By Mary Beth DeCecco
We jitterbugged in the 1950s, discoed in the late 70s, freestyled in the 80s, and started swinging again in the 90s.
Dancing has always been a social event. But these days, with television shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Ballroom Bootcamp”, it seems to have exploded.
Given all this hype, it seemed fitting that I spend the day with a dance instructor and see what the craze is all about.
The only formal dance training I had was when I was six and took tap and ballet classes. My dance career ended shortly after my first recital for reasons I’m still unaware of. Though, I have to admit, I loved wearing the pink tutu. There’s nothing more girly than a tutu. Unless you’re Lara Flynn Boyle walking down the red carpet, there is (sadly) no other reason to ever don one again.
These days, the only dance opportunities I encounter are at weddings. Though I’m certainly not the first one to jump up and hit the dance floor, I’m also not the poor soul being pointed at and laughed at, if and when I finally make my way out there. Before taking this assignment, my mother told me: “If the instructor tells you that you have two left feet you get it from your father; if you’re a natural you get it from me.”
I arrived one cold Monday afternoon at the Arthur Murray studio in Latham to meet instructor Chad Czelusniak. He works Monday-Friday from 1pm-10pm (with a 45-minute break). I immediately found him to be quite friendly and he had a great sense of humor.
He gave me a brief tour of the 3,000 square foot building and ran me through his typical day. Each day, the staff (a total of eight instructors and counselors including owner/instructor Jennifer Girard) meets for 45 minutes to discuss their clients’ needs. A counselor can also teach, but primarily helps the instructor and student develop a program based on the level of dance he or she wants to achieve.
A former interior designer, Chad took one introductory lesson at Arthur Murray four years ago and exhibited such natural talent that he was asked to become a certified instructor. (In order to become certified, you have to know up to a certain level the men’s and lady’s part of 10 dances.)
Chad currently has about 35 clients and teaches between 25-30 lessons a week.
His first client of the day was Mary, a beginner, who appeared to be in her late 30s. She was taking lessons for an upcoming vacation with her girlfriends and so she could go out and dance socially with them.
“Always start with your right foot,” Chad told her, as he taught her the basic box step, the basis for most dances. “Back, side, together… forward, side, together.”
He walked her through the basics of a few different dances such as the jitterbug, which can be turned into the hustle by making it quicker.
“Back, side, together…forward, side, together” became “step, switch, together…step, switch, together,” as it turned into the salsa.
Chad has an interesting piece of advice for women. “If your husband or boyfriend uses his turn signal when driving, he will be a good dance leader.”
A man’s right hand should rest across a woman’s left shoulder blade and his left hand and her right should be held in the air, as if signaling a turn.
I noticed that Mary stayed up on her toes, which, said Chad, is common for women and those with dance backgrounds to do. He reminded her to keep her heels down and said, “When you’re up on your toes you can’t control your body movement.”
I also watched another instructor, Pearl, give advanced bolero lessons to a man who has been taking lessons there for a couple of years. Bolero is an advanced rhythm dance that incorporates a bit of tango, rumba and waltz.
After 45 minutes, the lesson was over and Chad was able to sit down and answer my many questions.
Q: Who is your typical client? Our students range in age from their 20s to their 70s. But typically they’re between 30 and 50, have college educations and expendable cash. They’re doing this because they want to be good social dancers. Or, sometimes it’s a way of reconnecting with a spouse or partner. Once the lessons move up to the social level with group lessons, it’s also a way of meeting people without having to going to a bar.
Q: During the first lesson, what are you looking for? Rhythm, posture and balance. Many times the balance is shaky because a person’s head is down looking at their feet or because they’re just nervous. I use consistent pattern repetition and establish a conversation with the person so that the movement becomes second nature. If a person gets to that point within the first lesson, it’s good potential for learning.
Q: Do you think the majority of people have rhythm or have two left feet? Everybody has rhythm. But, I think most people have the wrong interpretation of what rhythm is. Many think it’s banging your feet to a band. The next stage of rhythm is trying to get your body to move. You have to find a consistent beat in the music and react to that beat
Q: Which dances do most people want to learn? The main dances are the cha-cha and salsa, which are Latin dances and the hustle, a rhythm dance. Big band dancing such as swing and the jitterbug are popular because of the style of movement. There are people who also want to learn the waltz and the foxtrot.
Q: Can any music be used when teaching dances from decades ago? Yes, in fact, most of the current music can be used. For example, you can waltz to Norah Jones and most country music, you can cha-cha and merengue to Ricky Martin and do the hustle to Madonna and Britney Spears.
Q: How much are lessons? It depends on how many dances you want to learn. It’s $10 for a 30-minute introductory lesson. Four private lessons are $199. From there we develop a program tailored to a clients’ needs
Q: What kind of commitment is necessary when signing up? If someone can commit to once a week for a month they will learn how to dance.
Q: What kind of positive reaction do you think dancing has on people? I’ve seen people who are very shy or have low self-esteem break out of their mold.
Q: What advice do you give to those just starting lessons? In the beginning you can’t take it too seriously. I keep it simple. If the moves are too technical, clients might get scared off.
Q: Are there any particular times of year that are busier than others? The colder months bring a lot of engaged couples wanting to learn their “first dance” and in September we get a lot of empty nesters. In general, there is a mix of single and married females.
Q: How many students are enrolled in Arthur Murray and how many of them go on to competitions? We have about 125 students and about 20 percent compete.
Q: What is your absolute favorite dance? The cha–cha and rumba because of the movement involved.
Q: Are there places in the Capital Region where people can go and dance other than clubs? Danceland Boomers and the Polish Community Center in Albany and Rollarama in Schenectady are a few that come to mind.
Q: How old is your oldest/youngest client? My youngest clients are in their 20s; oldest are in their 70s. We require parental consent for ages 16-21.
Q: Do you continue to take lessons yourself? All of instructors still get coaching lessons. In fact, last month we went to Connecticut to train with one of gentlemen who wrote the curriculum for Arthur Murray.
Q: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working? I like to work on my house, read, and spend time with my niece and sister-in-law. Occasionally I go dancing at clubs with friends.
Back to dancing.
Chad’s next two lessons were back-to-back with a young woman, who also happened to be his good friend. They were practicing a routine that Chad choreographed for a competition in Mystic, CT, this month. They flawlessly moved across the studio floor, doing a “mini routine” that mainly consisted of the samba and the cha-cha.
Coming from the basic lesson earlier to the experience of these two was entertaining to watch. Since most of my afternoon was spent sitting and watching Chad and the other instructors, the least I could do to help was push the “play” button on the radio each time they started their routine.
Around 3pm, it started to get busier in the studio. A couple in their mid-to-late 50s came in for their very first lesson, appearing quite timid. The man, dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and a Harley Davidson cap, seemed the least likely candidate you’d find in a dance studio. But, he seemed to pick up the basic steps easier than his wife.
I was starting to get a bit antsy. After sitting all day watching Chad and the other instructors give lessons and bopping around in my seat to the music, I was eager for my 3:45pm lesson.
Finally, my turn had come. Chad put on a CD and started me off with the box step—back, side, together… forward, side, together…back, side together…
By positioning our arms in a more elegant way and changing the timing, we were waltzing. Then we moved a little quicker, turning it into the samba. With a few different positions of our feet, Chad had me doing the meringue, the cha-cha, the rumba and the fox trot. My confidence was boosted when he said I had talent.
For article purposes only, Chad showed me a little of everything. During a typical introductory lesson, the students will learn three to five dances depending on time and how quickly they pick it up.
One thing I had to be constantly reminded of was where to place my right hand. I can tell you where it doesn’t go—the shoulder. A woman’s left hand (the space between her thumb and index finger) is supposed to rest on the side of a man’s upper arm. It got to the point where Chad just glanced at my hand and I’d snap to attention and quickly move it. Not without us bursting into laughter, of course, which is something that frequently happened during the lesson.
When Chad took me through a few advanced Tango moves and told me that I had “natural talent” for it, I couldn’t have been happier. And neither could my mother.
It became obvious while observing Chad and dancing with him that he has chosen the career path meant for him. He’s very much a people person and has the one thing needed to be a great teacher—patience.
“I never thought of myself as someone who could be a natural born teacher,” he said. “So many people start out dancing thinking they can’t do it, but as long as they realize I have the patience, they will learn. I try to work together with my clients to make sure they get a great dance experience.”
Arthur Murray is located at 7 Johnson Road in Latham. For more information or to learn about upcoming events call 786.1468 or visit www.arthurmurraylatham.com.