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My Dance Story: Part One

dancing in my past

Me, with a favorite dance partner a couple of decades ago!

People frequently ask me how I got started in this business.  Actually, there is a lot that lead up to it.

I folk danced in grade school and square danced in high school, but I really didn’t start to dance socially until I was in college.  Singularly unpopular in high school, I never went to dances or danced socially with my peers.

I square danced outside of my school where the other dancers didn’t know they weren’t supposed to talk to me.  I even went to my junior prom with a square dance partner with whom I had never had much of a conversation before our disastrous date.

Not only did I find out he couldn’t social dance at all, but we also discovered that he was a right wing fundamentalist Christian and I was a left wing Unitarian.  We couldn’t get away from each other fast enough and that was the extent of my social dance experience before college.

In college, there was only freestyle and “slow dance” if you were popular enough for the boys to want to hold, which I was not.  I didn’t dance much until I was out of college and working as a crisis counselor at a battered women’s shelter.   There, I found a coworker who was also interested in partner dance but was saddled with a non-dancing boyfriend.  We decided to learn together, which is why I started learning both lead and follow right from the start.  We practiced together and traded off leading and following.

Unfortunately, in the early seventies in the bay area there was no social dance scene like there is today.  There was one remaining ballroom dance venue, Ali Baba’s, and disco clubs.  Ali Baba’s did not allow women to dance together (this was the 70’s remember?) so there really was no place for us to practice in public.  We tried our best.  Lori was tall and flat chested, so she tried dressing up in drag and accompanying me in a ball gown.  I did the talking, but the keeper of the door took one look at Lori’s pretty face and refused to sell us a ticket.

That left disco.  It would have made sense for us to just have learned disco partner dance, which would have solved the problem and would have been fun, but we wanted to be Ginger Rogers, so it never occurred to us.  We took what little ballroom dance we knew, adjusted it so it wouldn’t have to travel, styled it to fit a disco beat, and went to the clubs to practice.

To be continued…

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Why I Started Teaching Dance

 

People frequently ask me how I got started in this business of dance.  Actually, there is a lot that led up to it.  I folk danced in grade school and square danced in high school, but I really didn’t start to dance socially until I was in college.  Singularly unpopular in high school, I never went to dances or danced socially with my peers.  I square danced outside of my school where the other kids didn’t know they weren’t supposed to talk to me.  I even went to my junior prom with a square dance partner with whom I had never had much of a conversation before our disastrous date.  Not only did I find out he couldn’t social dance at all, but we also discovered that he was a right wing fundamentalist Christian and I was a left wing Unitarian.  We couldn’t get away from each other fast enough and that was the extent of my social dance experience before college.

 

In college, there was only freestyle and “slow dance” if you were popular enough for the boys to want to hold, which I was not.  I didn’t dance much until I was out of college and working as a crisis counselor at a battered women’s shelter.  When I mentioned my Ginger Rogers fantasy to one of my coworkers, she told me that another coworker had the same fantasy.  Laurie and I decided to learn together at a time when there was not much of a partner dance scene.  It was the disco era, and in retrospect it would have made sense for us to take a disco class, but it never occurred to us because we wanted to be Ginger Rogers, not John Travolta.

 

We taught ourselves (sort of) Foxtrot from an Arthur Murray book, a present from Laurie’s boyfriend who happy to contribute as long as he didn’t have to participate, and took a ten week swing class.  Laurie led Foxtrot and I led Swing.  After a mortifying but useful critique session with my Jujitsu sensei (an accomplished ballroom dancer) we looked for some place to practice our newfound skills.  There was only one place to go Ballroom dancing, Ali Baba’s, the last original ballroom dance hall.  We knew they wouldn’t let women dance together then because a couple of our friends had gotten thrown out for doing so.  Laurie had an idea.  “I’m kind of tall and flat chested,” she noted.  “Maybe I could dress up as a guy and we could try to get in.”  This seemed like a good plan, and Laurie looked fabulous in her suit.  I wore a ball gown and did all the talking.  We didn’t get far.  The receptionist took one look at Laurie’s pretty face and we got the boot before we even got in the door.  It was very embarrassing, and left us with no place to go, so we merged our two dances into a sort of fox-swing and styled it to fit a disco beat so we could at least go dancing somewhere.

 

We hit the disco scene with our made up dance and people thought we were doing some state of the art new partner disco dance and started asking if we were teachers.   “Why not?” we thought.  And that’s where I got my start.  I never thought at the time that I would build it into a career,  and I had a long way to go to learn enough to hang up a shingle, but it was the most fun thing I ever did that earned me money, however little at the time.   It combined what I was most gifted at, teaching, with what I most enjoyed, dancing.

 

I chose my target market (shy people and klutzes) because of my background in counseling and teaching self-defense to people with physical disabilities.  I knew how to work with psychological and physical blocks to learning and I loved working with the challenging students who try the patience of most teachers.   I loved teaching self-defense, but I didn’t love martial arts.  I enjoyed teaching communication skills (couples counseling) but I wasn’t good at disconnecting from my clients problems when I wasn’t with them.  Teaching dance combines the best of both worlds.  My students get the benefits of my former careers.  I get to share my passion, and spread joy every day.  What could be better than that?

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Choosing a First Dance Song

 

footprint pattern

Your “first dance” music will become “your song”!

Blogs by Djs and other wedding professionals often suggest first dance songs for couples who haven’t come up with their own and need ideas. As a dance teacher, I have a somewhat different perspective. A recent post in wine country wedding magazine lists five songs that are their top picks. Their first pick, At Last by Etta James, is also the first pick for many of my students. If they have a particular relationship with the song, if they picked it because of it’s special meaning for them, I can make it work. But if they picked it because they saw it on a blog like this one, or just thought it was a good choice because it’s slow and romantic, I’ll steer them away from it.

It’s part of my job to educate my students about what makes a good dance song. At Last, and in fact the number two song on wine country’s list, Elvis Presley’s Cant Help Falling In Love, are both ballads. Ballads are great if you don’t know how to dance and want to spend your first dance rocking back and forth in a clench like you did in high school.

When people come to me, however, they want to learn how to do a real dance and for that you need something with a beat. The beat in a ballad is so slow that by the time your get to the end of a measure you can’t remember when it started. For all intents and purposes, it has no beat. A perfect song for a real dance, a waltz, foxtrot, or nightclub two-step, say, has a clear easy to find beat.

A good dance song has clear measures and an easy beat. You can tell if it’s in 3/4 time (a waltz) or 4/4 time (practically everything else). The beginning of each measure is clear and didn’t happen so long ago that you’ve lost track by the time you get to the next one.

Many people who go to wedding blogs for song ideas are not dancers and are not taking lessons. A ballad is ideal for these people. A song with a beat is hard to dance to if you just want to sway to a romantic mood. The confusion is when they come to a dance lesson with song in hand, and it’s a ballad. If you are learning to dance for you wedding, get your ideas from your teacher, not your DJ.

I encourage my students to come with as many different songs as possible if they are considering more than one. That gives me an opportunity to help them select one with a good dance beat. If, however, they want “At Last” and only At Last will do, the way to work around it is to forget about the measures and dance to it as it it’s just a series of slow beats, like a techno song. Then I teach them waltz steps so they can step on every beat. It’s too slow for a combination of slow and quick steps, and no one will notice that it’s not a waltz because they don’t notice the measures anyway.

If they have time for a more challenging dance, Blues Dancing can be done to a ballad as well because it can be adapted to the mood, rather than the beat, of the music. It’s a much more challenging dance to learn to lead, however, so they can choose, dependent on their time and budget.  The bottom line is, any song can work, but if you’re a beginner, make it easy on yourself. Pick an easy song if you have a choice!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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