A decade of change on the dance floor

One of the things that I love about ballroom dancing is its diversity – being able to explore different characters and types of music in the various dances, and the variety of people that one encounters.
This diversity was apparent at Kensington Dance Studio’s (KDS) 10th anniversary ball last week, where dentists waltzed with law students and actuaries jived with academics, with an age range from teenage to sixties.
Among those present was 18-year-old Holly, who comes to the studio with her father, Jim, a cabbie who loves quickstep. Jim sometimes brings his mother to social nights, meaning that three generations of the family come together for dancing.
Kele Baker, co-director of KDS, remembers when the dance world was very different: ‘Ten years ago, ballroom dancing was considered old-fashioned, something that your parents or grandparents did. Now, the ballroom society at Cambridge is the biggest club at the university, and it’s become a real craze for students. People in their twenties and thirties like the neutral but social environment—more fun than running on a treadmill, but less pressured than clubbing.’
Part of this transformation is ‘the Strictly effect’—the influence of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, which glamorised dancing and exposed a wider audience to it. Crucially, contestants such as cricketer Darren Gough made it acceptable for men to dance—as Kele says: ‘You could be a bloke’s bloke, but still wear white tie and look good doing a foxtrot with a sexy girl in your arms. Plus, you could go from having two left feet to achieving something extraordinary, through rigorous physical training, and have fun with it.’
One of the highlights of the KDS anniversary ball was a Latin showcase from Strictly pros Matthew and Nicole Cutler. Kele enjoys bringing into the studio such top dancers, who have achieved celebrity status, and seeing the genuine excitement of students in learning from them. For committed dancers who have worked for many years in relative obscurity, such a wave of enthusiasm for their art form must seem like a godsend.
What is the unique appeal of ballroom? In addition to breaking down barriers of age and income level (it’s a true meritocracy, with your ability to do a feather step far more important than the size of your bonus), it also brings together people from different cultures. Kele notes that it’s not verbal-language based—instead, there is ‘the language of dance’.
I experienced this when preparing a cha cha demonstration for KDS’ ball with the studio’s newest teacher, Luca D’Annibale. Despite differences of background and personality (this passionate Italian was frequently bemused by my British inhibition and tendency to analyse rather than ‘feel’ or ‘do’), we formed a bond through our shared enjoyment of training for and performing the routine.
Dancing can also bring something different out of people. This was illustrated by the achievement of many students during their demonstrations, from the technical—great virtuosity in a tango and a waltz, and impressive lifts in an American Smooth—to personal—a mature performance from one of the youngest students, a sassy routine from a technically skilled but sometimes self-doubting dancer, and a smouldering display from an English rose teacher.
One of Kele’s highlights from the ball was the moment that the Ross Mitchell Band started to play and 150 people rushed onto the dance floor to strut their stuff. ‘Ten years ago, we didn’t even have 100 students. I never would have imagined that we could enjoy a dinner-dance with so many committed students who have also become friends. Being able to mix my social and work environments is a privilege that not many people have—I get a great package deal!’
Kele hopes that the recent ‘growth spurt’ in dancing will last, despite the economic downturn: ‘When people are depressed, they want entertainment and escape, and this is so feel-good—it involves social interaction, a sense of accomplishment and physical activity. If dancing is offered at an affordable level, it should continue to succeed.’