Ballroom dancing has undergone a change in the last decade. It’s not the stodgy, rigidly formulaic pastime that helped our great-grandfathers impress our great-grandmas. Nor is it, the awkwardly attempted motions that you remember (painfully) from weddings when you were a kid. No, ballroom is experiencing a revival – or at least that’s what “the stars” would have you believe.
And this is not so surprising, given the natural benefits of ballroom dance. It’s a fun form of exercising and socializing that improves balance, coordination and grace. Moreover, there is an impressive aesthetic element that accompanies a group or pair of dancers, particularly when they’re doing it well. So the question is not: Why is ballroom dancing popular? The question is: Why is it popular again?
"The TV shows," answers Tim Madrigal. Or, at least, "that's really what boosted it to a higher level" in recent years. Madrigal is a student of ballroom dance styles at Maine Ballroom Dance Studio in Portland, where he also lives.
In January, Madrigal will be competing in a pro-am ballroom tournament in New Hampshire. Madrigal — the amateur — practices twice a week with his professional partner Debra Roy, the owner of Maine Ballroom and an instructor there.
Roy agrees with her partner about the impact of television shows. She thinks people like to "watch things that maybe they can't necessarily do," she said. Although, she added, it's actually "not as hard as they make it look on 'Dancing With The Stars.'"
That show, which is based on the nearly decade-old British program "Strictly Come Dancing," has now been spun off in more than 40 countries. It is regularly one of the most popular programs in the world and has spawned other popular shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "America's Ballroom Challenge." The American version of "Dancing With The Stars" will have its 15th season finale next Tuesday and rest up for its ninth year in 2013.
The popularity of dancing-related shows can be explained by many factors. Madrigal suggested that the visuals and aesthetics of ballroom dancing are naturally appealing. "The basis of this is an expression," he said. "When you go to the dances, there's a lot of people who go just to watch."
"I do love watching dance and attempting it at home," said Katie Kline of Gray, a student at Maine Ballroom. Her words mirrored Roy's, who suggested that people enjoy watching something they may not be able to do themselves.
Laurence Miller, who has been teaching various forms of dance for nearly three decades, confirmed that the popularity of ballroom dance has been on the rise in recent years, though he said the increased popularity may not be due to the television shows. In fact, it could be the other way around, he said, with the shows being created based on the trend. Miller has taught dance in Maine since 1986 and currently teaches at Black Belt Ballroom studio in South Portland.
"In the beginning, when these shows hit the airwaves, people did indeed flock to dance studios to learn to dance," he wrote in a recent email interview. "With those early shows, the general public did think they could learn to dance as they watch(ed) celebs go from not knowing a thing about ballroom dancing . . . to becoming accomplished dancers, losing weight, gaining self confidence, etc. . . . (T)his gave the public comfort and drive to go to the studios."
However, he said, as the celebrities who participated became more accomplished and the dances more difficult, average people once again became intimidated as they watched the shows. As a result, 10 years on, attendance at many ballroom dance studios has gone back to normal, he said.
He admitted that the shows themselves are popular, but the "popularity of the TV shows and dance programs and entertainment events in concert halls and theaters does not necessarily mean that the dance studios are showing an increase in business."
The benefits of ballroom
While many of the students who attend Roy's classes have heard of the television shows, most go for diverse reasons.
"It started as a way for me to get out of the house," said Madrigal of his own interest in ballroom dancing. That was when he was living in California and was looking for a hobby.
Recreation in particular seemed to motivate the group of dancers attending a ballroom session at Roy's studio on a recent Saturday night.
Irene Rounds, who lives in Windham, has taken ballroom classes for about two years. She was attending the session with her husband. "It's something (we) can do together," she said. She started because of "the need for exercise."
It's not always easy, she said, "but it's a lot of fun."
Asked what she thought is behind the increasing popularity of dance-related television shows: "It's wicked fun to watch," she said, "because it's flagrant and sensuous." Also, she said, people enjoy "how precise (the dancers') movements are."
Roy said that while she's thankful to "Dancing With The Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance" for bringing greater awareness of dance to the masses, she noted, "I think that people come in, first of all, because they've always wanted to do it."
"We get a mixture" of students, she said. "We get a lot of married couples," as well as engaged couples "coming in to practice that first dance." It's also "a great, inexpensive thing to do on a first date."
"It was just something to go and do," said Mary Allan Crane, of Bethel, who began taking lessons eight years ago. Crane was attending Saturday's lesson with her husband. Though the couple takes lessons in Harrison, they also travel to Portland because the area offers more classes.
Madrigal stressed the tactile and social benefits of ballroom dancing. "You're expressing yourself and being able to move with somebody else," he said. Moreover, many young ladies like it because it offers "rules of engagement" in a social setting. "There's etiquette," he said.
Miller agreed. "These days, networking is the best reason to take dance lessons," he wrote. In "most dance studios all over the country, there are doctors and surgeon, carpenters and repairmen, house painters and fine art muralist, plumbers, electricians, bankers, gardeners, school teachers and yoga teachers, young to old, Democrats and Republicans! It is a great way to meet everyone."
He sees many reasons why ballroom dancing has become more popular. "As a dance teacher of many years, I can list a multitude of reasons one should take lessons," he wrote. "Fitness, fun, socializing, stress relief, procrastinating aging, mental stimulation . . . it goes on and on."
On the dance floor
During Roy's Saturday lesson, there's lots of laughing and lots of smiles.
"So we're turning," said Roy as she spun herself around slowly. "Hands come up on the six . . . and face your partner on the eight."
And on the eight, all the ladies spin and the room fills with synchronized motion. A bystander can begin to understand what Madrigal means about the aesthetic of dancing and the enjoyment of watching good dancers do what they do best.
Granted, some of the men in Roy's classes are all left feet. But even when they missed the steps, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.
"It exercises everything," Roy said, "even your brain." And even if it may be more popular now, she said, it's "always been there."
She couldn’t be closer to the truth. Dance has been around since prehistoric times, going back at least 9,000 years. Though historians don’t know exactly when it began, humans have been setting choreographed motions to music for millennia. The Romans called it ballare, the act of dancing (from which we’ve derived the words ballerina and ball).
In the 16th century, ballroom dancing denoted those styles of dance performed specifically in the ballroom. As only the wealthiest citizens had ballrooms, or even attended balls, these dances were generally reserved for the privileged.
At that time, however, many of the styles being grouped together under the umbrella of ballroom dance – such as the quadrille and the polka – were actually folk dances, originating among the lower ranks of society. And as time has gone on, many of the haughtier styles have devolved into popular dances.
For example, in 1650 Parisians imported a peasant dance from the French region of Poitou. After King Louis XIV tried it, publicly, the minuet became a staple of ballroom dancing for more than a hundred years.
The role of ballroom dancing in evolving and devolving – or, better put, promoting and demoting – dance styles is perhaps one reason it continues to be popular today. The trend of ballroom dancing waxes and wanes as the medium acquires and disseminates new styles of dance.
And, as we might expect, the current climate of dance is very innovative. The biggest dance-related TV shows are currently stealing and repackaging popular dance styles. In their attempt to reach ever-larger audiences, these shows borrow from popular styles, just like King Louis in 1650. What we’re seeing in the world of ballroom dancing today is not so much a resurgence of popularity, but more inventive, more responsive stealing and rebranding of current popular dances.
In the early 1800s the waltz was all the rage. It was added, naturally. As the minuet, the quadrille and the polonaise faded in popularity, they were removed. With the advent of jazz, the form underwent major changes. Dances like the foxtrot and the quickstep became part of the medium.
It may be the adaptability of ballroom dance that has allowed it to come back into style, time and again, over the centuries.
What we are witnessing now, explained Miller, is a part of a cycle that has existed for a long time.
"The demographics and volume of people living (in Portland), like many big cities, warrant dance teachers going and training in any fad that comes along," he wrote. "We did see a bit of an increase in dance classes with the dance (TV) programs, but it was short lived. As far as a hobby for the adult population, dance has been huge in numbers . . . and low in numbers. It is a cycle that we all feel, not only as dance teachers and studio owners, but as hobbiest."
The takeaway message: Catch it while it's hot.