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October 18, 2005 > The magic of ballroom dance

The magic of ballroom dance

by Natalia Smothers

Her right hand is in his left hand. Her left elbow rests on his right elbow in line with his shoulders. His straight fixed torso is slightly to the right of hers, and their chins are up. You don't necessarily realize that you follow the dance positions tested for hundreds of years in imperial courts and ballroom dance halls, but you definitely feel the excitement of Cinderella and her Prince Charming dancing for the first time at a royal ball.

"There is something magical about ballroom dancing," said Anita Miu, a dance enthusiast at Premier Ballroom Dance Studio in Fremont. "Every time I step on the dance floor, I feel taller, younger and more beautiful. By the closing of the dance night, I feel like I am a queen at a ball - my confidence goes up so much."

Often a piece of this magic mysteriously touches the spectators of the elegant dance. How else would you explain the popularity of the movie "Shall We Dance?" or the recent reality TV show "Dancing with the Stars?" Millions of the viewers intensely followed every graceful turn of a waltzing couple or a sexy move in a hot Latin dance of the show. Who hasn't imagined stepping in the shoes of these super dancers, at least, for a moment?

After the end of the show last summer, many of the fascinated spectators have apparently taken the first step in realizing their fantasy. Just at Premier Ballroom, the number of private students has grown more than 100 percent since the beginning of the summer.

"I see more and more people interested in learning the whole body and posture technique," said Ruby Huang, owner and instructor of Premier Ballroom. "A slightly swaying hip or a turn of the shoulders at the right moment could change the full perception of the dancing couple. It is not just the feet that create the emotional feel of the dance."

"I wish I could go seven or eight years back, when my husband and I started social dancing," said Anita. "We loved it. We had fun learning some steps quickly at a short lesson before the dance night program and 'practiced' what we learned past midnight. But I wish we took some formal classes in international dance technique back then. We wouldn't need to correct our bad habits now!"

Currently Anita and her husband, Chan Lai, are dancing away at Premier Ballroom four nights every week. They like softness of the padded Maplewood floor of the dancing hall, which is easy on their knees after several hours of dancing. They both consider this time well spent because they are getting a full-body exercise coupled with enjoyment of romantic mood-lifting experience and friendly exchanges with other couples.

"This is so much better than just a plain gym with exercise equipment," added Chan. "We have fun every time! Being a leading partner is always inspiring for me. I feel the real power and freedom of choice when I initiate little surprises and turns. Anita immediately 'reads' my signals and follows the lead. The whole experience brings us closer together as a couple."

Origins of ballroom dance defines dance as "the art of precise, expressive, and graceful human movement, traditionally, but not necessarily, performed in accord with musical accompaniment."

Historians still debate the mysterious beginnings of human dance. Some archeological discoveries point to dance origins in agricultural cultures of 5,000 to 9,000 years ago. The majority of the experts extrapolate dance history from the preserved ritual dances of various preliterate societies, which appear to be strikingly similar across the globe, from South Africa to Canada and from Java to Greece.

Scientists agree that dancing developed as a natural expression of united feeling and action for different stages of human life during various seasons. In some ways, the dance served as a history textbook and teaching manual for new generations, showing how to fight wars, celebrate victories or call on the gods for help in farming, hunting, the fertility of human beings and animals, healing the sick and other tribal concerns.

Each society in different parts of the world has built up on these types of group dancing. They are still performed at some religious ceremonies and many folk festivals.

Dancing as a social activity and a form of entertainment is relatively recent. During the Middle Ages and at the time of Renaissance, European royal courts had strictly formal dance balls for the nobility. Traditionally they were performed by a couple (usually a man and a lady) in so called closed hold, which now is so familiar to all viewers of ballroom dance.

Historians connect the closed hold to the time when men wore swords while dancing. The resting of the lady's left elbow on the man's right elbow is most likely from the days when ladies were socially restrained from making advances to a man. The man always had to take the initiative.

At the time of Louis XIV who was renowned for his ability to dance, noble men and women were trained to dance from an early age. They could raise their own status by being able to dance well. Formal dance was used to political effect: establishing the dominance of the French court, celebrating the joining of two royal families or paying metaphorical homage to visiting dignitaries.

By the end of the 1660s, Louis XIV had made his last stage appearance, after which he allowed noble roles to be played by professional dancers who had previously appeared only in comic or grotesque roles. As professionals danced alongside the nobility they gradually increased the complexity of the dance. They developed the basis for ballet with the distinctively expressive story telling.

Since the time of the royal balls, any dance performed by a couple in the closed hold is called ballroom dance regardless of its origin, even if the dance came from another part of the world like Samba of South America, or from another time like Tango of the 20th century.

Almost all ballroom dances originate from their peasant versions. For example, the European folk dance Volta is believed to be the precursor of the Waltz, which at first was banned from some of the regal courts because of its frivolity, but later spread across European dance halls and around the world. In the beginning of the 20th century, the dancers began taking advantage of the slower tempo and added more figures to give the dance light and shade, and make it more interesting to perform and watch.

Another example of similar transformation is the story of Tango. Coming from the light spirited Spanish dance Flamenco, it traveled to South America with the Spanish settlers. In the slums of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, this dance merged with the Habanera from Cuba. The resulting dance became known as the Milonga. Initially it was popular among the lower classes of Argentine society. By the turn of the 20th century, it had gained acceptance with the upper classes. In 1910 a French music-hall star demonstrated this dance in Paris. Its popularity exploded across Europe and New York. In the 1930s, the dance shifted its visual emphasis from the leg movement to the torso and head, a characteristic which remains in Tango to this day.

The Foxtrot's name came from particular type of smooth horse trotting. Since the Victorian era, the dance has been developed into two internationally derived forms: the Quickstep and the Slow Foxtrot, characterized by smooth gliding movements.

These dances are among the most popular ballroom dances. Dozens of other dances are included in international ballroom dance competitions and social dance nights. Multiple websites describe the history of all of them for the interested readers. You can easily find them on the Internet with a search engine.

Modern ballroom dance

To get a glimpse of the current popularity of ballroom dance, just consider these numbers. The International DanceSport Federation (IDSF) today has 83 National Member Federations on five continents. Fifty-eight of these federations are recognized by their National Olympic Committees. IDSF received full recognition from the International Olympic Committee in 1997 and is expecting the ballroom dance to be included in the Olympic Games as a medal sport soon.

This year's World Dance-O-Rama competition doubled its participation from last year, accommodating over 9,600 dance entries, making it the second largest international competition in America for professional, amateur and pro/am dancers in different levels, styles and age groups. World Dance-O-Rama is organized by Arthur Murray International - the oldest franchised chain of ballroom dance studios, which give lessons all over the United States and Canada as well as in Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon and South Africa. This is the same chain that was involved in producing the "Dancing with the Stars" reality TV show.

One of the show's winners, Charlotte Jorgensen, gave lessons to the excited crowd at Premier Ballroom Dance Studio in Fremont in 1999. She has instructed some of the students at a few local Arthur Murray studios around the Bay Area, too. There are studios in Redwood City, San Francisco and San Jose. In the Tri-City area an Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Hayward is owned by Daisey Aydelott. As all the franchised studios, it offers the first lesson for free and suggests different combinations of private, class and practice lessons depending on the individuals' skills and desires.

Arthur Murray Dance Studio (Hayward)
22429 Foothill Blvd, Hayward, CA
(510) 537-8706

Premier Ballroom Dance Studio is independent and offers social dance nights every Saturday in addition to Friday nights for singles and private lessons during the week. As usual, Premier Ballroom is planning a costume Halloween party on October 29, Christmas Eve dance party on December 24 and New Year's Eve dance party on December 31.

Premier Ballroom Dance Studio
4181 Cushing Pkwy, Fremont, CA
(510) 770-1178

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