Monday, February 08, 2010

College Students Step Up

From (Detroit, MI):

Ballroom dancing: College students step up, compete
Campus crowd turns out in droves for competition, camaraderie


You don't have to be a B-list celebrity, own a sequined leotard or understand the difference between the rumba and the cha-cha. On college campuses, there are no such requirements when it comes to ballroom dancing.

Between texting and test-cramming, students are learning that they really can dance.

"People used to think ballroom dancing was your grandma's activity," says Angela Prince of USA Dance, the national governing body of DanceSport, the competitive version of ballroom dancing. "Not anymore."

Ballroom dance is booming on campuses across the country -- including at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Dance insiders credit great recruiting campaigns, strong coaching, a fun atmosphere and TV shows like "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance."

The shows "cultivate a seed of interest in people," says Alex Rowan, 23, of Lansing and the president of the Ballroom Dance Team at the University of Michigan. "They look at it with longing, like, 'I wish I could dance like that.' "

In the past two years, the number of competitors at the National Collegiate DanceSport Championship, the Ohio Star Ball, ballooned from 700 to 1,000, and the number of schools participating grew from 38 to 52.
"It's a natural fit for them," Prince says. "They're so social and can bring together large groups of people. ... They have the ability to cheerlead for each other."

The trend steps beyond colleges and into area dance studios as well.
"Have we seen growth? Absolutely," said Evan Mountain, co-owner of the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills, who says his business grew 25% in 2009. "It's not just high school kids or college kids, but it's adults as well."

Beyond the connection to the popularity of shows like "Dancing With the Stars," Mountain attributes the newfound interest in all things dance to something else.

"Everybody's online and going to Facebook and they're texting people. There's all this nonphysical communication going on. But in ballroom dancing, you're touching, moving, holding each other. There's actual physical contact, and I think people are craving that."

Ballroom dance is especially popular at U-M, where the Wolverines have won five straight national titles in the collegiate open division at the Ohio Star Ball. The team, which started in 1997, had about 100 members by 2007; today it has 221.

The school will host the 10th annual Michigan Ballroom Dance Competition on Saturday at Saline Middle School. Rowan says they're expecting 20 college teams and more than 400 dancers.

One team that will be there is from MSU, where ballroom dancing has been a social club activity on campus for decades. But the Spartans didn't launch a competitive team until last year. At the Ohio Star Ball, with only 10 competitors, MSU placed in all six dance styles in the newcomer division and brought home 17 ribbons.

The MSU team now has more than 30 members who plan to compete. Most, like David Clatterbuck, a sophomore from Illinois who joined last year, have no formal dance training.

"Ballroom dancing is something you always see in movies, and it looks classy," says Clatterbuck, who is studying political science. "And a lot of the guys come in because there are a lot of girls there."

That's true in Ann Arbor, too. The guys come to meet girls, and they feel comfortable because the social stigma surrounding male dancing isn't as pronounced as it once was.

"I think a good amount (of nonacceptance of ballroom dance) has washed away since the 'Dancing With the Stars' craze," says Annette Kosin, 22, of Chesaning, a former team president and graduate student studying energy systems engineering.

"Now, it's acceptable -- because there are a lot of hot girls dancing."

At U-M, professional coaches Susan and Steve McFerran, who've competed internationally, host a free lesson the first week of each semester. Up to 300 people attend.

Kosin says about 100 return to the open dance lessons the team holds each Saturday in the Central Campus Recreational Building. And, typically, those folks get hooked.

"It makes it so people want to come back and continue learning. It's all rooted in enjoyment," Rowan says.

That's what drew in Rowan, who attended Lansing Everett High School, where he played hockey and baseball.

"I knew what ballroom dancing was," says Rowan, who graduated from U-M in April with degrees in psychology and Asian studies. "But I wasn't a dancer by any means. I didn't know what the waltz was. ... I didn't know what the three-count was. I was personally clueless. And I was pretty bad at first, like most people."

Rowan went to the open dance lesson and was recruited to join the team at its late-night practice. One practice did it for him.

"They showed me the cha-cha-cha. They mentored me for about two hours, and I walked out of the studio and I had completely learned the cha-cha-cha," he recalls.

"It was a ton of fun, I had danced with other people, and I had seen this camaraderie that existed. It was very clear that I was learning to dance and was having fun and becoming involved in a meaningful community that was very real."

After one year of dancing, he competed at the bronze and silver level. Two years later, he competed in the pre-championship level. And he's done well -- he and his partner Anastasia Alekseyeva, 22, of Troy won the standard pre-championship title at the Ohio Star Ball.

"We will teach you how to dance -- you can have two left feet," Rowan says. "We have showcases, and after one semester, or one year, people are amazed. They say, 'I can't do that in a year or a semester.' But they do."

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