Waltz into winter

Everything at our first dance lesson is going well until our instructor tells me to close my eyes. Though it’s not likely I’ll take a step on the polished wood floor and suddenly drop off the edge of a cliff, it feels risky; but I’m willing to give it a try. Grasping my husband’s hands, I’m hyper-aware when his weight shifts and he steps backward; I go toward him. With another soft push, I step back. He’s leading, I’m following, and we’re (sort of) dancing. 

The Twin Cities was once home to grand dance halls like The Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, where couples swayed to the likes of Glen Miller and other well-known acts. While most of those venues are gone, going out for a night out of dinner and dancing is still possible — and it’s a great way to keep moving and have fun during the winter months ahead. 

“Anything that gets your heart rate up a bit and makes you smile is a good thing for your whole demeanor and attitude about life,” says Francesca Spumoni (her ballroom competition stage name), owner and director of the Dance Tonight studio in South Minneapolis. 

While some students are initially reluctant — more than 100 comes in at his wife’s request, mine included — Francesca and her instructors strive to help students laugh and have fun while they learn the basics of moving around the floor in sync. Our instructor at the studio, Styles Grey, also says men shouldn’t underestimate the physicality of dance. “I try to help them understand that it’s more of a sport than a social anxiety attack,” he laughs. 

Breaking it down 

As my husband and I quickly discover, the challenge is mental as well as physical. Counting to eight while we step right-left-right, left-right-left doesn’t seem difficult at first, but then we start moving around the room. Styles snaps out the counts as we learn the basics of the bachata, a Latin style of dance that Styles explains as being like a slow salsa. Sometimes we glide smoothly for several steps; sometimes we hesitate and Styles begins the count over again. Because Dance Tonight specializes in private lessons, our instructor sees every misstep, as well as every small success, and gives us pointers so that it feels like we’re improving every minute. That kind of personalized attention is key to helping students progress, says Francesca. “It’s so important to have a teacher who’s able to break it down and make it fun and easy,” she says.

The laws of attraction 

Dancing with a partner also has an undeniable attraction factor that adds an extra incentive to learn the moves. “Men didn’t used to think taking dance lessons was cool; if they did come in, they didn’t tell their buddies about it,” Francesca explains. “But we’re seeing more and more men, and even single men, coming in to learn. It’s like they finally realize that women love partners who can dance well. If you can spin us and dip us, we’ll love you!” 

In fact, just taking lessons together can be a fun way for couples to stay connected. Tom and Kerri, longtime students at Dance Tonight, originally wanted to learn a few steps so they could waltz on a trip on the Queen Mary 2. That was over three years ago, and their regular Wednesday night lessons are still a highlight of their week. 

“It’s our date night,” Kerri says. “We always keep it on our calendars. We go to dance, then come home and have a cocktail. It’s really nice.” They waltzed on their transatlantic cruise and on others since, and also enjoy going out to dance at local restaurants and clubs. “No one else I dated before was interested in learning how to dance,” Kerri explains, “but now Tom and I can hold our own when we’re out on the floor. I feel really close to him when we’re dancing; it’s really special.” 

Stepping out 

Like Tom and Kerri, many people initially take lessons to prepare for a special event or the first dance at their wedding. Others have so much fun at their wedding dance (or someone else’s) that they want to learn more. While some students simply enjoy taking classes, for others, dancing is a great way to get out and do something fun beyond the usual dinner and a movie. 

Francesca says that for beginners, finding venues that are comfortable and not intimidating is key to having a good time. “For example, Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul is great for new students. They have a nice room and you can have dinner, a drink and get out on the floor and try out some of the basics,” she says. “They have good variety — rumba, swing, mambo, cha cha — and anytime there’s live music, that adds extra atmosphere.” 

Dance with me 

My husband and I have a long way to go before we’ll be turning heads on the dance floor. But I’m already looking forward to stepping from a snowy street into a warm restaurant, with the tables pushed aside and a live band onstage. We’ll clasp hands and walk out on to the floor, listen for the beat and start moving together — but I think I’ll keep my eyes open, so I don’t miss a moment.