Saturday 24 February 2018

Shall we dance? 'People see Strictly Come Dancing and think, I could do that'

As 'Dancing with the Stars' kicks off and 'La La Land' arrives in cinemas, Katie Byrne prepares for the old-school dance revival by booking a lesson

Take this waltz: Katie Byrne practices ballroom dancing with instructor Marcin Szymutko
Take this waltz: Katie Byrne practices ballroom dancing with instructor Marcin Szymutko
Marcin with his partner and wife, Ksenia Yanchenkova
Fancy footwork: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Katie learns to dance La La Land style

Every so often a film comes along that kicks off a dance craze. Saturday Night Fever ushered the Spandex subculture of disco dancing into the mainstream; Flashdance popularised modern jazz (and off-the-shoulder jumpers) and attendances at adult ballet classes spiked as soon as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan hit cinemas.

Mandy Moore, the choreographer behind the all-singing, all-dancing La La Land (in Irish cinemas today), is hoping her latest project makes a similar impact.

The old-school musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, was released in the US in early December and it has already inspired plenty of YouTube cover versions and flash mobs on the other side of the Atlantic.

And it's easy to see why. La La Land is a love letter to classic movies of old - an homage to the Fred and Ginger era. The dance styles showcased - classic jazz, tap and waltz - are anachronistic, but they are resonating with modern audiences.

Marcin with his partner and wife, Ksenia Yanchenkova
Marcin with his partner and wife, Ksenia Yanchenkova

"There's a dreamy magic and escapism to old Hollywood movies that has been lost in the modern era," says Anna Taylor of Film Fatale. The Dublin-based outfit produces screenings and large-scale vintage parties which often have a dance element to them. (Prohibition @ IMMA, Ireland's largest 1920s party, was their brainchild.)

"I think people want some of this magic back in their lives," she adds. "Thousands of people over the years have come to our events for a taste of the old glamour and the chance to listen to vintage music, dance and dress the part."

There's also an innocence to the dance styles of a bygone era, especially when compared to the styles that have emerged in the last five years, many of which look more like simulated sex.

Suffice to say, there is no twerking, grinding or daggering when I book in for a La La Land-inspired dance lesson with Marcin Szymutko and Ksenia Yanchenkova of Dublin's Viva School of Dance.

Marcin from Poland and Ksenia from Russia are partners, both romantically and professionally. They met at a dance studio in Dublin in 2004 and married in 2008.

"Other styles of dance are freeform - it's the way you move with the music," explains Ksenia at the start of the lesson. "The dancing in La La Land is more about the chemistry between two people."

Fancy footwork: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Fancy footwork: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

We start with a simple waltz box step - harder than you might think for someone who has trouble distinguishing left from right. For the most part, I'm standing on Marcin's toes, but there are a few moments when we're in sync and the whirl and glide of the waltz starts to feel pretty good.

"Keep your shoulders down! Elongate your neck! Smile!" says Ksenia from the sidelines. Poise is an essential component of ballroom dancing. Marcin later tells me that people can tell he and his wife are dancers from their posture alone.

We're in the only empty studio space in the Liffey Trust Dance Studios in Dublin 1. Incidentally, the TV personalities from RTÉ's Dancing with the Stars are practising in the studio across the corridor.

Ksenia says celebrity-based dance shows like this one have sparked a renewed interest in formal dance. "People watch shows like Strictly Come Dancing, they see sports personalities and news presenters doing well, and then they think, 'I could do that'.

"Plus, Dancing with the Stars coincides with New Year's resolutions and people often have learning how to dance on their bucket list," she adds.

Shows of this nature have also inspired a grassroots industry. For the last five years, Kevin Rowe of Kevin Rowe Events has helped various organisations produce formal dancing competitions as fundraising initiatives. So far, participants have ranged in age from 18 to 74.

"We've worked with schools, companies, GAA clubs and rugby clubs," he says. "It's great for fitness, confidence building and morale."

Partner dancing is equally good for learning how to negotiate teamwork in an increasingly autonomous world.

It has its critics: some say certain styles of partner dancing reinforce restrictive gender roles. In most partner-based dance styles, men lead and women follow.

Jamie Furler of Boogie Beat Swing, a Dublin-based Lindy Hop and Swing dance school, agrees that many of these styles were born in the may-I-have-this-dance era, but he says most modern teachers take a liberal approach to the ladies and gentlemen etiquette.

"Anyone can learn to lead; anyone can learn how to follow," he says. "That being said, men don't tend to learn to follow. But women can learn how to lead as it gives them more options of dance partners."

This is largely because dance classes in Ireland tend to be female-dominated - for now, anyway. Jamie has noticed more gender parity on the dance floor in the last couple of years. Ksenia has too: "A few years ago it was ladies asking their partners to come along. Now we get calls from gentlemen saying, 'I'd like to learn how to dance'."

Viva School of Dance also receives a lot more requests from couples who want to learn to dance ahead of their wedding day. "They either want something short and simple - or they know exactly what they want and they put six months training into it," says Ksenia.

"Irish people are extremely talented," she continues. "Rhythm is in their blood - probably because they are taught Irish dancing from a young age. We have a couple in their 30s who started dancing with us three years ago. They've since won a big dance competition in Blackpool two years consecutively.

"If you want to learn how to dance, don't be shy. Just ring a studio and get yourself through the door. You won't look back."

Irish Independent

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