“Have you ballroom danced before?” a girl asked, as we waited outside the studio door.
I shook my head, a reluctant smile appearing on my face. “Not yet, but I am about to.”
In my creased, worn, white sneakers, I walked toward the mirror room of the Central Campus Recreation Building, my body excited and nervously brimming with anticipation. The dimly lit space was perfumed with sweat and rubber, the clatter of heels against the hardwood floor surface, a clock in the back ticking softly. The glimmer of the moon shone softly over Palmer Field and against the wall, reflecting in the mirror.
Coming in with my lint-ridden sweats and creased shoes, I felt underdressed as I looked at the surrounding dancers. Their flowy skirts, high stiletto heels, ironed suits and black ties made the blaring coffee stain on my Michigan shirt even more apparent.
I hesitantly glanced at the time on my watch: 8 p.m. The Michigan Ballroom Dance Team was offering free newcomer lessons for the month of September in hopes of recruiting people to their team. And while there was no way that I could be a part of the team (my lack of rhythm and inflexibility account for that), there was also no way that I could pass up the opportunity to partake in a free session.
My relationship with dancing has always been one of apprehension, but also of discrete fondness. Since I’m of Nigerian heritage, dancing is a tremendous part of my culture and celebrations. During birthday bashes, ladies in their cloth wraps and men in their suits stomp their feet to the Naija beats, the cling-clang of drums swaying their bodies as they move their legs back and forth.
Throughout my life, I have tried to mimic those moves, yet something is always off. My feet seem to lag as I stomp to the beat of the music, my tempo becomes a muddle as I lose track of which limb performs what move and my arms become so stiff that they stick like glue to the sides of my waist.
Yet I honestly love to dance. There is something so freeing about the movement of letting yourself sway to the sound of the music, something so spiritual about floating atop a rhythmic line, with no gravity or weight holding you down.
With something like ballroom dancing — a highly technical and competitive dance that combines multiple styles from around the world, including the cha cha from Cuba, the samba from Brazil and the Pasodoble from Southern France — it is safe to say that I was nervous at the thought of trying to learn how to move my feet correctly in the first steps of the dance.
“Welcome! Are you guys ready?” And with that, we began the proceedings of our magical escapade back to the 16th century, the supposed time period when the first account of ballroom dancing was recorded.
The history of ballroom dancing is said have begun in Europe, particularly in Germany. While visiting Augsburg, Michel de Montaigne, an important philosopher of the French Renaissance, accounted for a dance where people were so close that their faces touched. These dances were often performed by lower-class individuals; however, as the popularity and complexity of these styles evolved, they eventually became a marker of high social status.
The development and standardization of this dance continued until the 19th and 20th centuries, when styles such as waltz, tango, quickstep and foxtrot began to emerge and were performed competitively. This art style slowly permeated from the boundaries of Europe to the climbing towers and bright lights of New York City, as a dance style known as the “swing,” created and popularized by African Americans in Harlem, began to emerge in America.
And here I stood, four centuries after this dance’s advent in the mirrored, strangely somber CCRB dance studio, about to test the limits of my self-sanity and limb coordination.
All 40 of us were instructed to form two groups facing each other on either side of the room; the “leads” and the “follows.” Typically, leads are more masculine-presenting participants that “lead” the dance by choosing the steps and often initiate the stylistic techniques such as the twirls or the dips, while the follow synchronizes with their footwork. I migrated toward the follow side, hoping my inability to stand on my two feet would be overshadowed by someone else’s talent.
Two of the ballroom dance club leaders took the center stage of the room, separated by the sea of anticipating newcomers, impatient intermediates and the watchful advanced. Dancing by ourselves at first, we started with a “simple” three-count rhythm; right leg to the front — to the middle — to the back — side step, to the middle — to the front — repeat.
The leaders were patient and approachable, allowing the participants to ask questions and making sure we understood what they were doing.
I’m getting the hang of this, I thought to myself.
Before I knew it, my legs tangled like a fishing knot, and I lost control of my balance. Despite the fact that the instructors repeated the same motions, it seemed that there was something that was blocking me from trying the moves on myself. My dancer roommate who came with me to the lesson completed these steps with ease and obvious simplicity, yet I could not do so as effortlessly.
However, there was no way the instructors could wait for me to continue with the lesson — that would take all night, and probably into the morning.
Once most had memorized these steps, it was time to practice — this time with a partner. The follows were to pick a lead from the other side of the room to perform the routine, leads placing their hands palms up while follows held the insides of the palms, gripping firmly.
While the actual memorization of the steps used in ballroom dancing is difficult, perhaps more so is the coordination that is needed to execute these steps with a partner.
After the lesson, I talked to Ray Jin, a senior majoring in computer science and the PR chair of the University of Michigan Ballroom Dance Team, about why this was the case.
“For me, the most difficult part of ballroom dance is learning to move with another person,” Jin said. “It’s hard to nonverbally lead your follow into specific directions and complex movements. It’s a delicate balance of staying on time with the music and waiting for your partner to be ready so you don’t crash into them when you move. Although it takes a lot of practice to really nail it perfectly, it’s extremely rewarding on the dance floor when you and your partner move in perfect sync.”
So when it came time for me to pick a partner, my gut immediately felt an insatiable dread, palms sweating with fear.
“Hi! Would you like to dance?” a man (I think Joe or Todd was his name) asked.
I nodded, relieved that I wouldn’t have to ask someone. Placing sweaty palms together, we tried to dance, yet ended in an awkward stumble. My steps were too big and the hum of Bruno Mars in the background clashed with our unwieldy and stiff movements. Yet, despite our inability to perform the exact steps of the dance, I began to have fun, letting myself and my reservations float away.
We twirled, dipped and even moved our shoulders close in a rhythmic pattern. After each technique, we had to pair up with a new partner, each with different capabilities and levels of dancing skill. Even though my movements became sloppy and my steps lazier, I began to completely feel the experience of the Latin music as we started to perform my favorite dance of the night — the mamba.
And after we had swung our last partner, we clapped loudly, proud of our efforts and our willingness to challenge ourselves in a new athletic endeavor. Although my rhythm still was not at the level that it could (or should) be, I felt a sense of deep satisfaction that I had dared to test the boundaries of my coordination and, most importantly, relished the fact that I had fun with my friends alongside the entire dance team.
Getting back to my dorm room at midnight, I opened my laptop and began researching all there was to know about ballroom dancing — the history, the techniques and the styles. I delved deep into the corners of the internet, exploring the rich cultures that ballroom dance brings, particularly in the United States, with the emergence of the Jazz Age of the 1920s to the 1930s. And I stumbled upon a particularly interesting story: the story of Black ballroom dancers Margot Webb and Harold Norton.
Named Marjorie Smith at birth, Webb grew up in the hustle of Harlem from 1933 to 1939, entranced by European styles of ballet, waltz and particularly ballroom dancing. Along with Norton, her dance partner, she performed circuits and dances at a famous jazz nightclub in Harlem called the Cotton Club, as well as the major metropolises of London, Paris and Berlin.
What I found quite interesting is that despite their immense talents and the extraordinary feat of being one of the best dancing partners in the nation, their popularity was relatively low. They were Black, and thus their performance of what was classically known as a “European” style was often deemed unacceptable by white audiences. “No Trespassing” signs often accompanied their trips, racism and prejudice preventing them from being fully embraced by the ballroom community. In fact, Marjorie Smith changed her name to Margot in order to present the facade that she was Latin American to appease the white audiences and hopefully gain more bookings.
White audiences were not used to seeing these “elegant” styles being performed by Black people and expected them to present “exotic dances,” such as the Lindy Hop and jitterbug. When Webb and Norton gracefully waltzed, their feet like butter against the smoothness of the hardwood floor, the inherent superiority that those white groups had was challenged. This “fear” that a Black ballroom dance couple could dance insurmountably better than white and European dancers distressed them, challenging what they thought was a “white-only” activity.
Webb and Norton’s lack of publicity ultimately led to them ending their ballroom dancing endeavors. In 1947, Webb attended graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she went on later to teach at a variety of private institutions as a physical education teacher.
As I reflected on the story of Webb and Norton, I also contemplated my own experiences in that ballroom dance class. When I first walked into the room, I was surprised to see the racial diversity of participants, which allowed me to feel more at ease within the space.
However, there have been times when I have felt my own presence being challenged, especially in STEM classes at a predominantly white institution. At times, I have to remind myself that I am as capable as anyone else and that my ability isn’t something that anyone else can define — including on the dance floor.
Perhaps when Webb and Norton danced and floated across the stage, they also felt at ease despite the racism and prejudice that ultimately caused them to disband. Perhaps when the spotlight was on them, all they focused on was letting themselves go to the rhythm of the music, away from the hatred, away from the preconceived notions of others and into a world where it was just them and the dance floor.
I should never have been embarrassed of my creased shoes or lack of rhythm when first entering the ballroom. Because even though I wasn’t the best dancer, the story of Webb and Norton showed me that the experience, the art of dancing means so much more than that.
Statement Columnist Chinwe Onwere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.