Ballroom dancing in the Berkshires
Couples float across the hardwood floor -- practicing the rise and fall of a classic waltz, or the fancy footwork of the Latin-flavored cha-cha -- circling the single disco ball to the beat of a live band.
Gentlemen lead high-heeled ladies around and around, in intricate patterns, keeping an eye on their partners and the other dancers moving across the floor.
It could be a scene from a time long ago, when couples danced together, holding hands, feeling the music through the steps they've learned.
But it's not. It's a Friday night at the Polish Falcon Hall in Pittsfield.
"It's a time when we can step back from our hectic every-day lives," said Janet Smargie, one of the organizers of the Votre Soiree, the Berkshire County ballroom dancing organization that hosts the dance at the PNA the first Friday of every month. "We can sit, relax, enjoy some great music, movement and our friends. It's a great time."
Thanks to a local network of ballroom-dancing enthusiasts, those wishing to take a spin around the dance floor at more than just the occasional wedding have more opportunities to not only learn and hone their skills in the art of partner dancing, but even more chances to enjoy the work put into the dance steps.
"The basic goal is we're trying to have one dance a weekend here in Berkshrie County," said Bob Romeo, president of the Berkshire Ballroom Chapter of USA Dance -- a national nonprofit corporation -- whose organization held a dance the same weekend at the Masonic Temple in Pittsfield.
"It's just classy," said Romeo, a Lenox-based broker and owner of Century 21 Franklin Street, who took up ballroom only three years ago and now can't seem to stop his toes from taping while he listens to the polka radio station in his office.
"I've always wanted to ballroom dance," he said. "As an Italian, I came from a big family, where always at weddings ballroom dancing was going on. I just like the flow of it, particularly the smooth dances, such as the waltz and the bolero. It's a two-person event, rather than disco dancing, where its free expression."
Some may think it's a lost art in a time when dancing can be more about the freedom of individual movement than leading a partner gracefully across the dance floor. But Romeo and Smargie agree that there seems to be a resurgence of interest in learning to dance.
For Smargie and the Votre Soiree, numbers have grown from just a handful of couples to a recent dinner/dance that hosted 95 people. The social club -- originally founded in 1922 by General Electric -- was seeing a decline in numbers, according to Smargie, who took charge three years ago by proposing changes to the once-exclusive club. When founded in the 1920s, members had to be married and invited to join, or sponsored by an existing member. Today, those rules are gone and anyone can attend the dances, no membership or partner required, said Smargie.
"Bring a friend," said Smargie, who has been dancing for more than 30 years, when she began taking swing dance lessons. "We welcome everyone."
For those thinking about dipping their pointed toes into the local dancing scene, Romeo suggests taking a class first before attending a local dance.
"The biggest issue we have to get over is the fear," he said. "'Dancing with the Stars,' while it has motivated people to take up dancing -- and is the gunpowder for mostly women who want to dance -- we have to kind of ease it up a little. Ballroom dancing isn't like ‘Dancing with the Stars.'"
Local instructor Cheryl Wendling, of Pittsfield, teaches ballroom dancing for beginners two nights a week at Berkshire Community College. While many beginners, especially men, will say they can't dance, everyone can, according to Wendling.
"I try to joke around in my classes," she said. "I always get the men with the deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces, just terrified. ... I tell them it's like driving a car on the dance floor. You're in control, the lady has to follow you."
She also recommends couples who come to her classes refer to it as "date night," in an effort to keep it light, fun and rewarding.
"With work and kids, how many couples can get out once a week?" she said. "It often rekindles the [romance] in their life."
Singles are encouraged to join the dance community, too. Many classes and dances will have designated "hosts," usually men, to dance with those who come without a partner.
"No one should be lonely if dancing is in your life," said Wendling.
All three dance enthusiasts echoed the welcoming sentiment to new dancers, of any age, interested in taking a spin around the dance floor for the first time.
"Dancing opens up so many doors," said Wendling, who credits teaching dance as her saving grace when she was a single mom with four children. "There is so much to do around here. ... The dance community is very open, welcoming and they want new people to jump in."
Socialization is not the only benefit to dancing. It's also good aerobic exercise and is proven to help ward off dementia. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, those who danced frequently had a 76 percent reduced risk of developing dementia.
"It helps keep you young," said Smargie. "It also helps your attitude about life. You could have the worst day at the office, screaming kids at home and walk out on the dance floor and it's all gone."
Thinking about taking a spin around the dance floor? Here is a list of local ballroom instructors, compiled from information from Janet Smargie of the Votre Soiree and the Berkshire County Chapter of USA Dance.
Studio at Berkshire Music School, 30 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
(518) 434-4941, firstname.lastname@example.org
Berkshire Community College, 1350 West Street, Pittsfield
Level 1 Beginners Ballroom Dance and Level 2 Intermediate Ballroom Dance, beginning in April. Singles are welcome.
Contact the Office of Community Education at (413) 236-2127
Mindlin Dance Instruction
29 Emerson Ave., Pittsfield
Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr./Ballroom Essentials
191 White Oaks Rd., Williamstown 413-458-3597
Ron Tritto, Learntadance Studios
Lessons held at Berkshire South Community Center, Great Barrington
Jackie Wong, Tango Pulse
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