On a good night on the dance floor, I’ll find myself leaning backward on the arm of my dance partner. Then comes the moment of truth: I release my weight and collapse into his arms. I surrender. This move, known as the “dip” is the signature move featured in tango, salsa, lindy hop, and other ballroom dances.
It is often the culmination of a brief encounter between two people, sometimes complete strangers, connected solely through the unspoken language of dance. Proper dance form requires the follower to maintain support of her body weight, while in this position. I, however, enjoy the thrill of letting go of my hold, allowing my partner to fully support me.
There are few situations that require such complete trust in a fellow human being and this move always restores my faith in humanity for those few brief moments. It never ceases to amaze me how something so simple can create such an intense feeling of exhilaration and it is always followed by an involuntary giggle.
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a dancer. But I was overweight, so my parents decided that I was more suited to sing opera. I abided by their wishes until I started college, and it became clear that I lacked the passion required to succeed in such a competitive arena.
My love of dance, however, never wavered so I started taking dance classes and indulging regularly in free dancing at parties, which was popular at the time.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to a dance hosted by the Central Jersey Dance Society (CJDS) at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Princeton, and I discovered a whole community of people who started dancing at various stages of their lives.
CJDS is a non-profit corporation established in 2001 by dancers for dancers to promote and develop social dancing in central New Jersey. CJDS sponsors four social dances a month covering a wide variety of ballroom dances like foxtrot, waltz, quickstep, salsa, and swing, to name a few.
Partners are required to participate, but there is no need to come with one, as there are always lots of people with whom to dance. Each dance starts with a lesson — usually one for beginners — followed by an intermediate lesson for the more advanced dancer.
During the lessons, partners rotate so that everyone has the chance to dance with a variety of people. Being right-brain oriented, initially I had trouble learning the steps and relied on my natural rhythm to get me through. Since the general rule in partner dance requires that men lead the dance and women follow, I got away with winging it at first with the more accommodating men.
But after a while I realized that if I wanted to be an accomplished dancer, I should know the steps and counts for each dance. I have since taken quite a few private and group lessons. I also find that taking the lessons that precede the social dance are especially helpful since they provide the opportunity to practice what I have just been taught.
During the couple of years that I have been partner dancing I have learned many of the ballroom and Latin dances including Argentine tango, which I find the hardest to learn. But my overall favorite is swing dancing. The crowd at the weekly Jersey Jumpers — the CJDS swing dance group —is friendly, and changing partners is strongly encouraged.
Moreover, while ballroom dancing requires adherence to a strict regimen of steps, improvisation is a vital part of swing dancing, so creativity abounds. The age range of participants spans several generations, and there is a growing resurgence of swing dancing on college campuses.
Students from Rutgers University and Princeton University Swing Dance clubs are often present at these dances. If you are lucky you might catch some of them doing some amazing aerial lifts and jumps. Swing dances are a great big party where you dance the night away to songs from the 1930s on with titles like “Potato Chips,” Duke Ellington’s, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” or Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
Partner dancing has opened up a whole new world to me. I have made many new friends and met people from a wide range of backgrounds. I have also heard some great bands and become familiar with music from a wide variety of cultures.
Although men have the role of lead and women follow, it is not uncommon to see women dancing with women, and increasingly I see men dancing together as well.
While some women are uncomfortable assuming the role of the follower, for me it is a treat to get a reprieve from the decision-making responsibilities I face each day.
Additionally, learning the essential skills required to be a proficient follower is challenging in its own right. Partner dancing is a collaboration that involves communicating through a language that is unspoken and draws from senses that extend beyond seeing, hearing, and touching. Adeptness at spatial navigation and synchronization are important skills for the follower to develop.
Dancing has been a great fitness endeavor for me since it combines movement and music — my two favorite activities. Moreover, at a social dance I can enjoys several hours of exercise, and it is a whole lot more fun than running on treadmill. My experience learning the required steps of each dance has strengthened my ability to use the left side of my brain.
I have learned that I am very capable of memorizing steps; it just takes me a little longer. Dancing is also the ultimate stress reduction activity. When I am dancing I am fully engaged in the present moment. I am not thinking: I am feeling, seeing, listening, and touching. It is truly a moving meditation.
During the two years that I have been dancing regularly, I have experienced increased cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. It has also contributed to increased physical and emotional balance and I love my ballerina legs, which have developed as a result. It also provides me with a forum to connect with others, and fill a need that is fundamental to the human experience.
Our culture is increasingly solitary and we now spend several hours each day relating electronically. How many opportunities do we have to meet people and interact on such an intimate level: touching, embracing and making eye contact? For music lovers like me, it is also a great way to spend an evening listening to great jazz, rock and roll and Latin music of the last several decades.
Dancing offers tremendous health benefits and helps to increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen and tone muscles, improve balance, and promote weight control. Current medical literature has shown that dancing can significantly reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia.
Dr. Joe Verghese, chief of Integrated Divisions of Cognitive & Motor Aging and Geriatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was the lead researcher on a study that explored the association between leisure activities and dementia among the elderly.
The study published in 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a 76 percent reduction in risk of dementia among those participants who engaged in regular and frequent social dancing. Other leisure activities such as doing crossword puzzles and playing a musical instrument were also found to be helpful in reducing risk of dementia. Dancing, however, resulted in the highest reduction of risk.
Verghese graduated from St. Johns Medical College, Bangalore, India in 1989, and then completed postgraduate training in internal medicine and neurology in the United Kingdom. He completed his neurology residency at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1998, and did fellowship training in neurophysiology as well as aging and dementia in 1999 at Albert Einstein. He earned a master’s degree in clinical research methods in 2001.
His current projects include studying the influence of cognitively stimulating activities on reducing the risk of dementia, the role of divided attention tasks such as walking while talking in predicting outcomes such as disability and cognitive decline, and global health.
“Dancing is a complex activity,” Dr. Verghese explains. “Other activities improve blood flow. However, dancing is mentally stimulating because you have to follow a pattern. It is also social and ultimately reduces stress.”
Verghese has since conducted follow-up studies on social dancers, which have shown that dancers have improved balance and gait. Dr. Verghese stresses the importance of frequency as an indicator of outcome. “The more you dance, the better the benefit.”
Dr. Verghese warns that dancing is not for everyone. “If you have physical limitations and can’t dance, you should do other cognitively stimulating activities. However, they should be challenging and involve learning.”
Candace Woodward-Clough has been teaching ballroom dancing for the past 30 years at her studio in Hightstown. She recommends registering for a beginner class as the best way to get started as a dancer for those with little or no experience.
“There is quite a lot to dancing that people don’t realize,” Woodward-Clough says. “You need to learn the roles of leader and follower, which is probably the hardest aspect of learning.”
Woodward-Clough holds a BFA in theater-dance from the University of Connecticut and has had extensive training in ballroom dance, jazz, tap, acting, and singing. She has acted, danced in, or choreographed several Off-Broadway and summer stock productions as well as movies, soap operas, and videos.
A freelance dance teacher since 1976, Woodward-Clough is the former director of ballroom dance at New York Health and Racquet Club. She currently teaches in the Princeton region and is a resident choreographer and dance director at the Peddie School and Hightstown High School.
Her teaching credits include Fred Astaire, Sandra Cameron, New York Swing Dance Society, University of Connecticut, Cornell University, Mohonk Mountain House, New York Health & Racquet Clubs, American Express — World Financial Center, Peninsula Spa, Princeton YWCA, Pennington Dance, Montgomery Recreation, Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, Jackson Fitness Center, and Princeton Dance and Theater.
Woodward-Clough explains that men come to dancing at a disadvantage because they serve as the leader. “This is quite daunting to most leaders at first. A man has to learn the pattern and the music that goes with the particular dance. On top of that, he has to steer and drive the follower.”
Woodard-Clough has found that most men are not comfortable with this at first. “Leading a dance is the ultimate in multitasking. But despite this, after they do learn what is involved many men do rise to the challenge.”
In our country many young girls are sent to dance school, but boys get into sports, Woodard-Clough says. “Men are not any less capable of learning, but they have not previously learned the language of dance. It is like learning the words in order to put sentences together.”
According to Woodward-Clough, women have their own set of challenges when it comes to learning partner dancing. “In our culture there are a lot of strong women who are not used to following along. It helps to remember that your partner is the leader only on the dance floor. Followers have to be in a zen state of mind. They need to go with the flow and be flexible.”
For many women, she points out, “This is hard to do initially, if they are uncomfortable in this role.” Woodward suggests entering a beginner class that offers basic foxtrot and swing.
“Don’t try to take on too many dances at a time,” she stresses. “Learning by watching YouTube dance clips is not a bad idea, but going to dances where there are lessons is the best way to practice.”
Does a person need to have a good sense of rhythm in order to be a dancer? “It may take some time,” Woodward-Clough says. “But anyone can learn to dance.”
Steve Adler, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study and a Princeton resident, is a regular at many of the CJDS Dances. “I started attending the CJDS regularly about two years ago and am hooked,” he says. “There are partners of all levels, good music instruction, and an informal atmosphere conducive to having fun. You can dance all night, sit quietly and watch, or talk to people and make new friends.”
Deidra Bucci, a Princeton resident, has been attending partner dances for five years. “I like the CJDS people because they are friendly and fun. Girls can ask guys to dance and it is great exercise. You get to be creative on the dance floor. It is adult play time.”
For those who prefer dancing in group, there is no shortage of classes offered at fitness centers, area YMCAs or YWCAs, and private dance schools.
Zumba, described as a Latin-inspired calorie-burning dance fitness party, is a popular offering at a variety of locations. If you are interested in something more exotic you can try belly dancing or hip hop. You can also enjoy jazz, tap, or musical theater dancing as well as the more traditional ballet.
For those who prefer to dance solo, there are a plethora of DVDs and television shows that provide dance instruction in a variety of styles. Of course you can always prance around your living room with an imaginary partner, as I often do.
Fay Reiter, a resident of Princeton, is certified as a social worker and a personal trainer. She holds a master of arts degree in community health from Brooklyn College.
A native of New York City, her column “Focus on Fitness” appeared in the Trenton Times newspaper for nine years and was syndicated for the Windsor Area Observer newspaper in Windsor, Vermont. She has written feature stories and taken photographs for magazines, newspapers, and AOL Health, a national online publication. She also works as a freelance editor and has written newsletters and publications for companies and organizations.
Actor’s Dance Studio, 1012 Brunswick Avenue, Trenton. Marjorie Duryea, co-founder. 609-213-4578. actorsdancestudionj.com
American Ballroom, 1523 Parkway Avenue, Ewing, 609-931-0149. www.americanballroomco.com.
Brancee Dance Fitness, 2127 Route 33, Hamilton. Leslie Tietjen, owner. 609-429-0781. email@example.com. www.brancee.com
Broadway Ballroom, 1935 Route 206, Lawrenceville. Del Camden, owner. 609-219-007. firstname.lastname@example.org www.broadwayballroom.com
Candace Woodward-Clough, Hightstown. Freelance dance instruction. 609-443-8990. www.dance.homestead.com.
CaRu Entertainment, 21 Route 31 North, Suite 2B, Pennington. Cassie Russo, executive director. 609-737-2888. email@example.com www.CaRuNJ.com
Central Jersey Dance Society, Suzanne Patterson Center, 45 Stockton Street, Princeton, 609-945-1883. www.centraljerseydance.org
Dance Improv, Live!, 32 Clover Lane. Founded 1985. Catherine Judd Hirsch, founder. 609-924-3767. firstname.lastname@example.org www.danceimprov.com
Dance Stars, Lawrence Shopping Center, Business Route 1 and Texas Avenue, Lawrenceville. Abbey Newell, director/owner. 609-883-9220 email@example.com www.dancestarsnj.com
DanceWorks of Mercer County, 25 Route 31 South, Pennington. Karen Martin & Suzie Schnoor, co-directors. 609-737-7338 firstname.lastname@example.org
Fred Astaire Dance Studio of Princeton, 301 North Harrison Street. Millie Dhirmalani, owner. 609-921-8881 email@example.com www.fredastaireprinceton.com
The FUNKtion Dance Complex, 4260 Route 1 North, Suite 6, Monmouth Junction. Christina Rak-Samson, owner/managing director. 732-903-8651 firstname.lastname@example.org
Glen Roc Dance Shoppe, 189 Scotch Road, Ewing. Alma Ciccarelli, co-founder. 609-883-8083. www.glenrocdanceshoppe.com
Joy2Dance Studio, 178 Route 206, Hillsborough, 908-431-5146. www.joy2dance.com
Lambertville Country Dancers, American Legion Hall, 41 Linden Avenue, Newtown, PA, 609-882-7733. www.lambertvillecountrydancers.org
Princeton Country Dancers, Suzanne Patterson Center, Monument Drive, 609-924-6763. www.princetoncountrydancers.org
Princeton Folk Dance, Suzanne Patterson Center, 45 Stockton Street, Princeton, 609-912-1272. www.princetonfolkdance.org
Princeton University Swing Club, Carl A. Fields Center, 58 Prospect Avenue. www.princeton.edu/~swing
Viva Tango, Suzanne Patterson Center, 45 Stockton Street, Princeton, 732-789-5272. vivatango.org.