Bates College ballroom dancers step it up

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Bates Ballroom Dance Team dancers practice some ballroom moves at a recent practice at Bates College.

‘Learning how . . . was one of the best decisions in my life.’

On a chilly Wednesday night last month, Lillian Chang could be found gliding across the floor in the dance studio located on the top floor of the Merrill Gymnasium at Bates College. A member of the Bates Ballroom Dance Team, Chang listened intently as coach John Blanchette offered pointers to her and her teammates as they worked on fine-tuning their waltz technique in preparation for a major competition coming up at the end of this month.

Chang had never danced a step before signing up for a phys ed class in ballroom basics last September, shortly after arriving on campus as a freshman. While most of her peers in that class were merely seeking a fun, sweat-free gym credit, Chang was fulfilling a dream.

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“My interest in ballroom dancing stems from my love of historical novels and films from which I developed the fantasy of being able to waltz at a ball,” she explained.

While not blessed with a natural sense of coordination (she claims, wryly, to be “one of those people who manage to fall while standing still”), she has blossomed on the dance floor at Bates: “Although I may never be a princess, doing ballroom dancing gives me a feeling of elegance and sophistication that other experiences in college cannot replicate.”

Other members of the Bates ballroom team have been dancing for most of their lives. Senior Sara Hoye started dance classes at the age of 5 and in the ensuing years became adept at tap, jazz, lyrical, pointe, ballet, modern, contemporary and hip-hop. She ended up on the ballroom team last year after being convinced by team captain Sam Hersh (who knew of her extensive dance history) to attend a practice of his “just to watch.” Next thing she knew she was out on the floor herself, and loving it.

When Erin Fuller came to Bates three years ago, the seasoned athlete eagerly joined one of the most demanding activities to be found in college sports: the crew team. But after two years of getting up before dawn to practice for three to six hours a day, she decided it was just too much, both physically and mentally. For her, she says, “ballroom strikes a wonderful middle ground,” allowing her to stay active while socializing in a relaxed way. “I can laugh with my friends while getting my sweat on.”

At the end of this month, coach Blanchette, a Lewiston native and Bates graduate, will be bringing his Bates dancers to MIT in Boston to compete against students from dozens of other schools from across the U.S. in order to, as he puts it, “find out where we really stand in the cosmos.”

There, his students will have a chance to assess their skills against la crème de la crème of college ballroom dancers. “For some, it is a wake-up call that they need to work harder. For others, it can be a wonderful surprise to realize they might be one of the top student couples in the country in a particular dance style,” he says.

The final event of the college ballroom season, the MIT competition never fails to invigorate the team, says Blanchette, inspiring them to diversify into more styles and push their training to develop the stamina necessary to survive the weekend. Endurance is just as important as skill in this context, as the dancers are generally on the floor starting at 8 a.m. and continue straight through until 8 p.m. on both days, with few breaks.

“The competition moves along like a well-oiled machine, so there is no time for dillydallying,” Blanchette points out. But the energy expended is well worth it for those who persevere. “Making the quarterfinals at MIT is an accomplishment,” says Blanchette. “Getting to semifinals is a great honor. Being a finalist means I take them out to dinner.”

How difficult is it to get to the finals? “We always aspire to get people as far as possible in the competition. In the smaller regional competitions, we pretty routinely have at least a few – and sometimes several – finalists,” says Blanchette. “But with the scope and scale of MIT, we hope for quarterfinals or semifinals. We have had a few finalists over the years – and when we do, it is a big deal. Lots of celebrating! We simply don’t have the number of entries to be competitive on a team basis – only on an individual basis.”

Some of those individual dancers in the club have taken their love of dance beyond the Bates campus. Justin Stebbins, a member of the Class of 2002, is a ballroom instructor in the Portland area, according to Blanchette. “Regan Radulski (Class of 2015) is continuing her dance education with the Boston University team while she pursues her master’s in physical therapy. Joanna Moody (Class of 2014) is a Ph.D candidate in transportation at MIT who is continuing her ballroom competition career as a relief from the the pressure of her studies – so simply for the fun of it!” says Blanchette.

Whether ballroom dancing is short-lived or becomes a lifetime pursuit, many students agree it offers a sense of fun and well-being. Christina Lang, who will serve as president of the Bates Ballroom Dance Team for the coming year, revels in the pure joy that she gets from participating in ballroom dancing, whether in competition or in practice or at campus social gatherings. “It keeps me happy!” she says. “And I love being around the team. Learning how to ballroom dance was one of the best decisions in my life.”

The MIT competition at the end of the month is open to the public and will be live-streamed. For more information, go to ballroom.mit.edu/comp/.

Sara Hoye and Sam Hersh are reflected in the wall-sized mirrors in a Bates College practice space for the Bates Ballroom Dance Team.

Jina McCullough and Kei Ching dance at a recent Bates Ballroom Dance Team practice at Bates College.

It started with contra dancing

By Cindy Larock, Special to the Sun Journal

The Bates ballroom program started back in the mid-1980s when some students who were enamored of contra dancing asked me — I was then a Bates College graduate working as arts publicist in the Bates media relations office — to teach them how to waltz. They wanted to join in the traditional “last waltz,” which was played at the end of every evening of contra dancing.

When they showed an interest in learning other couples dances as well, I offered to teach a six-week “sampler” series encompassing waltz, polka, foxtrot, jitterbug and tango, all taught from my own rootsy, folk-dance perspective.

The response was enthusiastic, and before long the students petitioned the college to allow them to get gym credit for the class, as an alternative to the aerobics, jogging and other more de rigeuer physical education offerings of the time.

The college agreed, and before long I was teaching multiple classes a semester in order to keep up with the demand. Eventually some of the more enthusiastic “graduates” of the intro-level classes wanted to expand their horizons, so they began carpooling to one of the commercial dance studios in Portland. There they connected with Laurence Miller, a certified ballroom dance instructor whom they invited to campus to teach intermediate- and advanced-level classes in waltz, swing and tango as well as a number of other Latin dance styles.

When the students found out about the collegiate competitive ballroom dance scene, they formed a team with Miller as their coach. John Blanchette, a Lewiston native and Bates College graduate, later began working with the group, and about six years ago took over in full.

The ballroom classes offered for gym credit, which are still very popular, are now being taught by the more experienced students from the club program. And while I am no longer involved in the dance program, I founded and oversee an ensemble of gifted young fiddlers who specialize in playing dance music — from waltzes and polkas to jigs and reels — because dancing is always better when it’s done to live music!

Nate Leonard leads Kayla Larrivee around the dance floor at a recent practice of the Bates Ballroom Dance Team.

Ballroom dance styles

By John Blanchette, Special to the Sun Journal

There are two basic styles, American and International.

These are broken into two components:

* American Rhythm (cha cha, swing, rumba, bolero, mambo) and American Smooth (waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz).

* International Latin (cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, jive) and International Standard (waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, quickstep).

International style keeps your partner immediately in front of you – as such, it is a more precise and more subtle style. It allows you to focus on posture, timing and proper technique – and it is very particular in terms of footwork and angles.

American style will often look like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – partners could be side-by-side, back to, all various places. As such, it is harder to execute. In addition to everything you have in International, you now must cope with greater range of movement and placement of your partner.

Bates typically competes in American Rhythm and American Smooth. A select few also take on some International Standard – mostly so they can learn quickstep.

Bates has several couples at the newcomer and beginner levels. Only one couple currently competes at the intermediate level. Unless a student begins as a freshman or has prior experience, and assuming they don’t do a semester or year abroad, it is all but impossible to get students to the advanced levels.

Sam Hersh tries out a dance position for a “leader” in a Bates Ballroom Dance Club practice held at Bates College recently. The positions are referred to as “leader” or “follower” and can be executed by dancers of either gender.

Christina Lang, left, and Kathryn Cleary practice some ballroom dancing at a recent Bates Ballroom Dance Club practice at Bates College.

The skill levels

There are five basic skill levels at the competition:

* Newcomer: 1st semester of dancing

* Beginner (Bronze): No more than three semesters of dancing

* Intermediate (Silver): Four semesters or more of dancing

* Advanced (Gold)

* Pre-Champ/Rising Star

The average amount of time per dance is anywhere from 80 seconds to 120 seconds total.

Ribbons are given to all finalists in each level and style. The top three in each level can win scholarships for additional dance training.

— Courtesy of John Blanchette

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