Fancy footwork

By Danielle Wright

From rock'n'roll to rumba, Danielle Wright meets the dance class kids turning back the clock.

The rock'n'roll club holds classes for all ages. Photo / John McKillop
The rock'n'roll club holds classes for all ages. Photo / John McKillop

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once". For some, though, dancing can be a terrifying prospect. Before the kids get to the awkward dancing stage, make use of the Strictly Ballroom hype and send them off to dance classes with history:

Rocking around the clock

In a suburban hall, half a dozen boys between the ages of seven and 12 spin their partners round the room as rock 'n' roll skirts swish and twirl. It's like walking back in time with the parents, aunts and grandparents are clearly enjoying the moment, tapping their feet to Sam Cooke's beautiful voice singing Chain Gang.

Their nostalgic smiles and far-away looks make me think it's taking them back to the dance classes of their youth. For one mother, Leeyan Stephens, the memories are closer still - the same dance teacher, Annette Jenkins, taught her when she was a teenager.

Since starting a family, Leeyan has taken her children Teryn (8) and Quentin (12) to rock 'n' roll dance nights all their lives.

"Quentin is a little competitive so recently he's decided he wants to be very good at this," says Leeyan. "My kids do one sport activity and one cultural activity. Rock 'n' roll dancing is their sport at the moment and I think Quentin prefers dancing with pretty girls than being on a muddy football field."

The girls wear special rock 'n' roll dresses with either polkadots or flower fabric (because "judges like those patterns"). One of the younger boys wears braces attached to his baggy brown trousers. Footwear for the girls is either inexpensive white sneakers and frilly ankle socks or handmade two-toned Mary Janes imported from the USA.

Leeyan tells me there are degrees of participation in the dance club, with some members going to the beach hops and owning classic cars. It's a family-friendly club and kids are involved with games of musical statues to win lollipops - learning to dance without realising it.

"It's very social and a good family hobby, because everyone can do it," says Leeyan, as we watch one boy turn his partner upside down, eyes blinded momentarily by the frilly hem of her billowing skirt on his face. "I can dance with my boys, dads dance with their daughters and we all develop good friendships - it's a very inclusive environment."

City of Sails Rock 'N' Roll Club Inc holds classes for all ages, you don't need to come with a partner. Contact Annette Jenkins on 027 4955 607.

Strictly Dancesport

Aaron Gilmore is well known for winning Dancing with the Stars in 2009, but to daughter Grace (9) and son Ethan (10), he's "Dancing Dadda". Grace tells me he's also "the best" and the class is "awesome". They join him in his Friday afternoon class teaching seven to 11-year-olds Dancesport, which includes ballroom and Latin dancing.

As the only boy in his high school into dance, he admits getting "a lot of grief". His reply was always: "You tackle boys, I dance with girls - which one of us has it right?"

The ballroom dances in his class comprise traditional waltz and viennese waltz with all their twists and turns, quick-step, the classic foxtrot and tango. The Latin element features the flirtatious cha-cha, the hip-swinging samba, the romantic rumba, paso doble (reminiscent of the movement and drama of a Spanish bullfight) and the lively and uninhibited jive.

Each dance has its own intriguing history. It's hard to imagine the traditional waltz ever causing a scandal, but that's what it did when introduced to English society in the 19th century. Never before had a man and woman danced publicly in a virtual embrace.

As a child, Aaron preferred the jive because of the fast feet, but he's grown into loving what he calls "the subleties of ballroom". He says each dance is like a part of your personality and your favourites become mood-based. He admits it can be hard to teach young children ballroom because of the structure and trying to get them to stay still.

Aaron estimates around two-thirds of the girls in his classes join up because of the nice shoes they get to wear. They are very pretty shoes (I'm tempted to give it a go for a pair, too). The boys' shoes are tailored to their dance of choice and some have suede soles. Aaron's are shiny patent black.

Younger children have an unadorned dress code for competitions to curb expense. The costumes do need to be fitted, though, and some dressmakers specialise in dance outfits. Girls' hair is usually up and off the shoulders and neck to enhance the top line of a ballroom dancer and can be anything from a long plaited ponytail to an elaborate bun in Latin dancing.

And the best thing for the kids about these classes is that no pushy parents are allowed. "I grew up in dance and saw plenty of dancing mums," Aaron says, "So I don't tolerate them in my classes."

He tells me his lessons are all about teaching "respectful touch" and how to be in someone's space. Interpersonal skills are high and the children are phenomenal dancers, enjoying every minute under his energetic presence.

One boy is barely able to put his arm over the head of his tall partner and Aaron tells me he sometimes wishes one kid would grow and another would stop, just so they'd match. They dance in synch to difficult-looking cha-cha steps. Aaron is proud. He winks and leans over to say "If you don't tell them it's hard, they just do it!"

Candy Lane Studios has everything from social to competitive latin or ballroom dance, as well as a host of other dance classes to choose from - even for the mums. Ph 09 638 5646.

Dancing in the classroom

Champion dancer Michael Nicholas has been teaching dance in schools since Kenny Loggins' Footloose was New Zealand's number one single back in 1984.

Although it was hard to motivate the teachers and kids at first, Michael says they now look forward to the classes. The school disco for these students has become a chance to cha-cha to Grease Lighting or line dance to Footloose - an enduring favourite.

"One of the great things about dance classes is that they teach kids respect between boys and girls," says Michael. "The main thing is to give them good manners, no matter if it's 1820 or 2018, good manners go a long way."

He also says it's a real confidence-booster for kids who are not sports or academic-focused, with teachers often saying, "I did not think that child was capable of doing that!"

"We get high success rates and that spills over into other things, as well as improved co-ordination," says Michael, who often sees children practicing steps in the playground after class.

In term four, STEPZ is running an inter-school dance competition for the 20th year and Michael says seeing 200 intermediate-aged children doing the old-fashioned dances in front of their cheering friends gives him "a real warm feeling."

STEPZ teach all levels from pre-school age. The STEPZ Dance Store also sells the pretty Latin sandals for kids - enough to get any little girl interested in lessons. Ph 09 575 3993

Ballroom for balls

Candy Lane (QSM) started her Grammar School dance classes as a way for the girls from Epsom Girls and St Cuthbert's to meet boys from Auckland Grammar School and prepare for upcoming balls and socials.

"In the olden-days, dances were one of the only ways a man could meet a woman and the only respectable way to handle a woman before marriage," says Candy. "The neat thing is that we get more boys than girls in the classes because an Auckland Grammar teacher is a dancer himself, so promotes it well."

Auckland Grammar boy Daniel Lam, 17, tells me he had to dance in the female role today with one of the boys. He says it's good for the boys to experience both roles in order to appreciate the different parts. When you think about it, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did - she just did it backwards and in high heels.

Daniel tells me his parents don't yet know he goes to ballroom dance classes - instead, they think he's doing backstage production at Epsom Girls.

"I haven't told them, I don't think they would understand," says Daniel. "But, it's great and really social. People think it will be awkward but we're like one big family here."

Rhys Larsen, 17, met his girlfriend in a class last year. He says, "Guys need to know it's not sissy, it's manly and cool - a guy who can dance is awesome."

Get your dancing shoes on

To find classes in your area, check wheretodance.co.nz. There are so many dance options including not so Strictly Ballroom styles such as salsa, lindy hop and merengue. As Oprah Winfrey once said: "Every day brings a chance for you to draw in a breath, kick off your shoes, and dance."

Watch the national - and world - best at this weekend's Capezio Kiwi Classic, the 2014 International Dance competition. With open formation, professional and amateur dancesport champs, salsa, swing and jive, this will make you pull on your dancing shoes (or your jazz hands).

Today and tomorrow, Grand Ballroom, Langham Hotel, Symonds St, Auckland.

Dance like everyone is watching

Strictly Ballroom, Australia's much-loved 1992 film, has been relaunched as a musical by director Baz Luhrmann, with sets and costumes by Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin. The story is about a championship ballroom dancer who defies all the rules to follow his heart, but it's the favourite songs, astounding dancing, extravagant costumes, unforgettable wigs - seriously, they deserve their own billing - and the incomparable characters of the Australian Dancesport big fish that you're really there for.

Sydney's Lyric Theatre is transformed with glitter and glamour - it's a rip-roaring night of dance, song and high camp. Tickets from A$55 - $145.

Also check out the Strictly Ballroom memorabilia exhibition at Powerhouse Museum.

- NZ Herald

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