Aside from on reality shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, you don’t see a whole lot of young people ballroom dancing these days. Unless you’re at the College of Charleston, that is.
With Physical Education Courses (PEAC) bringing back the art of partner dancing, dances such as the foxtrot, the waltz, the tango, the rumba, cha cha, swing and salsa are all making a comeback among students from all over the CofC campus.
“While everyone knows dancing is fun, ballroom dancing, for some reason, is not mainstream – and I just want to show students how cool it really is,” says Jeff Woraratanadharm, who teaches Social Dance I and Intermediate Social Dance and is also an IT PC/network/AV technician in the Division of Information Technology. “At the beginning of the semester, they’re a little apprehensive if it’s for them, but by the end, they end up having a blast bonding together and becoming friends, and I think it’s a great start for them. I really wish that everybody would take this class when they first get to the College.”
Woraratanadharm, who taught ballroom dance locally at the Fred Astaire Dance Studios for 10 years, found his own niche in college when he joined the Ballroom Dance Club at the University of Virginia, and knows how much it helped him get out of his own shell.
“Social dance places students in front of each other and not in front of their phones,” he says. “This class focuses on something that students may not, in this generation, get much of, which is face-to-face, in-person interaction. We’re actually working together, being creative and having a good time.”
Of course, all that face-to-face, in-person interaction came to a halt in March 2020, when the College moved to e-learning for the rest of the semester due to the coronavirus pandemic. But – committed to making sure the class continued to promote not just dancing, but also physical movement and social interaction among his students – Woraratanadharm got creative, filming exercise and instructional videos, providing videos for reflection and offering Zoom sessions for students to ask questions and keep up with their classmates.
Regardless of where they physically are, he says, “My goal for them is to have fun and take away the idea that dancing is something they can do and have fun doing.”
And senior Matt Stephenson, for one, is definitely having fun – and building confidence.
“I decided to take this class because I wanted to be able to dance socially at events. In the past, I haven’t been able to because I didn’t know how to dance so I always felt awkward on the dance floor,” says the communication major who previously took Social Dance I and just completed taking Intermediate Social Dance this semester. “Because of this class, I am a lot more comfortable: I’m more comfortable asking a girl/guy to dance and I’m more comfortable actually dancing.”
That comfortability is exactly what Woraratanadharm wants for his students.
“At the completion of the course, I just want students to have a greater appreciation for partnership dancing, so much so that they become comfortable in situations where there is dancing, such as at weddings, parties and work events – ideally, they would seek out dancing where it is the main attraction,” he says. “The best dancers do not worry about how they look and just have fun – that’s why my classes offer a judgment-free learning environment where students are allowed to have fun without worrying about being graded on ability. There is no focus on anyone’s individual ability or inability to dance.”
As competitive dancers, both Stephenson and his classmate Nic Hayes already had the ability to dance when they enrolled for this course – that was, says Hayes, not the reason for taking the class.
“I decided to take this course because dance has always been a passion of mine, and this was a way to further my love of dance, and get college credits at the same time,” says the junior biology major, who has held many first place titles in tap and contemporary dance. “Although I had been dancing for so long, I had never had any training in ballroom dance, but always wanted to learn how to shag. This sparked my interest in the class initially, but I quickly realized that social dance had so much more to offer than just one genre of dance.”
Indeed, social dance has a lot to offer.
“There are so many benefits to ballroom dancing that most people are not aware of. It’s definitely a physical activity, so it’s very good for heart health, losing weight and toning muscles. It helps with posture, balance and coordination. And, because the movements are natural, one will become more aware of how their body is designed to move,” says Woraratanadharm. “And then there’s the mental aspect. It builds confidence. It’s a good stress reliever, it helps memory. It promotes creativity – every dance is different depending on the song and the different partners. Ballroom teaches respect and manners – and it builds teamwork: You have to work together to dance – you’re not going to be successful without your partnership.”
For Hayes, the class has deepened her appreciated for dancing.
“The most surprising thing I’ve learned this semester is how similar the dances can be: Changing one thing can make it a completely different dance,” says Hayes. “My hope is that, after this class, I will be more knowledgeable and skilled at the dances that are covered in this course. I also think that, through this class, I will become a more well-rounded dancer as a whole.”
And Woraratanadharm hopes his students become more well-rounded people, too.
“The best thing about teaching this class is that I get to share an activity that I am passionate about and that made a big difference in my life,” says Woraratanadharm, who is collaborating with Associate Professor of Communication Deb McGee to teach a First-Year Experience course in the fall called Dancing Away Your Fear of Public Speaking. “There’s just so much to gain from ballroom dancing. Until you experience it, you won’t know what you’re missing!”