From the sidewalk along Kings Highway, Haddonfield’s Grace Church is a picture of tranquility.
But looks can be deceiving.
On any given Sunday evening, follow the stone church’s manicured walkway around to the back door, ascend a flight of creaky stairs and you’ll hear, cutting through silence, strands of “All That Jazz,” accompanied by a crisp, commanding voice.
“Five, six, ready, and—side together, promenade, step through, and look at your partner again!”
A circle comprising roughly 30 couples comes into view. The formation moves, clockwise, around the church’s cavernous auditorium, as its participants dance a nightclub two-step with varying degrees of mastery.
“Slow, quick, quick! Slow, quick, quick!”
That amplified voice is coming from instructor Alan Saperstein. Wearing a microphone headset, he easily glides across the floor with a partner in his arms, simultaneously directing his students.
“Side together, back right! Side together, front left!”
Tonight is a weekly gathering of Dance Haddonfield, a growing chapter of the national nonprofit USA Dance. Open to anyone over age 16, (but consisting primarily of men and women ages 35 to 75), Dance Haddonfield brings in a rotation of professional dance instructors, each of whom teaches his or her respective specialty for six weeks before passing the baton to another instructor. The class repertoire is, so far, 14 dances strong, and includes the West Coast swing and the quickstep.
“We’re basically a ballroom dance [gathering],” explains Terrie Murphy, the chapter’s vice president. “We’re not a school, necessarily, but offer both beginner and intermediary group lessons every Sunday night.” Once the lessons wrap at 8 p.m., the floor opens to everyone, and dancing lasts as late as 10:30 p.m. Twice each night, organizers reshuffle the dancing couples: women line up and men take turns dancing with them, giving those who came without partners the chance to try out their skills.
Dance Haddonfield isn’t the only venue for movement instruction that’s seen its popularity explode in the past few years. Whether the inspiration is reality TV or just the desire for a fun alternative to boring workout routines, adults across South Jersey seem to be catching dance fever in record numbers.
“Ever since Dancing With the Stars hit, everybody wants to go out and learn how to dance,” Saperstein says, referring to ABC’s hit dance competition series, which enters its 13th season this fall. The show pairs celebrities with professional dancers to tango, samba and foxtrot their way toward each season’s championship title. But while the popularity of that show—not to mention interest in Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance—is widely credited with prompting a resurgence in dancing, Saperstein says such series have also spawned some misconceptions about the learning curve involved.
“It takes longer to learn a routine than what is implied on a one- or two-hour program,” Saperstein says. “A lot of times, people come in thinking that, after taking lessons for a week or two, they’ll dance like pros. They find out quickly that it takes a long time. That’s the moment they make a decision about whether to quit or stick with it.”
Instructors at Candlelight Dance Club, a Cherry Hill studio that offers both group and private courses, face similar issues. “[Students] do make references to the dance shows,” says owner John Toronto. “It’s the show that ignites their interest in being here, but after the first couple of lessons, they realize it’s not as easy as it looks on TV.”
With that in mind, he says, instructors at Candlelight do their best to make lessons fun early on, keeping steps basic and fundamental in the beginning. “If you try to do dips and things from the start, you’re going push people out door,” Toronto says. “We say, ‘We can take you to any level eventually, but let’s get some basic skills first.’”
For Marjorie Calvanico, learning to dance as an adult was especially daunting, particularly because the Mount Laurel resident has been diagnosed with leukemia. But when she heard that her local library was offering free ballroom dancing classes, Calvanico and her husband, David, saw an opportunity.
Eager to try something new, but troubled by her body’s limitations, Calvanico was pleased when her doctors encouraged her to participate. “I was surprised by how exhausting it was. There were a few times that I thought, ‘I don’t think I can handle this.’ But most of the time, I could.”
The six-week sessions, taught by Diane Alcovich of Dances By Diane, run every summer at the Mount Laurel Library, teaching fundamental classics including the waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha and swing. “This dance program has been one of our most popular programs ever,” says Joan Serpico, the library’s manager of special events. “Every class brings in between 50 and 100 participants of all ages.”
The Calvanicos have attended every summer since 2006; it gives them something to look forward to each year. “My husband was especially convinced he couldn’t do it. It’s intimidating at first; you think everyone’s watching you. Then you realize everyone is making fools of themselves,” Calvanico says.
They’ve even mustered the confidence to cut a rug on recent cruise ship vacations. “Now we know all the basics,” she says. “It feels great, and it’s great exercise.”
The universality of dance is part of what makes it so attractive, says Saperstein, who himself didn’t take up the pastime until well into adulthood. (“I walked into a club one night, about 17 years ago, and there was country line dancing going on,” he remembers.
“I thought, ‘I could do that.’ I started taking as many lessons as I could.”)
Perhaps in part because he was a late bloomer himself, Saperstein believes there’s almost no one who can’t learn the art form.
“I don’t see a whole lot of things that can’t be overcome [when learning to dance],” he says. “The hardest thing to overcome is the mind. I have students with arthritis, people with delicate joints, muscle injuries. I’ve see people overcome those things and learn to dance without putting too much strain on them.”
After all, not everyone has their sights set on mimicking their favorite celebrity dance contestants. Marlene Collins, a Cherry Hill resident, just wanted to boogie—and she had been feeling the tingle in her toes since long before dancing’s recent resurgence in popularity.
“My husband and I would talk about taking classes,” she remembers, “but we never did it because of complications with his diabetes.”
When he passed away after their 41st wedding anniversary, though, Collins found herself despondent. “I was in bad shape for a very long time,” she says.
But she felt a new hobby might pull her out of the funk, and she finally summoned up the nerve to attend a Dance Haddonfield session. Like many attendees, Collins hadn’t laced up her dancing shoes since taking childhood ballet classes, and professes she had “two left feet” upon starting. “My problem was coordination. I was stepping on all these men’s feet!” she says. “But I kept with it. I knew the only way to learn was to persevere.”
In the end, she beams, “It was a lifesaver. After I left my first class, I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I needed.’”
And she’s picked up more than just a few dance steps at the weekly get-togethers.
“I’ve met a very fine gentleman there, who I’m now dating,” she admits. “It wasn’t my intention, but I was fortunate to have that bonus!”
Photo: NFL player Hines ward and partner Kym Johnson on last season’s dancing with the stars. the hit tv show has helped revive interest in ballroom dancing across our region and around the nation.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (August, 2011).
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