Those Dancin' Shoes

Whether they are taking a break from the books, expanding their horizons, or even searching for that special someone, people from throughout the Harvard community are donning

Imagine 40 energetic couples--or 160 legs in motion-swaying in tune to Old Blue Eyes and Harry Connick Jr.

It's an ordinary Wednesday night in the Lehman Hall dining room, and students in the early-evening ballroom dance class--to be followed by a swing class--are dancing tentative steps on the crowded black and white tile floor.

Most students say they are enjoying the lessons, which are taught by professional instructor Ken Kreshtool.

"I'm pleased so far with the lessons. They're good social experiences," says Richard J. Finlay, a GSAS student.

"Ken's very enthusiastic. It's great," says second-year law school student Andrew S. Kofman. "My only complaint is that it's a bit too crowded."

Kreshtool, often wearing a bright floral tie, practically explodes with energy and enthusiasm as he demonstrates dance steps for his students.

"It's a very social activity, and if you like your partner, it can be a very intimate one. I know of only one thing more intimate--and sometimes not even that," says Kreshtool with a smile.

"As I believe Ann Landers once said, 'Dance is a vertical expression of a horizontal idea,'" Kreshtool says.

Kreshtool's lessons are only one of the many options for Harvard students interested in the elegance, flair and sex appeal of ballroom dance.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Ballroom Dance Club regularly brings in professionals to teach evening dance classes in the houses. This semester, the Tuesday night offerings in Dunster include instruction in country western dance and the tantalizing merengue.

The club also offers free recreational dance lessons, covering the American Cha-Cha and Tango, at the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) on Monday and Wednesday afternoons.

While the classes at the MAC are usually taught by professionals, this semester they are being taught by experienced members of the Ballroom Dance Club.

"I took a high school gym class on ballroom dancing, a basic introduction. When I came here, I wanted to learn more," says Dina S. Gould '96, who attends the classes at the MAC.

"I've been taking lessons since last semester and it's a lot of fun," says Gould. "The club members present the routines so that everyone can dance."

Ballroom dancing might seem an odd activity for college students to be interested in, but many in the dance community say that times are changing.

Ballroom dance is growing in popularity among college students, says Hoang Quan Vu '92, treasurer of the Harvard-Radcliffe Ballroom Dance Club and a teacher of ballroom dance.

"There's this image of ballroom dance as something only for older people," says Vu. "That's the image that we're trying to change."

The polished elegance of more traditional dances like the waltz, foxtrot and tango attract many budding young Freds and Gingers, Vu says.

But there are also offerings for those aspiring dance students who are interested in Patrick Swayze-style "Dirty Dancing."

"We also teach the slinky, sexy Latin dances--like the merengue, rhumba, and cha-cha. These dances have strong youth appeal," Vu says.

The reasons that draw people to dance classes at Harvard are as diverse as the different dance styles themselves.

The lessons offer structure and routine that can make dancing more enjoyable, students say.

"I think most people have a sense of moving their bodies to a beat, but dancing can be a lot more fun with specific steps, turns and twirls," says Pamela B. Kirschner '94, secretary of the Ballroom Dance Club.

According to club member Mark P. Immel '94, "Dance is a social activity and an athletic activity and an aesthetic activity."

Kofman, the law school student, has a rather unusual reason for taking lessons.

"This summer I'll be working in an off-Broadway show, and I need to learn how to ballroom dance," Kofman explains.

Although the attractions of dance lessons are many, not everyone comes to lessons of their own free will.

"A lot of guys are dragged into it by their girlfriends, who want to prepare for their house formals," Vu says.

And some come to dance lessons with ulterior motives, Immel says.

"Many guys are coaxed into it by their girlfriends, but a few guys show up to lessons alone--on the lookout for dates," he says.

But finding dates is not a major motivation for most dance students, according to Asha E. Weinstein '93, president of the Ballroom Dance Club.

"That's certainly not why I entered dance," Weinstein says. "And I don't think that's why most people take our lessons."

"But I have been told that Ken Kreshtool's lessons are, well, more of a place to meet people," she says.

Kreshtool admits that his expertise is not the only reason some men flock to his introductory lesson.

"Some guys do crash my first lesson strictly to pick up women," Kreshtool says.

Whether or not Harvard's social scene encourages people to study dance, Harvard's atmosphere definitely affects the way dance is taught, instructors say.

"What Harvard students are missing in natural talent they more than make up in hard work," Vu says.

"Harvard students are better than average dance students," says Kreshtool. "They learn faster."

But the physiques of Harvard men create problems, Weinstein says.

"Ladies are supposed to place their hand on the groove in their partner's arm where his biceps should be," Weinstein says. "But with Harvard guys, the key phrase is 'should be.'"

Harvard men also need to make their dancing more sexy and aggressive, Weinstein says.

"As Anne Atheling, an active promoter of university ballroom dance, said, 'The men on the Harvard team dance like they're virgins,'" says Weinstein. "In Latin dances, that's not the way it's supposed to be."

But ballroom dancing isn't all fun, games and sexy pelvic thrusts. It can be a dangerous enterprise as well.

One year, Kreshtool required his students to bring either a pillow or a helmet to class.

"I was teaching an acrobatic swing class. We did this one dip which we called the death drop dip. If the man lost his balance, his partner could definitely get hurt," says Kreshtool, explaining the need for precautions.

Ballroom dancing isn't just for geeks anymore, says Kreshtool, a graduate student in psychology who has been teaching dance since 1978.

"When I first started teaching, I expected a rather geeky crowd, since ballroom dance is such an old-fashioned activity," admits Kreshtool.

"But it didn't turn out that way at all. The people who take dance lessons are an impressive representation of the whole Harvard community," Kreshtool says.

And Kreshtool is fond of mixing up the members of this diverse group. People are asked to switch partners several times in the course of the lesson, and are given several minutes after each switch to get to know their new partner.

"Part of the reason people dance is to have a good time, to be sociable. They come to meet other people," says Kreshtool. "I try to give them as much fun as possible, with as much dance as possible."

"I really like the partnering aspects of dance. Ballroom dance isn't choreographed ahead of time, and so the partners need very good interaction," he says.

Kreshtool begins his lessons with exercises designed to loosen people up. The students flail about wildly, walk like gorillas, and walk backwards in a Michael Jackson moonwalk manner.

Then the lesson proper begins. Kreshtool explains and demonstrates a step and then the students try to follow his example, first without and then with music.

By the end of this evening's foxtrot lesson, many of the once-awkward students move with elegance and confidence, executing twirls and promenading with ease.

"I wish I had taken lessons earlier. Ballroom dancing has been one of my most memorable Harvard experiences," says Chong S. Park '93, a student in Kreshtool's lessons in swing dance.

"Now that I'm a second semester senior," says Park, "I go dance just about every night."