The sonorous bass pulsing along with your heartbeat. Feet stepping in time to the rhythm of the drums. In front of you, your partner mirrors you, guides you, supports you. There’s something so thrilling about being on the dance floor. It goes beyond the adrenaline of the movement – it’s an experience that brings individuals from every generation and every background together into a close community.
Unlike performance dances like ballet, tap or jazz, ballroom dances are meant to be social. Barry Johnson, owner and dance instructor at Melbourne Ballroom, says that the biggest difference between ballroom and other styles of dance is the element of partnership. “It’s about the lead and follow,” says Johnson.
You’ve heard the old adage, ‘it takes two to tango.’ In addition to mastering the physical techniques of each dance, dance partners have to understand each other. The leader must know their strength and be able to use it with control. It’s essential that a leader understands their partner and the style of dance well enough to plan each step before they make it. An equally crucial role is held by the follower, who must pick up on the leader’s signals and body language in order to match their movement. When both members of the couple work well together, they flow not as individuals but as a single dancer, an extension of the music.
Johnson believes that ballroom dancing is great for relationships simply because it is something couples can do together. Often, Johnson explains, each person in a relationship has their own hobbies that they enjoy separately. Because it combines art with athleticism, ballroom dancing allows couples to bond over a common hobby even if they have contrasting interests. That being said, you don’t need to come with a partner to a Melbourne Ballroom dance class! In fact, Johnson notes that the most important skill for a ballroom dancer to learn is patience with themselves, rather than with a partner. At Melbourne Ballroom, students can learn in a private setting with just an instructor or participate in group classes where instructors rotate so everyone gets a chance to dance with a partner.
As a ballroom teacher, Johnson has witnessed firsthand the power of dance to bring people together. “The community is built in the classes,” remarks Johnson. One of his favorite examples is the couple that came to him to learn their wedding dance. They realized that they loved dancing so much they kept coming back. Now, the husband goes for the fun of it, while the wife has grown into a serious DanceSport competitor. Even their kids dance with the studio.
They’re not the only family that came together through dance. Johnson’s own family is at the core of the Melbourne Ballroom community. “The best thing that ballroom dancing has done for me is it gave me the opportunity to meet my wife,” Johnson reflects. She was a dance student and he was her teacher – a relationship that, Johnson laughingly admits, is generally frowned upon. In this case, however, the chemistry was undeniable. They’ve been married and dancing together for thirteen years. Meanwhile, Johnson’s parents love to bring home-cooked food to the weekly in-studio dance parties.
At Melbourne Ballroom, everyone starts with the basics, whether they’re a natural or they don’t know their right from their left. From there, students have a choice: they can progress to top-notch competitive training and compete across Florida and the rest of the United States. Or, they can just have fun with it, as a way to enrich their relationship with themselves and their loved ones.
When it began, partner dancing lived at the heart of cultures across the globe, enjoyed as custom and celebration. African and Latin-American rhythms, especially Cuban, formed the rich roots from which these dances blossomed. As the dances were passed down from generation to generation, they became more refined until they reflected the technique we recognize today.
According to Johnson, what’s popular in modern times is always shifting, but the underlying basics, which he refers to as the foundation dances, are unchanging. There are nine of these foundation dances, most of which are well-known, such as the waltz and the tango – elegant, exciting partner dances that showcase both emotion and artistic precision. Over time, the foundation dances evolved into secondary dances like the flowing merengue and the lively samba.