The Spin on Ballroom
Since June, Kim Rinderknecht and Justin Plessel have been counting out beats and box-stepping their way around the dance floor of a small ballroom studio in Minneapolis, trying to get a leg up on their upcoming wedding reception duties. One night they happened to catch a fox trot performed on Dancing With the Stars, the ABC battle-of-the-ballroom hit that paired sort-of celebrities with professional dancers in a six-week dance-off. "Watching them I just thought, 'Wow, that's not the fox trot we learned,' " says Rinderknecht.
Stars and Fox's new reality show, So You Think You Can Dance, are inspiring plenty of would-be hoofers. In the first six months of 2005, business at the 150 U.S.-based Arthur Murray dance studios has grown nearly 30 percent compared with the same period last year, says Executive Vice President John Kimmins. But in six weeks or even six months, can a rhythmically challenged Fred Flintstone really turn into an elegant Fred Astaire? Real-world students and instructors say getting that glamour isn't always as easy as 1-2-3.
The "stars" were training one-on-one with professional partners for 35 hours a week or more. "We were busting our butts, really cramming, and sweating like pigs to make it happen," says U.S. Open Dance champion Charlotte Jorgensen, who was partnered with runner-up John O'Hurley of Seinfeld. Most ballroom dance students don't have the time or money for that kind of commitment (group lessons typically cost about $10 an hour per person, private lessons significantly more than that). But in six weeks of twice-weekly lessons, students can learn a lot, says Kimmins. "They'll be able to dance comfortably in a club and in most any social situation," he says.
Step by step. The key is to find a class that teaches you solid basic skills. Gravity-defying lifts and dizzying spins aren't that hard to master, say instructors. Dancing together closely without stepping on each other's toes is tougher. "Just learning to walk together is the hard part," says Paul Pellicoro, owner of the Manhattan ballroom studio DanceSport.
Another ballroom dance myth is that it's a great way for couples to spend time together. Sixty-five percent of the students at Arthur Murray studios are couples, but that doesn't mean they're all having fun. Kate VanAlstine, an instructor at the Dancers Studio in St. Paul, Minn., says clashes between couples are common. During group lessons, students change partners every few minutes, which inevitably leads to unflattering comparisons. "The guy will say to his wife, 'You don't dance like she does,' " says VanAlstine, a comment about as winning on the dance floor as it is in other settings.
And don't expect experience in other styles of dance to make it easier to learn ballroom. The 50 hopefuls who are on So You Think You Can Dance are mostly trained or self-taught in jazz, hip-hop, or break dancing, says Mary Murphy, owner of the Champion Ballroom Academy in San Diego, who's working with them. "The hip-hop kids, break-dance kids, they've got nothing I can use," she says. But everyone has to start somewhere. "Most people haven't been trained at all when they come into a ballroom dance program, and they're very nervous," says Murphy. "But once they get the hang of it, especially the men, they have the best time."
TIPS TO DIP TO
For pockets: Many studios offer a free introductory lesson to beginners.
For pants: Ballroom can be harder for men, who have to learn to lead. The waltz and fox trot are good for starters.
For paunch: Dancing the quickstep for 1 1/2 minutes uses the same amount of energy as an 800-meter race.
This story appears in the August 1, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.