Steppin' out

Every Monday the dance floor at the Oak Harbor Senior Center becomes a swirling whirl of life as quarter turns are practiced and foot work is refined.

Before stepping on to the hardwood, students lace up or buckle their dance shoes, all the while chatting up that week’s events.

“One, two, three, turn, two, three,” Dan Branscum urges as his students waltz around the senior center’s floor.

It’s always a lively time in Branscum’s ballroom dance classes, held at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge Sunday evenings, at the Oak Harbor Senior Center midday Mondays, at the Deer Lagoon Grange in Bayview Tuesday evenings and at the Bayview Senior Center Friday afternoons.

The class scene is one that is repeated over and over again across the nation as television shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” have brought to light, and helped boost, the resurgence of ballroom dance in America.

“I think we’d forgotten about ballroom for a while,” said Kathleen Mack, an Oak Harbor ballroom student. “We used to think that it was only for our grandparents’ generation, but now everyone’s realizing how fun ballroom can be.”

Recently, a quartet of Branscum’s dancers stepped forward and put their skills to the test at a ballroom dance competition held Jan. 12 in Everett.

As their teacher points out, each of the students comes from a completely different background: one is an accountant, one a retired teacher, one a dental hygienist, and the other an ex-Navy air traffic controller and almost-professional rollerskater.

“The things they have in common are living on Whidbey Island, a new pair of shoes and the desire to dance elegantly,” Branscum said.

At the competition, more than 150 dancers stepped through more than 250 different heats.

“There was lots of beautiful dancing, not to mention flowing gowns and tuxes,” Branscum said. “We had a lot of fun, along with a bit of nervousness while awaiting our turns.”

Mack smoothed her way into two first-place foxtrot heats. The rest of the nods were earned by South Whidbey dance students. Diana Blake danced to first place in two tango heats and two waltz heats. Linda Bainbridge earned three first-place wins and a second place award in two rumba heats and two swing heats. Lesless Austin spun into second place dancing the difficult and fast Viennese waltz.

“The four ladies worked very hard in preparing for their first try at ballroom dance competition,” Branscum said. “It was my second trip to a competition and my pleasure to dance with each of them.”

Mack said her background in competitive roller skating helped her shake her dance competition jitters.

“It was a little intimidating sharing the floor with the pro-am couples but at least I had someone out there with me,” she said. “When I’m skating I’m all alone.”

Mack first entered ballroom classes in August. She began with the intention of bettering her footwork for her rollerskating competitions with the Skagit Skate artistic team. What she found was a new art she loved.

“Ballroom is a challenge and I like a challenge,” she said.

Mack said she likes the fact that ballroom dance is exercise that doesn’t seem like exercise.

“I’m not the type to go to the gym and sweat on a treadmill,” she said. “But I love to dance.”

Foxtrot was Mack’s first dance conquered, and now she’s able to dabble in everything from waltz and swing to tango and rumba to meringe and a cha-cha or two.

“Waltz and tango are my favorites because that’s what I also do when I skate,” she said, admitting the dances take on a different look when on wheels.

Branscum himself began dancing a little over two years ago. After a year of attending social dance class in Seattle, he looked into stepping up to ballroom.

“With social dancing you get out there and move your feet and learn basic patterns,” he said. “But I decided there was more to dancing than I was getting.”

It wasn’t long after he started taking ballroom classes at Washington Dance Club that Branscum decided that he loved dance so much he wanted to teach and compete.

“I’ve always been a teacher in some form at various points in my life,” he said. “I usually end up teaching things I enjoy and ballroom is one of them.”

His dance students, on the average, are in their 40s or 50s. And each new season of Dancing with the Stars brings a new crop of eager “hoofers” looking to cha-cha like the pros.

“I’d like to see more people of all ages come out and join in,” Branscum said. “Dance is really for everyone.”

Mack and Branscum want to remind people that they don’t need a partner to learn — just get out and dance.

“It’s loads of fun,” Mack said. “A lot of people don’t give it a try because they’re afraid to make a mistake and look silly, but no one’s watching you because we’re all too busy trying to get it right too.”

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