AFTER HEARING earlier this year that the International Olympic
Committee had accepted ballroom dancing as a provisional sport,
I felt that I could stand a little taller and look back with
increased satisfaction on the time I've spent scuffing the
hardwood of a Manhattan dance studio.
Ballroom dancing a sport? Absolutely. Right now, at its
competitive heights, it boasts a superstar couple to rival
former Olympic ice dancing champions Jayne Torvill and
Christopher Dean of Britain. Gaynor Fairweather and Donnie Burns
are British, too, and they have just won their 13th consecutive
World Professional Latin American dance title.
For a current Stateside rooting interest, consider the
cabaret-division U.S. and world champs, David and Leslie Elkins
of Nashville. If ballroom does gain the Olympic medal status it
deserves, the floor at the Games will be teeming with high-class
I have found ballroom to be not only athletic but also intricate
and endlessly challenging. And, I admit, I was trying to stand
taller anyway, because a succession of teachers had given me
hell about my posture while trying to sort out my footwork.
My passion for ballroom was kindled on Christmas of 1993, when
my wife, Anne, having given up hope of persuading me to join her
in her favorite pastime, aerobic dancing, handed me a gift
certificate for some ballroom lessons. I had never danced. I am
not notably outgoing or a show-off, and I have often suffered
from stage fright. But my initial visit to the dance studio the
next month was reassuring. I was assigned to a teacher named
Nicky, a smiling young woman with incredibly good posture who
guided me into my first travesties of the waltz, fox-trot, tango
All the teachers I have come across since then have shared a
common strategy: vocal support bordering on shameless flattery.
I have had three private teachers and others in group classes,
and their comments have ranged from a rock-bottom "not bad"
after an awkward step to "awesome" after a pretty good one.
In that respect a dance studio is a kind of never-never land of
good cheer and positive reinforcement. But one's teacher must
strike a delicate balance between cheerleading and actually
teaching, and because ballroom has a very technical side,
newcomers must be prepared for a certain amount of constructive
One of the first things Nicky said to me as she tried to give
some dancerly shape to my "frame"--the way I held her--was, "Relax
your shoulders." I heard that so often over the next few months
that despite my teachers' sweet civility, I began to think, Who
am I? The Hunchback of Arthur Murray? On the whole, though, I
enjoyed the dance scene, and I calmed down and soldiered on.
Nicky outdid herself when I signed up for more lessons after a
few weeks. For our next session she appeared in a red,
barebacked pants outfit and gave me a saucy leg wrap as we
tangoed. As general guidance for the coming weeks she said, "Now
hit me with your best shot." So I did, but she soon left the
studio, and my next teacher turned out to be another smiling
young woman, this one named Jackie.
Introducing her one evening at a studio affair, a staff member
said, "Jackie's a ballerina, and you know how picky they are."
Uh-oh, I thought. While she looked angelic and had the
supportive studiospeak down pat, Jackie had the teaching
instincts of a drill instructor. She had taken her first dance
lesson at age four, I at age 64. Call me sentimental, but there
is such symmetry there that I felt we had been destined to be
teacher and student from the start.
I liked Jackie immensely, but I wasn't quite prepared for the
degree of precision she expected from me. Her preamble to a
waltz might go something like this: "Stand up straight. Relax
your shoulders. Don't spread your fingers. Don't dig them into
my back. Don't hold me so tight. That's not tight enough. Don't
lead with your stomach, lead with your heart. Remember to soften
your knees. And, hey, it never hurts to smile. We're having fun!"
Jackie was determined that I make progress toward developing an
elegant stance for the "smooth" dances, the waltz, tango and
fox-trot, with head high and upper back slightly arched. One day
she introduced me to a special exercise for back-arching. We
were in a teaching room separate from the main studio, and soon
we were facedown on the floor, side by side, doing a kind of
modified push-up. The door opened, and the studio owner looked
in, then closed the door. We practiced on, she in a long skirt
and blouse, I in white dress shirt and slacks. When you hit the
deck with Jackie you don't worry about cleaning bills. The door
opened again and closed again. Afterward the owner told me,
"That's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in a dance studio,
and I've seen a lot."
Like some other dance professionals, Jackie felt a kind of
mystical communion with the floor. She would say, "The floor is
your best friend." We had begun to explore what is called Cuban
motion in the rhythm dances--a challenge for me then and now. One
afternoon while Jackie was changing the music, I vented some
frustration by kicking down and making quite a clatter until she
cried out, "Bad feet! Bad feet! You're hurting our friend the
floor!" Never before had I felt the need to apologize to a bunch
But Jackie had a softer side. She suggested that the connection
between my left hand and my partner's right in, for example, a
rumba be that of "palms kissing." See Romeo and Juliet, Act I,
Scene 5, for the source of her inspiration. Indeed, Jackie had a
full wardrobe of role models for me. In the waltz I was to be as
chesty as a robin whose mate has just hatched a clutch of eggs,
or, by god, a king surveying his subjects. (I have but to say
the word ole to disclose my role model in the tango.)
Getting me to relax was a constant hurdle for Jackie, especially
because I often felt relaxed already and couldn't quite grasp
how to relax further. Once, at a competition with other studios,
5'4" Jackie shook her 6'2" student like a rag doll in her quest
for greater flexibility. It may have helped; I received medals
of achievement in all five dances I entered.
It was my firm belief that if I ever tripped over my feet and
crashed to the studio floor, any instructor present would sing
out, "Nice fall, Ken." Except maybe Jackie. I can hear her now:
"Hmm, not a bad fall, but next time, when you throw your arm out
like that, don't make your hand into an ugly claw; let the
fingers extend gracefully. And, hey, it never hurts to smile."
Little by little I learned to stand straighter and dance better
and show my pearly whites. My smile was brightest when Jackie
and I were partners in the waltz step called promenade with
developpe. In this one, if she is supple enough, the lady may
try to kick a hole in the ceiling, and because of her ballet
training Jackie could do an awesome kick.
When Nina became my teacher this spring, I was a reasonably
competent social dancer. Occasionally Anne would skip her step
class so we could go out on the town for an evening of ballroom.
Nina, who is a marvelous dancer and the most supportive of the
supportive, obviously expected me to start making accelerated
progress as a performer. And I have at last accepted the
showing-off part of the game.
In August I was a sort of dance extra on a PBS television
special having to do with love songs. The site was The Supper
Club in Manhattan's theater district. My partner for the
evening, a fellow student named Giselle, and I stood with the
other couples on the tiny dance floor, a mere 10 feet from Jack
Jones and Margaret Whiting as they belted out pop standards. We
even danced to a couple of numbers. If you watched closely
during the broadcast, you could see Giselle and me performing
for a few seconds.
So ballroom is bringing me out of my shell. Still, sometimes I
can't help thinking, Did God intend that I, a son of devout,
nondancing parents, undulate my hips in an abandoned and
suggestive manner? Does He condone my rubbing torsos with my
teacher in the dance movement called the cucaracha? Evidently
so, or lightning bolts would have ripped through the studio by
No one could object to the fitness benefits that can come with
ballroom dancing. I have lost 20 pounds, dropping from a
not-so-trim 195 pounds to a flat-stomached 175, and I have been
going to the gym to work on the continuing business of improving
my posture. Thanks to ballroom, I now have biceps.
I once asked Jackie what the downside of ballroom might be. She
gave me a don't-be-an-idiot look and said, "There is no
downside." In my case, that is not entirely true. An old
acquaintance to whom I rashly revealed this activity now calls
me Twinkletoes. But what the heck. A king who's as relaxed as I
am getting to be takes it in stride when one of his subjects is
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE TEODORESCU The author's current teacher, Nina, has helped him at last to accept the showing-off part of the game. [Drawing of Ken Rudeen ballroom dancing with Nina]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE TEODORESCUJackie shook her pupil like a rag doll to make him flexible. [Drawing of Ken Rudeen ballroom dancing with Jackie]