Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dancing with stars ... in your eyes

My dance teacher asked me to stop by the studio tonight and help with an Introduction to Ballroom Dancing class. Not that I'm the greatest ballroom dancer since Fred Astaire, mind you, but I've got the basic footwork down for Waltz, Fox Trot, Rumba, Tango, and Jitterbug. And, oh yeah, I can dance a passable Cha Cha.

When I first took up social dancing in Houston I harbored dreams of rivaling the great dancers of the 20th century: Barishnikov, Astaire, Kelly, Ebsen. It seemed achievable until that first day I walked into a Salsa and Merengue class. I couldn't tell my third foot from the first two.

So why did I take up ballroom dancing? Because I have a friend, Maggie, who is Chinese and once, maybe twice a year she'll invite me to a social dance at the Chinese Cultural Center in Houston. They dance a lot of Waltz, Fox Trot, Tango, and Swing there. Well, you get the idea. I can't go out on the floor and look like a fool. You should see me jumping up and down, though, yelling and screaming, "It's a CHA CHA! It's a CHA CHA! Whoohoo!"

There are some great dancers who hit the floor at those socials. A fair number of dance teachers from the Houston area spend their evenings cutting graceful paths across the floor. You really don't feel like going out to join them when you can barely do the basic step. Many people just sit on the side and watch. I don't want to do that.

So I told Gloria I wanted to learn some Ballroom Dancing a year ago, maybe longer. She said she would see if there was any demand for it.

And then came Dancing With The Stars. It's amazing how powerful an effect television can have on people's social lives. Heck, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess went off the air years ago and I'm still planning my life around Web site updates. So, who am I to argue with dozens of people who want to learn how to dance the Rumba?

Problem is, there are not many places in Houston (that I know about) where you can dance Tango, Rumba, Waltz (well, a lot of Country and Western places play basic Waltz), and Cha Cha. The Latin clubs have all but stopped playing Cha Cha songs. I have to ask the DJs to play a couple of Cha Chas and if I'm lucky I'll get a Cha before the night is out. Then Maggie comes running across the club yelling, "Michael! It's a Cha Cha!"

I've heard they dance Cha Cha in the Vietnamese clubs, but I've yet to find any Vietnamese girls who will take me to one (especially not my girlfriend -- so we have a ways to go in that relationship). I've joked about crashing one of the Vietnamese clubs with 15-20 Cha Cha dancers, but I'm not sure I can find that many people who would remember how to do a decent Cha Cha. Maggie says I would be somewhat disappointed in the way many Asians dance Cha Cha anyway.

It's not for lack of enthusiasm, though. One of my dance buddies, Chris (big tall guy), once made the comment that as soon as a Cha Cha starts playing, all the Asians hit the dance floor. Asian women just love Cha Cha. They move and swivel in ways that many Latinas never think to dance. Maggie has tried to fix me up with a few of her friends, but I'm not sure if she is just trying to make sure I have a regular supply of Cha Cha partners so she'll have a good one to call on in the Latin clubs.

Well, despite that digression, I showed up at the dance studio at the appointed time. Gloria's daughter Crystal was surrounded by hopeful Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers-in-Training. They came in all shapes and sizes, all ages, all sexes, and all ethnic groups as near as I could tell. There were a lot of people waiting for this class. It was like, "Man! Even the biggest Salsa classes don't usually have this many people."

Well, I counted over 30 people in the class, so it was somewhat modest compared to the really huge dance classes (some legendary dance classes have had hundreds of students -- but I think that would be a hard way to learn how to dance). Nonetheless, you put almost 40 people into a dance classroom and start teaching them the Cha Cha and see if your teeth don't get rattled. I never realized just how subtle the dance really is until the place started thundering like a Queen concert. You want to break out into a rousing chorus of "We will, we will ROCK YOU!" as people start pounding their feet on the floor.

You don't actually pound out the three cha cha cha steps. You just sort of slide your feet past each other in very short, tiny steps. But that is a more advanced technique. Gloria's task was just to get the people moving in some sort of basic time and doing the right pattern. I think most of them enjoyed the class but they were a bit overwhelmed. After every class, Gloria feels out the crowd to see if they want to continue in the next month. She usually gets a fair number of people to stay in the classes month after month, but tonight I noticed quite a few, "Hm. This doesn't look like the television show" expressions.

To be honest, from what I've read about Dancing With The Stars, the average social dancer doesn't want to go through that kind of training regimen. The performers have to get ready in six to eight weeks. The average social dancer, taking one class a week, might be comparable in skill and execution in about 2-3 years. Maybe. If they dance a lot between classes.

And that's the problem with Ballroom Dancing. I don't know of many opportunities for people to put it into use. Most of the ballroom dancing I hear about around Houston is private function stuff. Which is not to say there are few opportunities for ballroom dancing. I just don't run with those crowds. Maybe there is a Houston Ballroom Dancing blog somewhere. If not, there should be.

So, as sometimes is the case, there were more ladies than men tonight and Chris and I (and another gentleman I've seen many times but I've never learned his name) showed up to be dance partners. I think a fourth guy came in, too, but he left prematurely. Anyway, we came by to help keep the ladies in step.

Unlike the Latin dance classes, Ballroom classes tend to draw a lot of married couples. I don't often see the kind of partner rotations that happen regularly in the Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, and Cha Cha classes (yes, Gloria has taught classes just for Cha Cha). In a Ballroom Dancing class, you sort of end up with a semi-permanent partner. And tonight was no different in that respect.

My semi-permanent partner was a petite Asian lady. She got into the Cha Cha. Actually, she got into everything but the Waltz. I think she was happy to have a dance partner who had some basic clue about timing (she obviously didn't know me when I got started). And as Gloria attempted to herd the cats back and forth across the room, I made sure my partner did not get trampled in the crush. She seemed to appreciate that.

So, I suppose one day I'll run into her in the Chinese Cultural Center, and we'll do a passable Fox Trot or Waltz. But she'll have to stand aside when Maggie comes running across the floor yelling, "Michael! It's a Cha Cha!"


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