Put Your Best Foot Forward

Projo’s Sunday Lifebeat

Put your best foot forward 11/06/2006 10:06 AM EST

BY LAURA MEADE KIRK Journal Staff Writer

Only an idiot would buy a book to learn how to dance, right? Not at all, says Jeff Allen of Providence, a world-class dancer and renowned instructor. But perhaps his opinion is not surprising, because he’s also the author of the The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ballroom Dancing. Allen says the book can help teach anyone the basics of ballroom dancing complete with step-by-step instructions, illustrations and even a DVD showing the steps. It’s not quite as good as taking dance lessons, Allen said, noting: “Nothing will substitute for what a teacher can do.” But it’s great for people who can’t or don’t want to take dance lessons, he said, and it can serve as a valuable resource for those who do. The most important thing, he said, is to get people out there dancing. “Ballroom dancing is a lifelong party,” he writes in his introduction to the book’s second edition, which was recently published. It’s creativity, artistic expression, romance, love and love “all rolled into one — and great exercise, too!” Allen, 57, says he’s been dancing for as long as he can remember — mimicking Fred Astaire as he would lead his two younger sisters while dancing through their house in Providence. His parents loved to dance, too. In fact, they met at a dance he said. Back then, in the 1950s, everyone danced, he said. He remembers his parents going dancing with a group of friends on the weekends and, at one point, they even hired a dance instructor to teach the group the cha-cha in the basement of his family’s home.

When he was 5 or 6 years old, his parents took him to a Broadway show at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. From that day on, he said, “That’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to sing and dance on Broadway.” His father was horrified. “I was told over his dead body would I do that,” Allen recalled: Little boys weren’t supposed to like to dance. But he talked his family into letting him take lessons at a local community center, where the class was “99.9 percent female,” Allen recalled, chuckling. “I’d be going to play baseball, in my uniform, and I’d be (stopping to take) dance classes with these girls.” He had no complaints: He was among the first of his friends to start dating, going dancing with girls by the time he was in third grade. By high school, he was entering — and winning — local dance competitions. And he kept on dancing, right through college at the University of Rhode Island, where his fraternity buddies made fun of him for taking ballet classes. But it didn’t bother him. “I said, ‘You guys don’t get it. Do you see who’s in these classes?’ ” All the girls on the college cheerleading team were required to take ballet. After graduating in 1971, he tried accounting, but he was bored. So he eventually started his own janitorial business that grew into a general contracting business, and all the while, he kept on dancing. In 1984, he won the North American Amateur Dancing Competition. That’s when he decided it was time to go pro.

He opened his own dance studio, Dance Trax in East Providence, where he started teaching others to dance, while he continued to compete ALLEN QUICKLY BECAME Rhode Island’s sultan of swing — and of salsa, cha-cha, tango, waltz and fox trot. He won competitions all over the country and in Canada, in both American and international styles of dance. He also won more than 30 coveted National Dance Council of America top teacher awards, which are earned when students go on to win competitions. He has since closed Dance Trax but still offers private and group lessons seven days a week under his own name. His Web site is http://jeffallendance.com/ or (401) 331-1400. Allen developed what he call the “Quick Start” method to learning the basics of social dancing: In six lessons, he teaches the basic moves of any dance. The classes proved so popular that he decided to turn his method into a series of books by the same name, promoting a Quick Start to social dancing or to learning a specific dance, such as the tango. These books were a quick hit, Allen said, and soon he was writing stories for a variety of dance publications, including the magazine Dancing USA. He published his first Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ballroom Dancing in 2002, and it became one of the best-selling ballroom dancing books in the world. He won praise from far and wide, especially from others in the field:

“This book is NOT for complete idiots. It’s for those smart enough to recognize the absolutely best introduction on the market to ballroom dancing, Latin dancing and disco-hustle dancing . . . This is the book to learn from,” said Niel Shell, author of Hustle, another dancing book, in a review posted on Amazon.com. “Whatever your motivation for wanting to learn how to dance, this book shall serve as your guide,” said Michael Fitzmaurice, editor of Dancing USA, in an excerpt printed on the cover of the book. “Follow the instructions. Take the advice. Enjoy the thrills.” MORE AND MORE people are enjoying the thrill of good, old-fashioned dancing, Allen said, during a recent interview at his Providence studio in a converted home-turned-office and studio on Charles Street. “Dance today is huge,” Allen said. He has seen the pendulum sway from ballroom dancing, to the twist — the dance that tried to destroy ballroom dancing” because it was the first dance that didn’t involve touching — to disco and now to couple dancing again, doing everything from salsa to the swing. And “it’s not your grandparents’ dance,” Allen said, noting that many of these classic dance steps can easily be adapted to today’s modern songs. That’s why ballroom dancing is making a comeback, especially in the last 10 to 15 years, Allen said. The comeback has been fueled by a variety of movies, such as Shall We Dance and more recently by television shows, such as Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. More people are taking dance lessons to look sharp at weddings and other social events, Allen said, and ballroom dancing is returning to college campuses, as well. There also are more public opportunities for the formal dances of yesteryear — from salsa to the swing to the traditional waltz. In fact, he said, “You can go dancing in this area almost any night of the week.”

Allen said his books will give people the basics of dancing, but they’ll need to work at it — whether they use the book, or take a class. “Dancing isn’t easy,” Allen said. “. . . It’s an acquired skill.” And you can’t necessarily do it by reading about it or watching it on a DVD. After all, Allen noted, “A million people who watch Tiger Woods play golf can’t golf.” That said, Allen says he can teach anyone how to dance. “If you can ride a bike, if you can go up and down a staircase without the handrail, if you can swim, I can teach you to dance.” BUT IT TAKES TIME and patience, Allen stressed. “Dancing is like preparing a Thanksgiving Day dinner.” People spend several days shopping, and several hours cooking, and the meal is gone in 20 minutes.” With dance, people can spend hours, days and weeks learning to perfect a dance for a song that lasts only a couple of minutes.

Just ask Dr. Kenneth Rawlinson of East Providence, a cosmetic dentist whose work has been featured on the local versions of Extreme Makeover produced by WLNE-TV, Channel 6. He’s been taking private dance lessons from Allen for more than two years, and is still working to perfect his moves. “It’s just something I always wanted to do,” he said. Some people can go out and dance after a couple of group lessons, Rawlinson said. But he took private lessons for about six months before he felt confident enough to hit the dance floor. And the more he danced, the better he got at it. “Going out and doing it and getting experience is the best way to learn,” he said. Rawlinson, 40, who is single, says he enjoys dancing with a variety of people he meets at local dance clubs. Swing, he said, is his favorite. “It is just so much fun . . . . The music is fun. The dance, itself, is a good-looking dance.” And it’s incredibly versatile, he said. Most people think of swing as a dance done to big band or boogie-woogie music. “But you can do swing to just about anything,” he said. In fact, he noted, “One of the great swing songs is “Love Shack” by the B-52s.” He also enjoys salsa, cha cha, the waltz and fox trot. “And I want to learn West Coast swing, which is a slower swing, done to slower songs, and of course, hustle, which is partner to disco . . . .” So he is continuing with his lessons, and he has also bought Allen’s book, which he uses to brush up on what he’s learned. And he will be out there dancing at local clubs, whether at swing dances at the Cape Verdean Club or Brightridge Club in East Providence, or ballroom dancing at the German Club in Pawtucket. “It’s nice to walk out on a dance floor and know that people are impressed by what you’re doing,” Rawlinson said. And, he added, “If you know how to dance, you can dance with anyone.”

MARK LABOLLITA and Lisa Raposo, both of Bristol, just want to learn to dance with each other. They’re getting married in July. “She can dance. I need to keep up with her,” LaBollita said. So they signed up for Allen’s group lessons, which are taught at the Central Congregational Church in Providence. “He starts you off with the basics, which is what I need,” LaBollita said, during a recent class there. There were nearly a dozen people — mostly couples, with a few singles — watching Allen and his partner, Hollie Colucci. This was the third or fourth class of the series, and Allen was patiently reviewing the basic swing steps — left, right, left; right, left, right; back, forward. Raposo was light on her feet, swaying to the song “I Can Dream About You” by Hall and Oates, while LaBollita was clearly more tentative, carefully following the pattern that Allen was teaching in the center of the church hall.

“The secret to good dancing is not ‘Where do I put my feet,’ ” Allen explained as he lightly moved across the floor. “It’s while your feet are off the floor that you can move.” Allen cranked things up a bit with “Then Came You” by Diana Ross, and the couples tenuously applied their basic swing beat to the new song. Rob Turner, 39, of Norton, Mass., had come by himself to learn to swing. He enjoys going to swing clubs with his friends. But you need to know how to dance before you can get out on the dance floor at those places, he said. “I can’t do it yet. But I’m learning.” Linda and Joe Nerone of West Warwick were taking lessons to improve their dance skills before a relative’s wedding next year. As with most couples, Joe was far less confident than Linda. “I stumble. She dances,” he joked. They go to enough events that involve music and dancing that they figured it was a good time to learn how to do it right.

That’s why Karen and William Moreno of North Providence are taking lessons, so they can join friends who like to go to dance clubs around the region. In the past, William said, “We had to sit at the table and look at the couples.” Now, they’re gaining the skills and the confidence needed to get out on the dance floor with everyone else. “It’s not hard to pick up. The steps are easy,” Karen Moreno said. “I just have to break all the bad (dance) habits I’ve acquired over the years.”

Vanessa and Brian Aguiar of Assonet, Mass., thought they knew how to dance — until they saw people really dancing at places like the German Club in Pawtucket. It’s fun going there and “seeing people our grandparents’ age and they are so fluid, so smooth,” Brian said. He wants to dance like that, too, but at twice the speed, he quipped. BUT BRIAN AND VANESSA, like many of those interviewed, said they can’t imagine learning these dances just by reading Allen’s book. “You need the visuals,” Vanessa Aguiar said.

That’s why Aimee and Gary Dufresne of Fall River have signed up for Allen’s classes — after they’d already bought the book. They don’t have the time or patience to learn by going through the book page by page, Aimee said. Instead, they see it as an “at-home resource, so we don’t feel we have to take notes as to what he’s telling us during the lesson.” Meanwhile, they’re eager to get dancing, she said. “I think it’s just a very romantic thing to do… . It’s great exercise, very romantic, and we love to see couples in their 80s and 90s at weddings still dancing beautifully together. We love the thought of being able to move to the music together, so we’re willing to put some time into it.”

Allen said he’s happy to help, whether giving private or group lessons or sharing what he knows with readers of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ballroom Dancing. “Dancing has been good to me in many ways,” Allen said. “That’s why I’m giving it back.”

Thank you for reading ProJo’s article about me, my new book, “The Complete Idiot’s to Ballroom Dancing DVD Edition, and lastly my teaching and classes. If you didn’t get a chance to read it in the Journal here is this link will take you to the 11/05/06 LifeBeat section:.

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