setting up shop to take advantage of the wave.
It was also in 2005 that Jim Apicella opened his first Danceland dance hall, in Colonie.
“When I first started there was really nowhere to go,” he said. “Well, there were a couple of places—people were renting halls and holding dances—but there was no place that was owned by someone. So that is when I got the idea. I thought ‘gee, its Saturday night and there is nowhere to go dancing…’ and it took off from there.”
Apicella is now starting his seventh year in his current location in Latham. He spent weeks laying the “floating floor”—three quarter inch oak over hundreds of cushions—himself.
“So when you dance, your joints don’t hurt,” he said. “I knew the floor was the most important thing, so I didn’t cut any corners. There are no pillars, no obstructions, it’s wide open.”
The Dancing with the Stars effect lasted through the show’s first four or five seasons, and then the novelty wore off, and things settled down.
“Some of the dances were getting fewer people showing up,” Kenyon said. “They were spreading it too thin. Some of the amateur teachers dropped off.”
Apicella said it still often seems that the market is saturated. He holds ballroom dances two or three nights a week and averages about 50 attendees.
“I wouldn’t say its growing,” he said. “It’s staying the same. I wish there were more younger people coming in.”
Dancing at any age
While Latin dancing attracts a younger crowd, traditional ballroom—Waltz, Fox Trot, Tango, etc.—tend to be, in Kenyon’s words, people who are “past kids, in second or third marriages or who have given up on marriages but like to dance.”
Riccio, who is 77 years old, said most of the people she sees at dances are a bit younger than her. However, she knows of some dance groups that have been around for more than 60 years and still have a number of original members.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “They can dance up a storm!”
Clearly, the love of dance is not something that fades with age.
“Some people in our organization are in their 80s, and they’re getting their knee replacements and hip replacements because they want to dance!” Riccio said.
Capital Region USA Dance is trying to install that love in younger people. The group has a program, called Dance Crazy, that goes into local elementary schools.
“We have these fourth graders, and the first day they won’t even touch their partners,” she said. “They dance on fingertips. And by the end of the ten weeks, they’ve learned eight dances. And not just the basics.”
The success of Dance Crazy—and this season’s “Dancing with the Stars Junior”—offers some hope for the future of ballroom dance. It is never too early—or too late—to start. Riccio, in fact, always enjoyed dancing but did not take lessons until she was 58.
For Giuliano, it all began almost 24 years ago, when she and her husband, Paul, were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. They wanted to give themselves a gift—something they could do together—so she clipped a coupon out of the Yellow Pages for dance lessons at a local Arthur Murray studio.
As it turned out, they were naturals. After a month of lessons, they had entered their first competition.
Then, in 2012, the couple attended a dance camp in Washington, D.C. They took the USISTD track, which meant that they worked on a different dance each day. The heavy focus on technique made Giuliano realize that even after two decades of competitive dancing, there was a lot she didn’t know. And that gave her the idea of starting a local dancesport club.
The term “dancesport” distinguishes competitive dance from social or exhibition dancing. The name was adopted to help ballroom gain recognition as a sport qualifying for Olympic competition. A dancesport club focuses on helping members improve their technique.
“So, in October of 2013 I put up a flier at some local dances saying that we were going to have an information meeting about dancesport, if anyone was interested in taking their dancing to another level,” Giuliano said. “I was expecting maybe nine or 10 people from the community. We got 40.”
The group has been going strong ever since, meeting every Monday night at Danceland. About 30 people attend each week. “We started out with two dances—Waltz and Rumba,” Giuliano said. “We slowly added others, and now most people in our group are proficient at ten dances. Of course, new members join, and they learn as they go.”
The USISTD chapter became a possibility when the organization—which traces its international roots to 1904—opened its membership to amateur dancers. Previously, it was limited to people who had taken professional dance examinations.
Giuliano stressed that the chapter is not just for members of the Albany Dancesports Club.
“This is bigger,” she said. “We are hoping a lot of other dancers in the area who are interested in training and upping their technique will join us. It is open to all couple dancers—so Country Western, Argentine Tango, could be Swing—it is really open to anyone who is interested in the technical development of their dancing. There will be training opportunities and evaluation opportunities. We may even hold a competition in our area.”
Twirling together through life
Ballroom dancing and marriage
While beautiful ballroom dancing may look effortless, in reality, it is anything but. The same can be said of a good marriage. In fact, understanding what makes a couple excel on the dance floor, and applying the same principles to your relationship, can result in a strong marriage that appears effortless to the outside world. That, at least, is a key message of the recently-published The Marriage Map: The Road to Transforming Your Marriage from Ordeal to Adventure. The book’s authors, Dr. Michael Grossman and Dr. Barbara Grossman, are competitive ballroom dancers who have been holding marriage workshops for more than 25 years. Michael is a board-certified family physician and fellow of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. Barbara holds a Ph.D. in Theology and Counseling and is a licensed individual, marriage, and family therapist. “When people see Barb and I married 46 years they say ‘you are still so in love with each other. You are so lucky!’ Michael said. “We say ‘what does luck have to do with it?’ It’s a lot of work to stay married and to be in love with each other. You have to be intentional about it. You have to learn skills. That is what we teach in our classes.” The Grossmans began ballroom dance about 23 years ago when they took a class at their local gym. After 15 years as purely social dancers, enjoying a “fun hobby” they knew was good for their health, they decided to up their game, and eight years ago began competing. They realized that the skills they were using in dance—communication, balance, intimacy, flexibility, clearly defined roles—were the same skills they were teaching the couples in their marriage classes. So, they added a dance class to their marriage workshop. “We take our couples to the dance studio on the last night of class,” Barbara said. “What I observe is that everyone has a good time, the women are laughing and enjoying themselves. Dancing is like being out of control in a controlled way. It’s the closest thing to sex that isn’t sex.” They also devised a blueprint for improving or saving a marriage: The D.A.N.C.E. formula.
“D” is for defining boundaries.
“Boundaries means space, your own space for your own individual expression,” Barbara said. In the ballroom dance frame, the right sides of the partner’s bodies are attached, but their left sides are free for movement and self-expression. This represents the balance between intimacy and boundaries that romantic couples need to succeed. “We say ‘fire needs air’—you need the connection, the heat, and you need space,” Michael said. “If you don’t have both, there is a big problem.” He noted that some marriages have so much attachment that the partners feel stifled and look outside the relationship for a sense of freedom. Other marriages have so little connection that the partners look elsewhere for intimacy. “Boundaries also means no one else comes into the dance frame,” he said. “Just you and your partner.”
“A” is for attractiveness and attention
Ballroom dance is not conducted in jeans or sweat pants. Partners dress up and try to look attractive. And while it is not necessary to wear a gown or tux for taco Tuesday at home, “it is very important in marriage that you dress up for one another,” Michael said. “You want to look good for each other, and not just when you go out on a date.” Ballroom dance partners not only look attractive for each other, they look at each other. They focus on each other. By the same token, it is important that you pay attention to your spouse. Put down the phone and find out about your spouse’s day—and tell about yours–while you eat those tacos.
“N” is for navigating roles
Men and women have very specific, and equally important, roles in ballroom dancing. As the Grossmans put it “the man is the stem, and the woman is the flower. The man holds the frame and the woman expresses more of the movement.” It is also typical for the woman to be the follower, waiting for the man’s timing and movement. Michael was quick to point out that “this does not mean the woman is lesser, just that but they both have different roles to play. If you both try to be on your own timing than you start tripping on each other.” Besides, Barbara noted “the man can only step as far as the woman allows him to step because she’s stepping wider. So, it’s a true partnership.” Defined roles are also important in a lasting marriage. Michael explained that while many couples think it is best to be fair and say, “I’ll do the laundry Monday, you do it Tuesday,” in reality “that takes all the romance out of the relationship.” But if you each choose specific things to do—one does laundry, one cooks, for example—each can appreciate what the other does. This creates romance. “When you are first in a relationship you automatically appreciate the other person for all the little things they do,” he said. “And that is what we have to learn to do again.”
“C” is for communication.
Ballroom dance partners are in constant communication with each other. Their bodies touch in five places, and communication may come through a slight movement of the arm or hips as the couple moves across the dance floor. “It looks like it’s effortless but there’s an ongoing communication, and it is very, very critical that you maintain that communication,” Michael said. “That’s what you need in relationships.” He noted that as long as there are periods of intense communication, both spouses will know what to do when there is “a little twist or turn here and there” in their marriage.
“E” is for extending your head outside the frame
In ballroom dancing, the couple’s arms are connected, creating a frame, but their heads sit outside that frame.
The Grossmans say this is a metaphor for the importance of having an outside perspective on your marriage, which may include taking classes or seeing a counselor.
“And you have to reflect on your relationship,” Barbara said. “You have to work on your relationship with the bigger picture in mind, so you can be constantly tuning it and directing it.”
Beyond the D.A.N.C.E. formula, there are two additional ballroom metaphors the Grossmans use: the floor and changing music.
The floor represents the past.
“When you dance the floor never changes, but you use the floor to move you dynamically in the present,” Michael explained. “In your marriage, the past never changes but you use the past to propel you into the future.”
That can, of course, mean remembering what made you fall in love in the first place during times of trouble. It can also mean working together to heal past wounds—which, Barbara said, “fosters great gratitude and love.”
The floor will not change as the couple dances, but the music will. In the same way, the marriage relationship inevitably changes over time.
“Say you waltz really well and then different music comes on,” Michael said. “Now you have to tango. And you don’t know that music. You can’t dance that music. You have to learn new skills. In a relationship, you have different stages of love, and you need different skills.”
He gave the example of moving from the caretaking stage—raising children and “taking care of everyone and everything”—to what is known as the “warrior stage” when partners start to feel independent of one another.
“Now you need space. You want your own individual self-expression: ‘I need to have my career and my hobbies…’” he said. “You don’t feel so connected. That is a different kind of music. You have to learn how to do relationships to this new kind of music. It takes a lot of work to go through that.”
While understanding the D.A.N.C.E., floor and changing music metaphors can make a marriage stronger, the Grossmans say it is not necessary that couples actually go ballroom dancing. What is important is that they have something—dancing, tennis, biking, hiking, traveling, wine tasting, what have you—that they enjoy together, something that keeps them connected, communicating and balanced.
The Grossman’s are offering complimentary copies of The Marriage Map (simply pay the cost of shipping.) To request your copy, or to sign up for the Grossmans’ online marriage classes, go to themarriagemap.com.