Esther Demming and Jack Burton
Esther Demming and Jack Burton at one of the regular Sunday ballroom dances. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Dancing with the locals

By Joyce Wagner - November 1, 2007

Not too long ago, I attended an Argentine Tango class off-Island. I arrived early, changed into my dancing shoes, and watched as the regulars filed in. While we waited for the class to begin, the course habitués circled wagons and systematically excluded all newcomers from their conversations.

I'm not shy. In fact, I tend to make friends rather easily, so it was a bit of a surprise when I turned to one of the dancers to speak and she turned her back on me. When I realized that the instructor was not even going to introduce himself, I changed my shoes and left. I asked myself, Is this is social dancing?

Friendly steps

Recently, I attended Sunday evening ballroom dancing on-Island. I was home again. The regulars go out of their way to greet newcomers, people of all abilities are welcome, and everyone is patient and helpful to the dancing neophyte. You won't find a more casual and friendly atmosphere anywhere.

Stephanie and Frank Elliott
Stephanie and Frank Elliott take a turn around the floor.

Sunday night ballroom dance was founded about ten years ago by children's book writer Carol Carrick and her long-time companion Jack Burton - an Episcopal minister and retired probation officer. They put an ad in the paper, trying to gather other dance aficionados on the Island.

"We thought no one would show up," Carol recalls, "but people did come.

"We also thought everyone would know how to ballroom dance," she chuckles. "No one did. We ended up teaching."

The group began meeting once a week at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, changed locations as the need arose, and eventually ended up at Nathan Mayhew Seminars in Vineyard Haven. "We charge $3 (per night)," Carol explains, "because we have to pay rent - but it's the cheapest entertainment in town."

The festivities officially begin at 7 pm, with a free class. In the summer, Tom and Dorothy Newton, summer visitors and longtime students of social dance, give classes in Cha Cha, Tango, Rumba, Samba, Waltz, and Fox Trot. Depending on the level of experience of the attendees, the class might be as basic as one, two, cha-cha-cha or as advanced as a Tango fan step. Even when the more learned participants are tearing up the boards in a new step, you'll always find one of the regulars holding an informal mini-course on the basics in a far corner.

Year-round residents Tom Carberry and Janet Holladay travel throughout New England, attending seminars and learning new swing dance steps. By popular demand, they teach weekly classes in the many dialects of swing at 6 pm - an hour before the regular class and dancing.

Guest instructors, often vacationing here in the summer, frequently stop by to teach. There are also occasional surprise appearances. Yvonne Marceau, who, with partner Pierre Dulaine won the British Exhibition Championships four times, once took a break from choreographing at The Yard to bring over two professional dancers for a swing demonstration.

Janet Holladay and Tom Carberry
It takes practice to dance swing like Janet Holladay and Tom Carberry. These two make it look easy and fun.

You can fit right in

Dress code? None. While Dorothy Newton might sparkle in a glittery gold top over a black lace skirt, and sprightly oldster Georgia White may shine in a lush red suit, there are many dancers in jeans, shorts, and gaucho pants. The organizers do, however, ask the participants to carry in clean-soled shoes to preserve the wooden floors. The ideal is either a professional dance shoe or a "character shoe" to which the local cobbler can attach suede soles. Standard athletic shoes are not very proficient, as the rubber soles tend to inhibit slides and turns. Barefoot or stocking-foot dancers are also welcome.

Because the group is so friendly, newbies need not worry about bringing a partner along. Although there are usually more followers than leaders, the men work the room and make sure that all of the ladies get to dance. And, because the atmosphere is so informal, it's not uncommon for women to be dancing with other women and people even dance alone. There are line dances and round-robin dances where the followers stand in a line while the leaders swoop them up one at a time for a spin around the floor.

There's also no age limit. Teens appear with moms. Dads show up with grandmothers. Says Tom Carberry, "Grannies are dancing with grandkids. I love to see that."

Frequently, engaged couples show up to learn a routine for their wedding presentation dance. Again, there's always someone willing to work with them. Although the couples usually arrive with little to no experience, the Sunday night regulars can usually get their feet going in the right direction.

Roger Mitchell, a summer visitor since 1942 and now retired from WHYY (PBS) in Philadelphia, dances as a host on cruise ships about four times per year. His bailiwick is Latin dance. He explains the lure of ballroom. "Salsa is everywhere. Brazilian dance is popular. There's a lot of dancing on TV."

Undoubtedly, TV's "Dancing with the Stars" can be credited with the rising number of participants that are showing up every Sunday - and the lower age group.

"Sometimes when I show up at 7 (after Tom and Janet's swing class), it's all 20-somethings," Roger comments.

The group also holds larger dances about twice a year when there's surplus in the budget.

"We get together and hire a band and dance," Carol says. "It's always free."

And there's always a contingency from Sunday night ballroom performing a routine at the Island's annual "Built on Stilts."

The fun ends at 9 pm with the regulars encouraging the new dancers to join them again the following week. The experienced dancers change back into street shoes and help straighten up the hall.

For the rest of us, upon leaving we certainly feel like we're better dancers than when we arrived, but, more importantly, we feel inspired by the people who honor the "social" in "social dance."

Ballroom Dancing Sunday evenings, 7 to 9 pm, at Nathan Mayhew, N. William Street, Vineyard Haven. General dancing and lessons, no partner necessary, beginners welcome. $3 suggested donation. For more information, call 508-696-8428.