Come on, admit it – when Richard Gere started to dance with Jennifer Lopez in their recent movie, "Shall We Dance?”, didn’t you just want to be them? Didn’t the music and the sensuality and the fun and the intensity, call out to you to join them? Didn’t you long to swirl around a room, held in the near perfect embrace of harmony and abandon, and leave trails of an expensive, ethereal gossamer dress undulating wildly behind you? Well, perhaps the men would rather be in pants, but I know I wanted to learn to move like that and "Be this alive”.
Dancing is such a joyful expression of life: it’s both a finished art and an act of creativity. It expands the mind and exercises the body. It is ageless and timeless and anyone, yes, anyone can learn to do it.
I took myself to the dancers – people who have lived with dance and in the dance throughout their lives. George and Pauline Morgan and Russell and Helen Maddeaux are teachers and cuers, and of course, dance lovers. Each couple met while dancing and both couples have been teaching it for over 25 years. Coincidentally, they both moved to B.C. from Ontario in the ‘90’s, where they had each been extremely involved in their own dancing, teaching, teacher-training and periodic conventions and festivals. They all belong to the Island Gems Round Dance club, started and run by George and Pauline, which meets in Costin Hall in Lantzville on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each week they choreograph an arrangement of dances, encompassing a selection of steps and figures chosen from hundreds of possibilities, using many different rhythms. As teachers, they first outline and help you master the steps in each figure, then they call out during the music and ‘cue’ you to the progression of figures featured in the dance you are moving to. "The steps increase in difficulty and then the combinations add to the difficulty or level of the dance”, George explains. Sounds complicated, but all four teachers swear that it isn’t and the bottom line is having fun while dancing and learning.
And the learning never ends. Round dancing is definitely not dancing in circles: it is a dance for couples who go through a progression in rhythms, starting with a basic Two-step, then the Waltz, Foxtrot, Rumba, Cha, Bolero, the Jive, Tango, Quick-step and more. My interest is piqued: I can practically see Juliet Prowse, "The First Lady of American Dance” and masses of glittering sequins and feather boas. "Not really,” says Helen. She and Russell teach an easy level class on Tuesday afternoons and a beginner’s class on Friday nights at the hall. As she explains, "Round dancing is different from both Ballroom dancing and Square dancing. There isn’t the competition amongst couples, as in the Ballroom dancing, where the sequence of steps is essentially the same throughout the music and specific to the music, for example, dancing a Waltz or Jive, etc. With Round
dancing you dance as a couple, but each partner’s moves are cued. This is unlike Square dancing where you dance in a foursome to the calls.” Russell adds, "Because Round dances are choreographed, you learn the figures first, then the dance with the figures in it, then the couples move counter-clockwise around the floor, doing the figures in the same direction, at the same time. The levels of dance never end: anything can be choreographed; the range of moves is in the tens of thousands and so with the music, and the dances.” From a green beginner with two left feet, such as me, to an experienced dancer who sashays on over (or is that waltzes over?) from another style, you can learn and progress at your own pace. "You can certainly stay where you are comfortable – dance to your own level and if you don’t wish to learn any more, just relax and do your dancing” Helen finishes. They both stress that there is always something new and it’s not boring, ever. They say they absolutely love it.
So what about the costumes and the attire, I ask, picturing myself, svelte and sexy in an elegant, backless creation that sweeps along the floor, floating around my partner’s dark, tuxedoed legs and brilliant patent shoes? "Oh, you mean the dresses that the women only half wear?” Pauline jokes. Those aren’t part of Round dancing, but neither are the exaggerated layers of crinolines under flouncy, gathered skirts and men’s western wear shirts with bolero ties worn in Square dancing. The clothing is casual: a dress is optional, but most women wear long ‘prairie or broomstick’ skirts, while the men wear long-sleeved shirts and slacks. Easy enough for most people to find something suitable already in their closets. There goes another fantasy.
I notice that the couples I see dancing this afternoon, concentrating fiercely but smiling broadly, are all retirees. All of the four teachers concur: Round dancing is an excellent activity for people of any age, but particularly good for seniors. According to George, "Dancing keeps people mobile and it certainly keeps the brain active and the mind sharp”. Pauline furthers this statement by adding, "It gives people something to aim at, gives a challenge to set the bar higher, although it may cause some frustration at times!” Helen and Russell have found with their beginners that they teach and re-teach the moves until the dancers get them and everyone is smiling and laughing at their own mistakes. She says, "It’s a full-body workout, from head to toe!” With their Friday night beginners, there are many younger couples and they often have so much fun that they sing along with the music and her cues. Russell and Helen love the enthusiasm that the younger crowd bring with them – their minds are quick and often they will add modern and somewhat "wilder” moves to the dance. This only encourages the fun and laughter and leads to unlimited social occasions requiring potluck suppers and long-range plans being made for travelling to dance festivals.
Just like in the movie, there are dance clubs everywhere and dance festivals and conventions worldwide. It is possible to dance all over Vancouver Island, (some dancers travel to and from Victoria weekly), and meet fellow enthusiasts throughout B.C., the United States and Europe, as well as New Zealand, Australia and Japan. With Round
dancing, the cues are all standardized and written in English, so no matter where you go to dance, there is a common language of understanding, endless possibilities for further education and a happy basis for international friendships. And, according to George, Pauline, Helen and Russell, one of the very best things about dancing is all the wonderful people they have met over the years and the lasting friendships that have formed.
Full of fun and laughter, filled with challenge and exercise, the underlying note that remains playing long after the music has stopped, is the unquenchable passion that dance inspires in all who partake of it. Passion that truly does make you feel alive. For the teachers, it’s been enough to build a very large part of their lives around dance. For the students, the passion has moved them beyond the reach of their partner’s toes and into the rhythms of their own expressive and creative joy. For all of us who dream of free-flowing gowns and the shoes to go with them, dance is a partner waiting to sweep us away and twirl us senseless in its bliss.
Ah, where are you now Yul Brynner? I always loved you etc., etc., etc., when you danced. And you, Richard Gere, learning to live life in all its fullness – making women everywhere dress their men in coats with tails – well then I say, it’s lessons for me too, and Shall we Dance?
Janelle Hoddevik is a freelance writer in Nanaimo. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org