Gotta dance, just gotta

The left-footed crowd needs help for weddings, so businesses now exist to teach short-term dancing


The trouble is the dip. Not the raspberry yogurt dip to complement the assorted melon slices; the wedding caterers have that under control. It's the dancing dip, where 25-year-old Michelle Rabovsky is slated to recline, resplendent, in her new husband's arms, as 100 guests wildly applaud.

And yet, at a fox trot lesson three weeks before the big day, the dip remains a low point for the couple, neither of whom has really danced before. The groom, Jonathan Keck, 24, is supposed to signal its approach by gently squeezing below her shoulder blade, or murmuring in her ear. Instead, he barks, "Diiiiiiiip!" as though calling in an airstrike. This alarms Michelle so much that she barely bends backward, her spine as stiff as a shower rod.

"The good news" - a calm, reasonable, Ukrainian-accented voice interrupts - "is that it's not a long song."

This is Valery Viner, the couple's dance instructor. She works for the Wedding Dance Specialists, one of a new breed of businesses specializing in the growing market for prenuptial ballroom lessons, often for total beginners who just want to squeak through the first dance without shattering each other's toe bones.

This is peak season for the classes, when the most organized couples rehearse for autumn ceremonies, and procrastinators cram for the glut of summer ones. All want to spare their grandmothers the sight of the nightclub-style grinding and bear-hug swaying that passes for dancing these days. A few, inspired by the recent run of television dance contests, even want to put on a show.

The Wedding Dance Specialists - which is based in Virginia but steadily expanding up the coast, renting space in dance studios - just opened a Baltimore location; there are others in Jessup and Columbia, and the one in Towson opened last year. That's where Valery, 26, is working this Wednesday night in July, teaching the rhumba, the cha-cha-cha, and all the rest.

This is Michelle and Jonathan's second and final private lesson, and they're wearing casual clothes with their wedding shoes: his lace-ups are patent leather, her heels are oyster-shell white. Both pairs are being broken in as they fox trot to the tune of their song, Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable." Gently, Valery guides them.

"Jonathan, it has to at least look like you're leading," she says. "You're taking her into the dip. You're taking her out."

She draws imaginary boxes on the floor. She shows them how to clasp hands.

"It's a lot to remember, I know."

"Unforgettable" plays again and again; the Columbia couple - he's a police officer, she does pricing for J.C. Penney - gaze into each other's eyes, and for a moment, the dance clicks. But a few too many traveling steps later and they are stuck in a corner, entangled with a fake tree, giggling helplessly.


Other parts of the cavernous, mirror-walled studio are being used by instructors from different companies, and women in their 50s and 60s take lessons to perfect their technique. They stomp through the tango, hair slashing through the air, moving fast enough to leave skid marks.

Such women are the last generation for whom formal dance was a cultural must; rest assured, most did not need to take lessons before their weddings. And yet they are the mothers of today's brides, who are part of the most dance-deprived generation yet.

A phone call to USA Dance, a national association of ballroom dancers, points to two causes: feminism and rock 'n' roll.

"In the 1940s, there was swing music," says Ken Richards, a spokesman for the group, recalling the days when elegant couples minidragged and cuddle-dropped. But rock 'n' roll drove a wedge between partners (the twist is not danced cheek to cheek), and with the 1960s came "the whole freedom thing, and the feminist movement, and the music reflected that," he said. "So we tore ourselves away from pairs and danced freestyle."

Today's mothers of the bride came of age during this period; many learned the waltz and the jitterbug but abandoned them for Woodstock-style mass gyrations, and later the delights of disco. Then came the free-wheeling dances of the 1980s, the grunge era, and also - hit it, Billy Ray Cyrus! - the line dancing craze. It seemed as if ballroom had bowed out for good.

Yet through it all, "the wedding was the one place where it hung on," Richards said. "That first dance, with Mr. and Mrs. Whatever, is just integral." Faced with this tradition, couples winged it as well as they could.

But no longer. The American wedding is more extravagant than ever, and brides recoil at the slightest imperfection, let alone an amateurish dance in the spotlight. Also, a spate of televised contests - America's Got Talent, Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance - has whetted bridal appetites for more polished performances, and couples are happy to pay $80 or so for a private lesson.

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