Ballroom Is Cool

Social dance can play a cohesive, empowering role in the lives of adolescents.

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Social dance can play a cohesive, empowering role in the lives of adolescents.

The joint is jumpin'! It's not the Bimbos 365 Club, or the Hi-Ball Lounge, or some other trendy nightclub in San Francisco. And there's no booze or smoke, only smiles, lifts, throw-outs, and youthful, lindy-hopping feet. The scene is the Albany Public Library and Community Center in the San Francisco Bay area, just north of Berkeley, Calif. It's "Swing Night," and 200 young adults are taking their first "partner dance" lesson.

Under the Albany, Calif., library's sponsorship, students from Albany High School have created a new dance and culture club for themselves and their fellows. They've generated their own graphics, coined a slogan ("Spin her 'til the floor smokes!"), and given the the club a name: "Bust-A-Move."

Here, teenagers themselves shape and organize social dancing. All Bust-A-Move events are participatory, and dances are organized in such a way—like old-time "mixers"—that everyone dances with everyone else. No one stands aside or alone. Every dance style expresses a distinct feeling for life, and all styles are welcome. Partner dance doesn't replace hip-hop (as some adults might wish). The Lindy Hop, salsa, hip-hop, cumbia, even folk and line dancing are merging into a complex mosaic of the past and the future, through a public agency's support.

By providing the facilities, dance-instruction videos, professional instruction, and professional supervision, the public library is playing a role in this new "retro" movement. Sure, there are no hepcats in suspenders, no girls in cashmere sweaters and flared felt skirts. But because of support from a public institution (the Albany Library is a branch of the Alameda County library system), young people are dancing together again—in pairs.

For too long—decades, in fact—American teenagers have been denied the joys and benefits of partner dancing. In the '30s, '40s, and early '50s, during the swing era, the heyday of stand-up courtship, ballroom dancing achieved mass popularity. From high school sock-hops to big-city dance halls, from church socials to sultry nightclubs, Americans swiveled and swayed, pushed and pumped, chasséd and flirted in pairs throughout the United States. The multigenerational dance scene was rich with romance and cross-cultural innovation: the Argentine tango, Latin mambo, African-American jitterbug, Bavarian waltz, the fox trot, merengue, bossa nova. The Cuban rumba, a postwar version of safe sex, caused a national sensation.

Public high schools offer too little in the way of practical social-dance instruction.

Among today's hip-hop youths, to be sure, "ballroom dancing" carries a kind of stigma, an image of country club cotillions, or senior recreation akin to shuffleboard. In the great swing era, however, ballroom dancing was hip. From senior citizens trying to feel young again to limber adolescents, all ages danced in pairs, like creatures at a party on Noah's ark.

In his autobiography, widely read in high schools, Malcolm X describes the intensity of dancing at the Roseland Ballroom in Boston in the '40s: "Everything felt right when I went into the ballroom. Hamp's band was working, and that big, waxed floor was packed with people lindy hopping like crazy. I grabbed some girl I'd never seen, and the next thing you knew we were out there lindying away and grinning at each other. It couldn't have been finer. I was swirling girls so fast their skirts were snapping. I wasn't quite 16."

Unfettered by the limits of partnership and pattern, "free dance" took center stage in the late 1960s. Physical education departments, which once included partner dancing along with folk dancing in the curriculum, dropped dance instruction altogether. After a brief period of disco, most ballroom dancing retreated into professional studios, exclusive clubs, international competitions, and expensive weddings. As dancing became individualized, ballroom dancing went out of vogue. And as rock 'n roll evolved from punk to house, to techno and hip-hop, teenagers created new, exciting "do your own thing" solo dance styles, from the early twist to break dancing and beyond.

But in losing partner dance—a very special dance experience—our society not only lost a medium that generates joy and self-confidence in young people, but it also lost a social activity that conveys a sense of belonging to a community. It lost a medium of romance; it lost that special moment of youthfulness that Shakespeare's Oberon calls "love in idleness."

Partnership in motion—the urge to move in tandem—is too primordial, too ubiquitous to disappear forever. So the "strictly ballroom" stigma that hung over social dancing in the last three decades is dissipating today under the impact of this new partner-dance revival.

Public high schools offer too little in the way of practical social-dance instruction, but ballroom-dance courses are burgeoning in the physical education departments of American universities. Not long ago, a front-page headline in The New York Times announced: "Ballroom Dancing Is Taking Colleges by Storm." At Yale, Arizona State, the University of Wisconsin, San Diego State, and other colleges across the country, the paper reported, partner dancing—with curriculum support—"is sweeping the campuses." After Graham B. Spanier, the president of Pennsylvania State University, was deluged with e- mail messages and letters from his students, he expanded his campus's eight- class dance program to include 48 ballroom-dance classes. "We are a society that is increasingly impersonal," Mr. Spanier wrote, "and there is a need for a way to meet one another, to touch without immediate sex. ... Dancing offers that."

In losing parnter dance, our society lost a social activity that conveys a sense of belonging to a community.

Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State, adds that, in the era of AIDS, "we may be moving back to the medieval notion of romance, love that is unrequited. ... These ballroom dances provide sensuality and imagination. They are safe."

The retro movement in dance is not, I believe, a mere fad, some moment of middle-aged nostalgia for baby boomers and their children. It's a complex social phenomenon, a trend wherein Lindy Hop meets hip-hop, a period of multigenerational and cross-cultural fertilization.

The success of our high school inspired Bust-A-Move program at the local library demonstrates the cohesive, empowering role that social dance can play in the lives of adolescents. And it confirms the view of educator Michèle Evans, the creator of Connecticut's Hartford Youth Dance Initiative: "Ballroom dancing is too good not to teach kids. It gives them physical activity, it teaches artistry, and it enhances their social skills by getting them involved with each other."

"We haven't designed anything better," she says. "Dancing is a lifetime activity; it's like riding a bicycle: Once you've learned, you never forget."

Isn't it time for more parents, teachers, and school administrators to reach out to teenagers and bust a move?

Paul Rockwell, who formerly taught philosophy at a Texas university, is the youth librarian at the Albany Public Library in Albany, Calif.

Vol. 21, Issue 23, Page 31

Published in Print: February 20, 2002, as Ballroom Is Cool
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