Dancing Backwards in High Heels
The two women wait for their dance partners on a pair of couches near the entrance of Fred Astaire Dance Studios in Greensboro in the mid-afternoon of a recent Wednesday.
The parquet floor is empty, the stereo silent. The room’s large mirrors amplify the sense of space and create a feeling of suspension before the floor becomes a symphony of limbs, posture, shoulders, tightly executed steps and elegant movement. The walls of the room display framed movie posters of Fred Astaire features such as Swing Time and Top Hat and montages of photographs of the dancers who have glided across this floor, a quiet reminder of the possibility and inevitability of all that the dance is: a give-and-take, an expression, a physical engagement of two human forms.
At the moment, though, which is just around 3 p.m., the staff members remain hidden from view. The dance instructors are in a backroom. Some staff members are sequestered in the manager’s office at the front of the building finishing lunch.
The two women wait. One is 84-year-old Virginia Vaughn, who is dressed in a light sweater, pearls, slacks and tennis shoes. The other, a slender and attractive middle-aged woman wearing a pink shirt, blue jeans and heels, declines to give her name.
Then the two dance instructors, both men in their late twenties wearing loafers, dark-colored slacks and beige dress shirts, emerge from the back.
‘“Hello, how are you?’” dance instructor and co-owner Paul Millington says, greeting the younger woman. With relaxed, economic movement he takes her by the hand and leads her across the floor. With music filling the air now ‘— some jazzy standards, French cabaret tunes and at least one pseudo rock number ‘— the two make light conversation, their words obscured in a private veil by the music as they gaze into each other’s eyes and smile with courtly mutual regard.
Millington offers some brisk instructions, counts off steps occasionally and makes small talk, but they never break stride as long as the music plays. The two dance the Cha-Cha with sharp, staccato quickness, their bodies maintaining a taut economy, one of them occasionally spinning out from the other’s clutch in an extra flourish.
Vaughn and her instructor, Billy Dillon, who is 28, move more gently, stepping across the floor with loose limbs and leisurely timing.
When the 1970 hit ‘“Venus’” by the Dutch rock band Shocking Blue comes on the stereo Dillon deftly guides Vaughn, singing in a mock stilted Euro-trash accent that robotically punctuates the timing of the steps: ‘“She’s got it, yeah, she’s got; I’m your Venus, I’m your desire.’”
Vaughn smiles broadly.
They take frequent water breaks.
‘“He’s a good dance instructor,’” Vaughn says, and then notes: ‘“We’ve got a big difference in age.’”
Co-owner Sasha Tsyhankov expresses an article of faith among the instructors and clients.
‘“If you can walk, you can dance,’” he says. ‘“We had a lady in a wheelchair and she danced just with her hands.’”
Another elderly lady who comes here for lessons chimes in: ‘“They picked her up and carried her through the air. I don’t think she ever felt so free.’”
The Fred Astaire Dance Studios ‘— the franchise numbers 107 locations across the country, according to manager Beth Horton ‘—’ have been unlocking the secrets of graceful ballroom and partnership dancing to ordinary people for more than 50 years now.
‘“In 1946, Fred Astaire started training the staff,’” Horton says. ‘“It opened on Park Avenue in New York. Fred Astaire actually worked in the studio. He handpicked the dance instructors.’”
Astaire, one of the best-known dancers of the 20th century, who started dancing as a child with his sister on the vaudeville circuit, moved into the legitimate theater, and filled out his act with singing and acting as he burst into film in the depths of the Great Depression. By 1976 he would appear in 33 films, including 11 with partner Ginger Rogers, according to the studio’s website, FredAstaire.com, which amply outlines the famous dancer’s biography.
Horton says in recent years Salsa dancing has grown in popularity. People come to the studio wanting to learn to Salsa, but the dance instructors encourage them to learn a variety of dances that they can apply in a variety of fashions.
‘“The characteristics and elements do stay the same,’” she says, ‘“but the patterns that you create can be different.
‘“Sometimes they want to learn Salsa,’” she adds. ‘“Then they go, ‘What are they doing? Oh, that’s Rumba. Can I learn?””
Social dancing can be a lifelong education.
‘“I’ve been coming off and on forever,’” Vaughn says. ‘“My mother was so funny. Every time I’d come she’d say, ‘Haven’t you learned to dance yet?’ It’s good exercise. I always learn something.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.