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Gaining Perspective

My Bias

By Joel Torgeson

In last month’s article I set myself a goal of sorts: to dig into the ballroom dance community here in the Twin Cities and find out what makes it tick--a lofty goal, to be sure, and not one I intend to complete quickly or even completely. Over the next few months I’ll be interviewing and observing different parts of the ballroom community and reporting on what I find here in my column. I undertake this project partly because I am so interested and involved in the ballroom community (and wish to be more so) but also because I am an anthropology major at the University of Minnesota, and these kinds of communities fascinate me.

As an anthropologist, it’s important to convey your own personal worldview and biases at the outset of any project like this. The fact that you cannot escape your own culture, upbringing, and worldview biases is one of the founding tenets of social observation like this (also called ethnography), so it’s important for me to tell you, the reader, a little bit more about myself before I begin to make assertions and draw conclusions about a broader social group. I’ll try not to make this unduly boring.

I’m nineteen years old, and I hail from Pine Island, Minnesota, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it little town just over an hour south of here. My mother is an ESL teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, and my father worked hardware for many years and now is a handyman. My graduating class (2012) was eighty-six students, large for our town and quite a change from a fifty-five-thousand-person campus like the U of M! I’m currently a sophomore honors anthropology major at the U.

More pertinent to ballroom dance, I danced my first box step at the University of Minnesota Ballroom Dance Club’s annual Fall into Dance event at the beginning of my freshman year. I then proceeded to try out for the competition team, somewhat based on a dual dare with my good friend Jack O’Leary: “If you do it, I’ll do it!” We both got on the team, and I started my ballroom journey in earnest.

Last year was a roller coaster of competing, practicing, practicing some more, and social dancing for me, and I learned a lot relatively quickly. If you’d like a more in-depth description of some of those experiences, I wrote several articles for the Minnesota Dancing Times in 2013 that more fully describe some of the better experiences I had with dance. This year I ran for and was elected publicity manager for our club, and I will be running for president in the upcoming club election in March.

Most important, however, are the people who have come to shape my ideas and perspectives on ballroom dance. My very first instructions came straight from the lips of Nathan Daniels, one of the most consistently upbeat and dynamic instructors and performers I’ve ever met. Incidentally, according to a statistical analysis on Cloud Cray’s blog, Ballroom Junkie, Nathan is also the second most accurate judge when comparing his marks versus actual placements in the country. That’s pretty impressive.

Shinya McHenry also taught many of my lessons during my first semester at the U. Shinya’s MC games at Minnesota Ballroom Blast and Star of the North were always a treat, and he was always willing to give advice and tips when asked.

Kate Bratt came in to a teaching position in the club the spring semester of last year and has been a bright spot of energy and enthusiasm in lessons ever since. I’ve enjoyed working with Kate, especially when she gives me tips on smooth--"Joel!" (whispered loudly) "Heel leads!"--and her blog, Riot and Frolic, has given me much information and perspective on certain aspects of ballroom dancing.

Adding up the time I’ve spent with these instructors over the past year and a half, the number is easily over fifty hours. Their instruction has formed much of the foundations of my dancing. Especially with regard to Nathan and Kate, I’ve also learned quite a bit of ballroom culture and preferred form from them as well. What does a good crossover break look like? Their teaching has shaped my ideals.

Of course, no description of my influences could be complete without mention of Nels Petersen. Though not an official coach of the team, Nels donates time and money to the club in a way that makes our very existence in its current form possible. Especially with regard to the competition team branch of the club, Nels gives an incredible amount of value to us in the form of technique guidance and general competition strategies. On a personal level, I’ve also discussed many aspects of the ballroom world with Nels over the past year and a half.

Saving the most influential for last, my teammates have ultimately shaped much of how I see the ballroom world as well. I spend the most time with them, and thus they have the most influence over my ballroom worldview. Experienced team members like Michael Kasinkas, Taylor Wall, Dan Boman, Lee Wintervold, and Dan and Rosemary O’Connell have shared their views and opinions on dance, the community, and everything in between. People who joined the team the year I did have also come into ballroom along a similar path as I did, and thus discussing things with them has helped to shape my understanding of dance and the community.

I do not mean to suggest that my viewpoint is necessarily an amalgamation of those of the people cited above--far from it. I’ve developed my own novel views, some of which align and some of which do not. Still, it’s important to understand a bit of my ballroom experience in order to understand how I approach the community. Next month I’ll dive into a particular aspect of ballroom in detail, and hopefully that will result in an article more interesting than me just talking about myself!

As always, I welcome any and all suggestions, comments, or critiques, and I’d encourage anybody who wishes to engage in a discussion with me about it to contact me with ideas.

Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who came and donated money to the Dollar Dance fundraiser for the U of M club in February. We appreciate it!

Until next month, happy dancing!