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VOL. 8 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 10, 2015

Fear of Trying

Dance teachers have a message: You can do it

BONNY C. MILLARD | The Ledger

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The most complicated move in ballroom dancing is often the step that gets you through the dance studio’s front door.

Television shows like, “Dancing with the Stars’’ and “So You Think You Can Dance’’ are wildly popular and have contributed to a renewed interest in the glamourous art (skill? sport?) of ballroom dancing, but those high-energy, competitive programs or a movie like “Dirty Dancing’’ can also intimidate people and keep them glued to the couch.

“As good as ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ has been for what we do, it’s also somewhat detrimental because people see big, elaborate routines and costumes, and that’s all they know, so they don’t think they can ever do it,” says Beth Cofer, co-owner of Let’s Dance Ballroom Dance Studio in Maryville.

“They love to watch it, but they have that fear ‘I could never do that.’ ”

Cofer knows that all most folks want to do is learn or improve enough to show off a few steps at an upcoming wedding or on a cruise. She points out that ballroom dancing is an “all-encompassing term’’ that refers to all partnership dances, including Latin and swing. Cofer’s co-owner, Chris Rose, prefers to call it, “social dancing.’’

Cole Lonker, an instructor at Let’s Dance Ballroom Dance Studio in Maryville, dances with student Holly Fewell.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

“My job is to prove to them that they can learn,” Rose explains. “My job is not to teach them how to dance in the first couple of lessons. My job is to prove to them they can learn because the number one reason why people don’t come in is they’re afraid they can’t do it. Walking through the door is the hardest part.”

Rose says breaking down the dance into simple movements initially helps students gain confidence and provides a better understanding of how to move.

Mark Becker, co-owner of Champion Ballroom Center of Knoxville, says teaching the basics helps students build a foundation for the dance.

“Most people just don’t have any dance background. So, we start from the very basic, you know, where to put your feet, foot patterns, timing of the music,” says Becker who works with his wife, Rhonda, and his son, J.W., who also coaches the University of Tennessee’s competition ballroom dancing team.“Some people who do have a dance background or a very athletic background, they seem to do much better, learn much faster….

“If they understand how to move to music, then they’re probably going to learn much faster. I don’t think we work miracles, but sometimes our students think we do.”

Movies and shows have no doubt spurred the interest in dancing as evidenced by the presence of several dance studios in the Knoxville area, but people have always loved dancing – and been intimidated by looking foolish.

Knoxville’s Historic Ramsey House, completed in 1797, features a Great Hall where the dining room table could be separated into three sections and moved up against the wall so the family and guests could dance to candlelight and a warm fireplace on special occasions.

History offers other examples of how people have been inspired by dance over the course of the centuries. The waltz was considered risqué when it was first introduced centuries ago, Becker notes.

A class at Let’s Dance Ballroom Dance Studio in Maryville.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

These days, people may take lessons to prepare for upcoming events, like weddings, but many get involved for the sheer joy of dancing and as a form of exercise. The reality of ballroom dancing offers a much broader opportunity for those willing to give it a try.

“We are very concerned about what the students are learning and why they are learning because if you don’t use it, it does you no good,” Rose says. “We try to teach things that we know in the long run you’re going to use.”

Understanding the dance and the music, whether it be music from bygone eras or music that’s currently trending, is an important piece of the learning process.

“If I say a piece of music is jazzy, it’s going to be the foxtrot,” Rose says. “If I say it’s three-beats, it’s automatically a waltz. If it’s ‘the little black dress dance,’ it’s the rhumba. If it’s fast and fun, it’s always going to be the push pull. We’re always trying to evoke emotion.

“You want to touch their senses. You want to be able to play that in their head.”

Rose gives a visual image to illustrate the foxtrot and put it in a student’s mind.

“We want to put them in the picture,” he says. It’s like, you’re … “walking in New Orleans and you’re walking down the street. Out of an alleyway, you hear that music come out and then you push the door open, and it’s a little smoky in there, and you see the guy up on stage with a Fedora, and you’ve got that big silver microphone, and he’s singing, “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“You know, it’s Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé. It has that rat pack sound. It’s also James Bond, 007. You know, it’s very regal dance.”

Let’s Dance Ballroom Dance Studio in Maryville offers private lessons, Friday night parties and group classes.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

The rhumba offers a different visual.

“That’s your little black dress. There’s nothing sexier than a lady with a little black cocktail dress with a little bit of sway in her hips.”

But Rose says that the rhumba also takes the place of what he calls the “prom hang.” Cofer agrees, adding that it offers a slow dance option for people to dance with a partner other than their own.

“Not everybody just wants to go out there and hang on somebody. It depends on who it is – a friend, or family member, a coworker, or a boss’s wife, you can still dance with them,” she says. “It’s a good, sophisticated slow dance, too, so you don’t feel uncomfortable dancing a slow song with anybody.”

Dancing with an unknown partner can be intimidating but by learning to hold the body frame correctly, people learn how to move together in appropriate ways, Becker says.

“Sometimes people just have trouble getting in frame with someone not their spouse…. This is how we do things. This is how they’ve danced for centuries,” he says. “They get in the frame, and it’s a very respectful type of experience that the man has his part on the floor, and the lady has her part on the floor, and together they create something to enjoy themselves.”

Single people aren’t the only ones learning to dance, although it’s popular for meeting others. Couples come in for lessons so they can dance together at events and because they enjoy it. This was the case for Mark and Rhonda, also a co-owner of Champion, who started out learning to dance as students.

“We started out just like a lot of people, just wanting to social dance and have some fun,” Mark Becker says.

“We won a free dance lesson at a studio,” Rhonda Becker, recalls of their early beginnings in the late 1990s. “I think Mark always wanted to dance. He was inspired by John Travolta.”

People enter the dance world either as a student or a teacher, Mark Becker explains. A person is hired to become an instructor and taught how to break down the dance steps. As soon as someone teaches his/her first lesson, he/she is considered a professional, which makes a difference in terms of competition.

The Beckers competed nationally for several years with an amateur status before retiring. After their competition days were done, the couple started teaching as independent instructors while maintaining their careers. Independent instructors pay a floor fee to a studio for each lesson and handle their own students and scheduling.

They decided to open a studio, and in 2012, they found the location on Papermill Road in Knoxville.

“We decided that we had goals and things that we like and that we wanted to take care of our students better,” Mark Becker says. “We wanted to create a place that not only was a great dance floor that we could dance on, but we would have a nice lobby area for socializing as well.”

The dance floor is slightly smaller than a competition regulation floor at 50 feet by 35 feet.

Rhonda Becker says the demand on their time was also a factor in opening a studio. They had students who wanted to take lessons during the day, and their evening slots had filled up.

The Beckers along with their son, J.W., also a co-owner, are the main instructors and offer lessons by appointment, but the studio has other independent instructors who teach. J.W. entered the business as a teacher and, therefore, a professional.

J.W. wasn’t interested in ballroom dancing initially, his father says. But during the time between high school and college, he joined a training class for teachers while his parents were still ranked as amateurs.

J.W. says he discovered that he enjoyed ballroom dancing and began teaching and helping with parties. He’s been in the business now for about 11 years and joined his parents in opening the studio.

“It wasn’t too foreign to work in a business with them,” J.W. adds. “I think we all sort of understand each other.”

Like J.W., Cofer and Rose both started out as teachers. Rose, a small-town boy growing up in Dickson, Tennessee, not far from Nashville, saw an ad in the newspaper to learn to be a dance instructor of country and western style and ballroom dancing. He’s been teaching since 1996 and has taught more than 23,000 lessons.

“I had already been doing country and western (dancing), and I thought ‘Man, that would be a great way to meet women.’ ”

Cofer laughs at her partner’s remark. She had danced from childhood and turned to ballroom dancing as a way to forge a dance career.

“I danced since I was three years old and was bored with having to get a regular job and stayed in school as long as I possibly could so I could keep dancing,” she says. “I found ‘Hey, a dance career,’ sounds perfect, right up my alley so this was the only one I hadn’t done. So against my father’s wishes, I decided to go for it. He started handing out my business cards after a while.”

Rose and Cofer both ended up at National Dance Club, a large company that has multiple studios. Rose worked in Nashville, and eventually became a manager while Cofer, who is from Maryville, taught at the company’s studio in Knoxville.

Their experiences with that company, including business and dance training, helped them shape the structure for their own place. After deciding to open their own studio, the pair discussed different locations, and ultimately, chose Maryville after a couple that Cofer had taught for about 15 years asked them to consider Maryville which didn’t have a ballroom dance studios.

“Everything sort of fell right into place for us with finding the location, getting everything together within our budget, even though it was tight,” Cofer says, adding that they didn’t borrow any money to open Let’s Dance. “We had people walking in the door before we were open – that was pretty exciting.”

They did much of the work themselves, including knocking down walls and painting.

They had helped installing the 2,000 square foot sprung floor, which has rubber stoppers underneath that elevate the dance floor and allow the floor to give as dancers move. It’s not so hard on the back and knees that way. The studio opened in late fall 2010.

“We just didn’t plan on being contractors,” Cofer recalls. “We’re ballroom dancers. We know how to run a studio and teach, but we didn’t plan on having to build it. It only took us about three months.”

Their studio employs six dance instructors who work full-time during the week, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., and Cofer and Rose offer lessons on Saturdays by appointment. They sell packages that include private lessons, group classes with students at the same dance level, and the Friday night parties.

The two studios may differ in how they are structured in some ways, but for both, the student is most important.

“Students still have to want to continue taking lessons with you,” Rose says. “It’s not just about you (the teacher) dancing personally.

“It’s about the student. Our main goal is when people walk in that door, they feel like they’re walking into their own personal home, and they feel comfortable, and they enjoy themselves.”

From his early experiences as a student, Mark Becker understands how students keep ballroom dancing alive.

“Dancing doesn’t have any corporate sponsorship. What really promotes dancing are all the students,” he says. “Students that fund the dancing in the United States – they’re really the benefactors…I just want to say that all dance professionals in the United States owe so much to all the students.

“Without them, there wouldn’t be all this professional dancing.”

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