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Bigger Isn't Always Better

Dancing in Manhattan

By Kevin Viratyosin

I'll be honest; I'm going to start off sounding a little cranky, but it's all in the spirit of bad news first, good news later.

For the week of our spring break, I went with my family to visit my aunt and uncle in New York, New York. We've gone a few times before, so we've already done the traditional touristy things that one does the first couple times there. This time, I thought I'd take a couple nights and see if I could find some social dancing in the area. After polling a few friends and spending some time on Google, I settled on two studios' events in Manhattan.

The first was on Thursday night, Mixed Ballroom and Latin Dance Party at DanceSport on West 34th Street. I tagged along on a pre-party guest lesson, which included a brief tour of the studio. They advertise themselves as New York's largest ballroom and Latin studio, and with at least eight separate floors, that very well may be the case. While the guest lesson wasn't much-just a waltz and rumba lesson for beginners-I got the impression that the studio was active in a wide variety of styles, which I thought was a good sign for the following social dance.

When the dance started, attendance was pretty sparse. I didn't think too much of it; not everyone gets there right at the start. However, it didn't get much better. The group (but not always the music) was skewed heavily toward beginners and those more into social Latin dances like salsa. And that's fine, except it's not really what you expect from a mixed ballroom and Latin party at what's supposed to be the biggest ballroom in New York. About half an hour in, there was a performance, which as you probably know isn't too uncommon. However, usually it's couples, professional or amateur, gearing up for a competition, or a student showing off their progress with their instructor, and usually it's pretty entertaining. Neither seemed to be the case. While there were some engaging couples, it was mostly just the staff dancing improv rounds. They seemed to be having fun, but there were sullen frames in foxtrot and plodding steps in cha cha. I'm not a great dancer, but I certainly wasn't impressed. The worst part was that the show dragged on, uninspiring round after round, and at the end, the staff stood in a line and bowed ... twice. I was left with an impression of unusual self-absorption. Maybe this is what the regulars there are into, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. At the end of the night, I couldn't help feeling disappointed. Usually after a social dance, I can point to at least one dance that was really fun. Not this one, though. Instead, all I could remember was being short on people who knew even the basic of waltz and a woman who insisted on dancing an off-time bachata with me. It's great to see people starting to learn to dance, but it's not what I wanted to get out of a night in Manhattan.

Friday night, I was on the train to Manhattan again, headed to Friday Night Fever at Stepping Out Studios on West 26th Street. Despite the previous night's disappointment, I was optimistic for this one. I had been here once before and remembered having been pretty intimidated by the other dancers. I arrived a little early, and when I walked into the ballroom, I found that intimidating was still an appropriate word. On one side there was a cluster of college-aged dancers laughing as they struck rapid Latin steps and movements, across the floor was a couple practicing what appeared to be open-level standard, and around the room were other small groups of dancers adjusting frames and giving each other pointers.

A stranger to the crowd, I spent the first half hour or so figuring out which of the follows knew which kinds of dances. There were some there who were just starting, others who were stronger in the social dances like hustle and salsa, one who was used to doing routines and apologized profusely for not being accustomed to lead/follow, and many who were ready for anything. The only caveat would be that the music and the dancers tended to skew heavily toward the international styles over the American styles. If a foxtrot came on, I had to be ready with my feather-reverse-three. The rumbas were always clearly Latin, and the jives were never slow enough for a triple swing. So for someone who is familiar with and likes the international styles, this can be fun-I got to dance a few quicksteps and sambas, two of my favorite dances-but if you mostly know smooth and rhythm, like me a year ago, it can be tough.

The performances here were very different from those at DanceSport on Thursday. There were four showcases. First was a trio doing an energetic street jazz routine, second was the couple doing a silky Argentine tango, third was a rousing hustle with lifts that made you hold your breath, and last was a classic Viennese waltz complete with a top hat and tailcoat. I can't speak too much about the technical qualities of the performances, but they were absolutely fun to watch.

After the performance, the social dancing continued. I danced a lot, got to know a few new people, and had lots of fun. I stayed until the party ended at 12:45 a.m., and it was definitely worth the extra-long, late-night subway ride back.

I'm not pretending to be objective here. All in all, I had a better time at Stepping Out and would certainly like to go again next time I'm in New York. If you're just starting out or only do American style, you might prefer DanceSport or another studio's event. If you like salsa or Argentine tango, there are countless opportunities for those, too. My experience was just one perspective of a small sample of what the city has to offer. As one might expect, New York is an expansive city with something for everyone when it comes to dance.