Bitten by the ballroom bug, locals join in the rediscovery of partner dancing
Joe and Luanne O'Brien demonstrate a dance technique during a class at Integral Ballroom Dance in Murrysville. Mrs. O'Brien teaches dance at the school, which she founded.
Luanne O'Brien, founder of Integral Ballroom Dance, warms up with Dennis Bradley of Murrysville.
Sharon Wise, left, of Greensburg dances with Joe O'Brien in a class at Integral Ballroom Dance.
Phil Barilla of Murrysville and Barbara Marin of Greensburg, in foreground, and Jim and Barb Donahoe of Penn Township, in back, take part in a dance class at Integral Ballroom Dance in Murrysville.
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"If someone had asked me a year ago, I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I'd be involved in something like this," Barbara Marin said of the dance classes she's taking.
She had some reservations when asked to represent Hempfield Area School District -- where she is assistant superintendent -- in "Dancing with Celebrities of Greater Greensburg," a September fundraiser for a United Way-affiliated organization.
"As a child, I had taken ballet. But the last time I danced I was 12 ...this was a whole new adventure for me."
Although the commitment required two to three practice sessions a week for seven weeks, she said, "I absolutely loved it. I had such a good time."
The event was staged by Luanne O'Brien, founder of Integral Ballroom Dance Studio of Murrysville, who paired celebrity participants with experienced students. Ms. Marin's partner, Phil Barilla, is a retired Westinghouse engineer with 25 years of dance experience.
"I couldn't have had a better partner," Ms. Marin said. They performed the salsa, a Latin dance, and the icing on the night's cake was that they won first place in the people's choice award.
"We were just thrilled," Ms. Marin said.
Now the Greensburg resident takes a weekly class from Ms. O'Brien and is learning to samba, having just finished rumba instruction.
She's among a growing number of people from all walks of life who have discovered that dance as a hobby combines social and health benefits.
"Human beings have danced as long as there have been human beings," Ms. O'Brien noted. "The television program, 'Dancing with the Stars,' has brought back the beautiful aspect of partner dancing. It can be done socially, it can be done competitively and it can be done for special events."
Ms. Marin said when acquaintances learned she was participating in the Greensburg fundraiser, they told her they watched the popular television program. "So many said to me, 'I wish I could do something like that.' "
John and Deana Foley's engagement with dance, however, came long before the DWTS-inspired revival. When first married, nearly three decades ago, they took dance lessons with Howard Ziegler at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. "It was our introduction to partner dancing," Mr. Foley said. The classes were offered every six months or so, but they stopped going after they moved to Penn Hills.
In 1999, they moved to Murrysville and "discovered Luanne through our church bulletin, Mother of Sorrows, when she started teaching in the school cafeteria. We were among her first students there." Mr. Foley, who provides tech support for Community Care Behavioral Health, and Ms. Foley, a chemistry teacher at Penn Hills High School, followed Ms. O'Brien when she opened her studio. They both participated in the Greensburg fundraiser.
If they're not enrolled in a specific class, the Foleys try to attend the open practice nights. "It's great sociality," Mr. Foley said, "an opportunity to go out on a Friday night for a couple of hours and meet some friends, talk about the events of the day, and also do some dancing."
Dance rubbed off on their daughter, Elaine Foley, who is taking classes at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, and participated with classmates in the 2012 Olympics closing ceremonies.
Mr. Foley cited dance as a way that husbands can spend quality time with their wives. Based on what he has observed, he said, "I think women are primarily the drivers of dance, and men are the reluctant ones."
"I have found that couples learn a gentle way to communicate through dance," Ms. O'Brien noted, adding that an unexpected plus of dance is the development of communication skills.
Men lead -- in dance
"The first thing I have to do is really impress upon the ladies this is not their time to be in charge. And that's a good thing. The man, he's like the engine of the car, and the ladies are like the beautiful exterior. They use their femininity to make dance look beautiful," she said.
Correspondingly, she tells men, "Look, you've got one day a week to be in charge, dude -- take advantage of it."
Not many occasions are more public and requisite than the wedding dance, when the bride and groom are in the spotlight. Ms. O'Brien and other local instructors offer guidance tailored to the bridal couple and often the entire bridal party.
To save on expense, she recommends group lessons, followed by a few private lessons to work out specific choreography. She also advises to not wait until the last minute, when stress is high and the couple have many other things to take care of for the wedding. She advised taking lessons about five months in advance.
"[Dance] doesn't leave you," she said. "You don't have to worry about forgetting this."
People can participate in dance without purchasing a lot of gear. A wooden floor is important, for grace of motion and to avoid the danger of snagging in carpeting. Clothing, including slacks or skirts, should be loose to allow movement. Special suede-bottomed shoes, for both men and women, allow for comfort, flexibility and provide a balance of grip and slide, Ms. O'Brien said.
Prices at her studio average $75 for a private adult lesson and $12 for a group lesson. Discounts and packages are available.
The competitive circuit, however, involves higher costs, including travel and ball gowns that can run up to $10,000.
Ms. O'Brien, who was a practicing registered nurse for two decades, noted the health benefits of dance. The movement, she said, improves bone density, the isometrics improve tone, and the development of core muscles improves balance. Having to remember steps keeps the mind sharp.
"I improved my posture to a point that I actually grew at an age when I would begin to lose [height]," she noted.
Ms. O'Brien gave a shoutout to other independent regional teachers, saying they often are more personalized than large national studio chains. Many of the independent teachers participate in "Dancing with the Celebrities of Pittsburgh," an annual fundraiser for charities that she directs. Biographies and contact information for 15 local instructors in addition to Ms. O'Brien are on the website, www.dancingwiththecelebritiesofpgh.org.
"There are such talented instructors in the Pittsburgh area, all working together ... in your community there are very talented men and women offering dance lessons."
First Published December 13, 2012 12:00 am