Ballroom dancing, just in case you hadn’t noticed, has gone mainstream. No longer closeted in suburban church halls and dressed in filmy nostalgia, it has sashayed up the celeb-filled, audience-chasing schedules of primetime TV. Even if you don’t watch it, you can hardly flick through a paper or glance at the web without tripping over some story about Strictly.
You may not have noticed, though, that social dancing has also been swanning its way into major arts venues. In London alone over the past year we’ve seen social dance events hosted by Sadler’s Wells, the Barbican Centre, the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House. “I really think it’s something in the air,” says Toni Racklin, who programmed the recent School of Dance season at the Barbican Centre. “In the same way that cabaret began to move into theatres a few years ago, ballroom dancing has suddenly come to life.”
But it’s not simply a case of jumping on to the ballroom bandwagon. At the Barbican, the idea for School of Dance came from alternative performance group Duckie, who had already been presenting the Barbican’s Christmas cabaret for several years. Stuart Alexander (who performs as Boogaloo Stu) says: “School of Dance took our elements of cabaret performance and audience participation and combined them with Latin dancing.”
The event that resulted – part dance class, part party, part piss-take – sold out over its three-week run. Comperes Stu and Miss High Leg Kick (Francesca Baglione) camp it up in candyfloss wigs or lurid lime bodysuits (“It puts people at ease,” says Stu, “because nobody could possibly look more ridiculous than us”), while teacher Gillian Cook puts participants through their paces for an hour of “strictly speed dancing”. Following the class, there is a quick chance to practice, with shouts of encouragement from the hosts (“Use facial expressions!” “More hips!”). I went on a rumba night (smoochy, but without the smooching). Judging by the looks on people’s faces as we emerged back into the foyer – both bright-eyed and somewhat dazed – I wasn’t the only one who found it all a touch surreal.
Other venues go for a more straightforward approach. The monthly Dance Club at Sadler’s Wells emerged naturally from the theatre’s programming, which focuses on dance. Launched in October 2007, Dance Club began partly by accident – a corporate party in the theatre’s Lilian Baylis auditorium showed that it could work well as a social dance venue – and partly in response to the popularity of post-show classes they had run alongside performances of tango, flamenco and salsa. Club nights have included these styles plus soca, Brazilian samba and Bollywood. So far, the clubby style has been a bit too cool for ballroom – though that may change in 2009 when the theatre will present performances headlined by stars from Strictly Come Dancing. As with other venues, the social dance nights attract large numbers of people who might otherwise visit the theatre rarely, or never. “A very wide range of people come along,” says marketing director Kingsley Jayasekera. “But overall, it is a very young crowd.”
The Royal Opera House attracts an older group for its monthly tea dances (begun in 2001), and the National Theatre draws a wider one for the dance events at Watch This Space, its annual summer season of free open-air performances. But the best indicator that change is afoot in London is the South Bank Centre, which has a tradition of social dancing dating right back to 1951. Since the Royal Festival Hall opened, its central foyer has regularly been used as a ballroom space. In the early days, dances were weekly, but later they were mainly held on bank holiday weekends – though infrequent, they were still enormously popular. Since the Hall reopened in 2007 after a two-year refurbishment, though, things have changed. “The ballroom events have definitely grown,” says South Bank programmer Tamsin Ace. “It used to be mainly older people. Now we get everyone from children to 80-year-olds. This year we hosted Out Ballroom, a lesbian and gay dance coinciding with the London Pride festival. We’re also covering more styles – not just ballroom, but tango, salsa and swing. This Christmas,” she continues, “we’re holding dances on three days in a row. We can do that now. We know that people will come.”
So what does an arts centre bring that a dance school or club doesn’t? First, a reputation and recognition. “People know that if it’s at Sadler’s Wells it will be a good-quality dance class, done properly,” says Jayasekera. “It’s also fun for them to say they’re doing a dance class at the Wells.”
“It’s also an easy, informal way for people to try something out,” adds Racklin. “You don’t have to enroll for [a] course, but you do get the flavour and the fun.” The wider arts context can also help: one flamenco night at Sadler’s Wells Dance Club benefited from live music thanks to the theatre’s flamenco festival. And, as Miss High Leg Kick comments with a faintly naughty smile, “you can come up with really outrageous ideas. An arts centre allows you to think more creatively.”
That is all well and good, but it’s not, ultimately, what motivates the participants. For Joachim Chapman, a thirtysomething IT professional from New Zealand who came to the Barbican’s School of Dance, it’s about being able to picture yourself in the part. “I’m a computer geek, not an arty-farty person,” he says. “Ballet and contemporary dancers can be hard to relate to. But with a ballroom dancer, even if they’re really skilled and you could never get to their level, you can still identify with what they’re doing.”