She's been tango'd: Confessions of a dance addict
Wednesday 13 July 1994
Just months ago I dismissed as fanatical the idea of these bespoke shoes, but as I queued at Freed's in St Martin's Lane for a fitting, buying them seemed entirely reasonable. Dancing for three or four hours at a time one needs proper arch support, and suede soles provide vital shoe-floor adhesion for double-reverse turns, bounce fallaways with weave endings, curved feather to hover telemarks, twinkles and chicken walks.
I started going to Ruby's Dance Club about a year ago. I go three times a week. It is a windowless basement in Soho, next door to Dunkin' Donuts. I don't go to Ruby's for social reasons any more than you would go to an opium den for the conversation; I go for the bursting, incomparable high of the dancing.
I found the club by chance; a tiny advertisement in the newspaper caught my eye, 'Ballroom dancing: free trial lesson'. I have always wanted to be able to Viennese waltz around a ballroom and dance over furniture like Fred Astaire. A strange ambition perhaps, but it has haunted me all my life.
From the first lesson with Leon, my 26-year-old South African instructor, I was not so much hooked as harpooned. Although we covered only the 'basic' step in the waltz, foxtrot and tango - dance equivalent of the dog-paddle - it felt smashing. The novelty of the 'slow, slow, quick, quick' timing, clumsy attempts to graft steps on to the tinkly music, and the soaring, gliding joy when Leon shifted up a few gears to demonstrate waltzing with body contact, clamping me to his chest, thrusting a thigh between my legs and driving me across the floor with a power that seemed to come from nowhere. My pulse raced and my feet scarcely touched the ground. I had never felt anything like it: respect for Leon was sealed.
That was a year ago. Having intended to master the Viennese waltz and stop, I ended up learning international and American versions of the waltz, cha-cha-cha, rumba, foxtrot, quickstep and tango, Argentinian tango, jive, rock and roll, boogie, charleston, samba, mambo and salsa. Thankfully, Ruby's teaches relaxed social ballroom and Latin, as opposed to the camp international-style technique seen on Come Dancing.
Leon and I have developed a warm rapport over time. He is like a friendly drug dealer. My eyes light up when he holds out his arms in the dance position. I spend more time with Leon than with my best friends. You notice intimate little things, such as when he has the sniffles or a hangover, or wears a new shirt. Physically, Leon reminds me a bit of John Travolta, with his immaculate blow-dried quiff, luxuriant chest-hair and snug slacks. His booming, strutting manner betray his military background.
Before being talent-spotted in a Johannesburg disco six years ago, Leon was an anti-terrorist intelligence officer in the South African army. Trained by world champion coach Tony Pinto, Leon made it to the finals of the Latin World Championships before moving to London - the ballroom dancing capital of the world - with his wife Julie, who is also a Ruby's instructor.
The people at Ruby's are an eclectic bunch. It is a bit like a large family; you don't necessarily like everyone equally, but you tolerate them and feel quite protective towards them. Members prize their anonymity. Men are particularly secretive about anyone from the office finding out about their lessons.
I am especially fond of my fellow advanced students; Anthony, Rebecca, Grace, Vic, Tom, Alf, Wanda, Naina, Deborah and sometimes, disastrously, Norm. Although we don't meet much outside class, as with Leon, a peculiar intimacy exists.
During the past year we have collectively endured three major hair-cuts, one very ill poodle, two work promotions, three romantic break-ups, one father-son rapprochement, one love-match and four deaths. Yet when we are at Ruby's, these events concern us less. For an hour we concentrate on the finer points of the fishtail or the slip pivot.
There are two distinct types of students: transients and regulars. Transients complete the introductory course and disappear; regulars are the tiny, fierce minority who attend every Friday night dance, take medal examinations, participate in formal-dress 'showcases' in West End ballrooms and go tea-dancing.
Although I am a regular, I have avoided the exams, where judges with clipboards test your school figures and award you a medal if successful. Although I can perform complex step combinations in the flow of dance, a medal has been insufficient incentive to demonstrate the V6 of the quickstep without music or a partner.
Yet my strong constitutional resistance to exams and to group activities is weakening - evidence of the progressive nature of this addiction. I am now taking a shockingly expensive 15-week course in imperial technique, a prerequisite for teacher training. Food money goes towards dancing. I have stopped taking private lessons, which cost pounds 30 each. But private lessons are the supreme form of satisfaction, the equivalent of an intravenous injection.
Non-dancing friends do not understand the addiction. When not laughing at the mere idea of it, they smile pityingly, thinking it eccentric to go alone to lessons and to give up weekends to dancing. Although I agree with them up to a point, it is now beyond me. I simply can't help it.
There is a club dance every Friday night at 8pm and I pretty much have to go. It is not that the club expects me to, but I feel withdrawal pains if I don't. If I go out to supper instead, I sit restlessly staring at the assembled guests wondering who would be a good dancer.
It affects my romantic life too. My last beau wanted to come ballroom dancing with me, but I wouldn't let him until he had completed a beginner's course at Ruby's. Poor Charlie.
A regular partner is unnecessary unless you want to go into competition dancing. I toyed with the notion, but sequinned chiffon gowns with ostrich feather hems are actually a requirement.
Another sign of the addiction is not caring who one dances with. I like dancing with Vic, who is pushing 70. He is experienced and gives a strong lead. He also knows tricky tango steps such as the cobra. Dancing with Alf is a bit tricky, not because he is nearly 80, but because he is shorter than me and dances very small steps.
I danced regularly with Anthony, 28, an accountant, but he recently started dating Rebecca from our class and she keeps quite a tight rein on him now at the dances.
Oxonian Adrian, an investment banker and tiddlywink champion, is too tall. Mild-mannered Louis, also an accountant, ballroom danced for Cambridge; he is the right height but trained in the international style, so when he takes to the floor he uses startlingly flamboyant hand gestures and rotates his hips and bottom so I forget what I am doing.
Then there are club eccentrics such as Ferdinand, a perfumed, cravatted young barrister whose patent leather pumps match his brilliantined hair. Fat Lenny is sweaty, balding and bespectacled and fond of nylon shirts. He holds you too close, tongue protruding lewdly in concentration. Stella, a youthful 71, has a lemon beehive, eyelashes like tarantulas and scarlet lipstick shakily applied beyond the boundaries of her lips. She looks morose even when dancing something fun, like the cha-cha-cha.
Ruby's is like a United Nations conference, except that people are mostly enjoying themselves. On Friday night you will see a pinstriped QC tangoing with a middle-aged Jamaican seamstress in metallic gold shoes, a 19-year-old Mauritian actor foxtrotting with a Scots grandmother and a Chinese dentist from New Zealand dancing the samba with a Polish sculptress.
Strange couplings proliferate because, although ballroom dancing appears extremely intimate, there are firm boundaries. An obvious point, but appearance also has nothing whatever to do with dancing ability. It takes a lot - Lenny, for example - to ruin a dance completely. Each step and pause are choreographed and require strict concentration, so there is little room for people's idiosyncrasies to intermingle and detonate. It is like speaking blank verse with your feet.
People ask if ballroom and Latin dancing aren't rather clinical because of the formality, but the opposite is true; structure provides a springboard for expression. Passion - or its absence - lies in the interpretation.
Following a lead takes getting used to; if the man in question has little sense of rhythm you are sentenced to dance the entire number off the beat. However, when a man leads masterfully, it adds a mysteriously pleasurable dimension. The ritual of a man and woman dancing together, like wedding cake figurines, is poignant. With sex roles confused and embattled, distinct male-female steps are the reassuring equivalent of a brassiere, lifting and separating.
Despite the excruciating awkwardness of my first attempts at dancing, something made me persevere. It has been a short journey to my present junkie state. Where it will end? The hallmarks of addiction are not too worrying; dark basements, lost weekends, arcane language, social stigma and isolation, crippling expense, repeat viewings of Strictly Ballroom and Dirty Dancing and tuning into Melody Radio for rumba music to practice to.
Like alcoholics who enjoy their hangovers, I find sore, throbbing feet, bruises and puffy ankles a small price for the high that dancing gives. 'Cutting down' is not an option. Corny music and sweaty or unattractive partners no longer repel me.
But it is a slippery slope. Those fluorescent gowns with ostrich feathers that were an impossibility yesterday may seem like logical clothing tomorrow. Perhaps if I awoke one morning to find that I had had a blue rinse but couldn't remember how I had gotten that way, I might think again.
The Albany Theatre, Douglas Way, SE8 (081 691 3277): Tea dances at the end of each month. 2pm-4.30pm. Music by the Dave Kent Trio, specialists in old-time sequence and ballroom dancing. Entrance pounds 1.
The Bell, 257 Pentonville Road, N1 (071 837 5617): Sundays 1pm. Jo Purvis invites you to dance to old favourites from the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s, with chart hits around midnight. Mainly gay. Entrance pounds 3.
The Waldorf Astoria, Aldwych, WC2 (071 836 2400): Exquisite teas of the sort the Duke and Duchess of Windsor must have had regularly - salmon fingers, delicate sandwiches and forbidden pastries. Equally smart tea dancing Saturday and Sunday 3.30pm-6pm. Tea is pounds 19.50. Advance booking advisable.
The Porchester Centre, Queensway, Bayswater, W2 (071 792 2919): Tea dances monthly on Wednesdays 1.30pm-4.30pm in the faded glamour of this wooden-panelled hall. pounds 2.25. You can join classes beforehand for an extra 75p. Next dates 27 July and 24 August.
The Rivoli Ballroom, 350 Brockley Road, Crofton Park Station, SE4 (081 692 5130): Glide across the polished floor of this Edwardian ballroom where tea dances are held Monday to Friday except Wednesday. 1.45pm to 4.45pm. For an older crowd. Group classes for beginners and intermediates Mondays 8pm-10.30pm.
Bar Rumba, 36 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1 (071 287 2715): Latin American rhythms in the centre of the West End every Tuesday 6.30pm-8pm. Beginnners and intermediates welcome. pounds 5.
El Barco Latino, Temple Pier, Victoria Embankment, WC2 (071 379 5496): If you love flamenco, this is the place for you. The action starts around 11pm Wednesday to Saturday. Free before 11pm; pounds 3.50 after.
Bar Tiempo, 96-98 Pentonville Road, W1 (071 837 5387): Strut your stuff from 9pm on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 7pm on Sundays. pounds 3 before 10.30pm, pounds 5 after; pounds 3 after 8pm on Sunday.
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