MY BALLROOM CLASS FROM HELL
Rick Archer, written July 2006
experience with Ballroom Dancing
occurred in 1975. I was all of
25 years old. I knew very little
about partner dancing, but I was
definitely interested in learning.
One day I noticed the University of
Houston Sundry School, a 1970s
precursor to Leisure Learning, was
offering a 6-week course in Ballroom
I was a lonely guy in those days.
I did not have a girlfriend nor did
I have any prospects either. Mostly
I was a jock - almost every evening
was spent playing in some volleyball
or basketball league or taking
karate. But I was having a
hard time meeting any girls at these
venues. I was dimly
clever enough to sense this Ballroom
class might actually have a few
single girls in it so I signed up
Our first night of dance class
covered Swing Dancing. The
instructor, a man named Jack, was
twice my age. He was a
pleasant, easy-going guy who was
good at demonstrating the
patterns. He was easy to understand
and I liked him.
Jack's dance class
moved pretty fast. Our class was only
an hour long, but Jack knew his stuff.
We must have covered six different patterns
in just one hour! My head was
But I didn't
mind because I was in love.
Contrary to my hopes, there were not
very many single girls my age in
that class. In fact, there was only
one. But that turned out just
fine because the solo single girl
was unbelievably cute. Her
name was Katie. Katie
wore some sort of WW II -style dress
that first night. With her
long, beautiful legs I was
mesmerized. I couldn't decide
whether she made the dress look good
or vice versa, but either way it was
Crush at First Sight.
Katie and I paired up
immediately because we were clearly
the "Kids" in the class. None
of the other twenty-five students
were within ten years of our age.
Katie loved the class. And
since I was smitten with Katie, I
paid better attention than in any
class I have ever taken before or
since. I was definitely
motivated to succeed.
At the end of the
first night of class, Katie said her
farewell to me and added with a smile, "I
enjoyed meeting you. See you next
As you might guess, I spent the entire week
day dreaming about Katie. Loneliness
will do that to you. When it was time
for the next class, I was full of
anticipation. Katie and I learned Cha
Cha. What a neat dance!
Jack did not worry too much about the Cha
Cha hip motion. Instead he taught six
more patterns. I handled them pretty
well. I do remember being curious why
we didn't review Swing at all, but I was so
preoccupied with the fast pace I quickly
forgot about Swing.
This was the class where Katie became my
"confidante". Whenever I had a problem
with a move, she would explain it to me.
Or if something funny happened in class, we
would exchange smiles. In other words,
we were becoming friends. At the end
of class, Katie said, "See you next week,
The next three weeks were a blur. Week
Three of the class was Tango.
Week Four of the class was Waltz.
Week Five of the course was Foxtrot.
Sure enough, each week saw me learning six
more patterns to a new dance. And by
the end of the evening, I told myself I had
learned this dance just fine. I was no
master, but I handled the material presented
Truth be told, I did
more than okay despite my lack of
experience. Katie whispered to me I
was the best guy in the class, a compliment
I took great pride in. Katie's
compliment was music to my ears. As I
looked around, it did seem to me I was doing
pretty well compared to the other guys in
the class. I was quiet about it, but
inside I was very proud of myself.
Okay, so I was
becoming a hot Ballroom prospect,
but what about my Great Romance?
As far as my Crush on Katie was
concerned, I wasn't doing very well
on that front. I was petrified
of rejection. I liked her so
much that I was scared I would lose
her as a friend if I made the wrong
Instead of asking her out after
class like any normal guy, I decided
I would make my move at The
Big Event - our Graduation
Night dance at Melody Lane Ballroom!
Graduation Night was
an event Katie and I had talked about
several times. Each week at the end of
our Tuesday class, Jack would remind us that
the week our sixth and final class ended, he
would meet us at Melody Lane Ballroom for
their regular Friday Night Ballroom Dance.
He called the event "Graduation Night".
Katie asked me if I wanted to go. Are
you kidding? I was ready to go
over Niagara Falls for her.
My plan was to
meet Katie there, put my new-found
skills to use and dance the night
away. At the end of a
particularly exciting dance, my
fantasy had me sweeping her into my
arms. I would arch her back
into a dip, bring her back up and
kiss her right there on the floor.
From there we would fall in love and
live happily ever after.
As I daydreamed, for some reason it
never occurred to me I didn't even
know how to dip a woman. Oh
well. Why let reality
interfere with a really good
At the end of the
sixth and final class (Rumba) after
we finished our six patterns, I made
sure to double-check with Katie if
she was still planning to come on
Friday Night. She smiled and
assured me she would be there.
MELODY LANE BALLROOM
Melody Lane was a major landmark
on the Ballroom Dance Scene. Every
Friday night, Al Marks and his Band
held a Ballroom Dance at Melody Lane
that was open to the Houston public.
Back in the 1970s, Melody Lane
Ballroom was located on Richmond
near the Loop between the Windsor
Theater and a club known as Todd's.
Later on Mr. Marks moved Melody Lane
to its current location on Crossview
Jack had chosen Melody
Lane for Graduation Night because it was the
only place in town where you could go to
dance Ballroom for the fun of it.
Otherwise you had to be a member of a
Ballroom Dance Studio if you wanted to find
a place to try out your Foxtrot and Rumba.
Sad to say, after Mr. Marks retired in the
late Nineties, his popular Friday Night
dance disappeared. In the decade
since, no weekly venue with live music that
I know of has appeared to fill this void.
But that's another story.
As for me, as I approached Melody Lane that
evening, my heart was thumping. This
was my big night. I was counting on
this evening a lot more than I had a right
to, but in my defense I was young and
Lead me not
into temptation. I can find it
all by myself.
Katie smiled as I entered. I gulped as
I saw her. She was wearing that dress
again! She was too darn pretty.
'Oh Gosh, stay under control,' I thought to
myself. I was pretty nervous. As
I sat down at my group's table, I noticed
that perhaps ten brave souls from our
Beginning Ballroom class of 25 had shown up.
We all banded together at the table for
A song came on. Katie looked at me
hopefully. I gulped. 'What the
heck do you dance to this song?', I
wondered. I would have asked Jack, but
he was already out on the floor. So I
asked the guy next to me. He said he didn't
know, but if I found out, would I be nice
enough to tell him? Hmm. It felt
like the blind leading the blind.
it was a Foxtrot. It turned
out she was right. We got out
there and I immediately froze up.
I realized I didn't remember a
So Katie and I walked back to the
table and I reviewed the Foxtrot
syllabus. Box Step!
I ran back out on the floor with
Katie and danced the Box Step for
the rest of the song.
Unfortunately, I stumbled more than
once and knocked her off balance.
Other than that, I supposed we
survived the dance.
As we returned to the table, it
bothered me that I couldn't remember
any of the other patterns. All
in all, it was a pretty shaky start
for such a hot Ballroom prospect.
The next song came on.
I didn't have a clue what kind of dance the
music called for. Jack said it was a
Waltz. I looked at my syllabus.
Box Step! I was about to ask
Katie to dance when I realized she was
already out on the floor with Jack. He not
only led her through all six patterns, he
was leading her into stuff I had never seen
before. I wondered where she had
learned all those moves.
I asked her that exact
question upon her return. Katie replied she
didn't have a clue what she doing, she just
let him lead her. 'Lead her?'
You might be surprised to learn that I did
not know what she meant.
Jack had spoken briefly
about leading, but he had never explained
how it worked. I was so naive that I
thought if the man did his footwork and the
woman did her footwork, the move would work
automatically. In other words, I had
absolutely no idea that the man was largely
responsible for the success of each dance.
I mean, after all, didn't he show the women
their footwork too? When did it
become my job? I didn't get the memo.
In fact, one of the men
had asked Jack a question about a lead.
Jack replied there wasn't enough time with
just an hour lesson to spend much time on
'leads'. He said stuff like 'let go
here' or 'reach your hand through here', but
he only said it once. Looking back,
obviously I did not understand the
importance of what he was saying.
How I missed
the chapter in the course on 'leads'
may not make sense, but my guess is
there was no chapter. The class was
taught using 'Simon Says'.
Jack and some woman he picked from
the class would demonstrate the
move. Then Jack would put on
the music. While he danced with his
partner, we would all copy them. In
other words, I would copy his
footwork and Katie would copy the
Katie and I
would do our footwork and try to
mirror each other. I could
dance this memorized pattern just
fine, especially when I could watch
Jack in the process. This meant for
6 weeks I had foolishly assumed we
were learning to dance. Meanwhile I
remained oblivious about how 'lead
and follow' worked in Ballroom
As a result, I
was baffled how Katie had done all
those moves. It seemed
like Magic. Was it eye
contact? Was he telling her
what to do? Did she read his
mind? Had they secretly met
ahead of time and practiced?
The guy could have pulled a rabbit
out of a hat and I would not have
been more impressed. How did
he do it? I was bewildered.
Another song came on that
sounded different. What was I supposed
to dance to this one? I was
angry that I couldn't tell one song from the
other. Some woman said Cha-Cha. That
had been one of my favorites. I looked
at my syllabus and remembered the Basic went
forward and back. Rock Step Cha Cha
Cha. I asked Katie to practice with me
a couple times by the table. Yep, I
had it. We went out and danced the
Basic for the entire song.
As we returned to the
table, Katie asked what had happened to the
other five patterns on the list. I bit
my lip at her disappointment. I had
been bothered all night long by the fact
that I could remember the names of the
patterns, but once I was out on the floor I
had trouble remembering what the footwork
was to save my soul.
Maybe it was nerves, but I was drawing a
blank. Cha Cha was over a month ago!
I mean, I could kind of remember how some of
the patterns went, but I couldn't figure out
how to get into them from anything other
than a dead stop. And the only way to
end the pattern was to simply stop dancing.
"Transitions" were completely out of the
She looked at me funny as I confessed I
didn't remember how to do them any more.
I stared at the syllabus. Yes, there
were the names of the patterns, but they
didn't mean anything to me. I asked
Katie if she remembered. Maybe she
could show me what the patterns were and I
would remember. Katie shook her head
and said, 'I just let the guy lead.'
I furled my brow in confusion. There's
that Word again. What was going
on with this lead stuff? I was
starting to feel both overwhelmed and
discouraged. I secretly wished Jack would
demonstrate the patterns on the floor one
more time so I could mimic them again.
This Ballroom business was a lot more
complicated than I had been led to believe!
I ruefully thought back to how proud I was
that I was the best guy in the class.
What a joke! I was in the process of
getting my ego thoroughly hammered.
Meanwhile Katie danced two songs in a row
with Jack while I sat at the table staring
in disbelief. Not only was she doing
even more patterns than before, she wasn't
even remotely nervous. Instead Katie
was laughing her head off and having a great
time. How did she know how to do all
those moves? I shook my head in
As I watched, I
bitterly began to realize that the
women clearly got all the breaks in
this game. Here I was stuck at
the table feeling like a moron while
Katie was dancing like Ginger Rogers
I felt the heat rise. I
realized how jealous I was of Katie
Before I could dwell
on my insecurity any further, a woman from
our group asked me to dance. The woman
told me she was getting tired off sitting.
Truth be told, she had a point. It
seemed like Katie was getting three out of
every four dances with Jack. Nor were
the other guys dancing much either. I
guess they were in the same boat I was in.
Something warned me this wasn't a good idea.
I didn't know the woman at all and she was
old enough to be my mother. There was
something about her strong approach that
intimidated me and I was very reluctant to
accept her offer. However I couldn't
think of a graceful way to say 'no', so out
on the floor we went.
I asked her what dance it was. She
frowned. "Aren't you supposed to
I suppose she was
right, but I honestly didn't have a clue.
The woman stared at me waiting to see if I
would figure it out. Finally she
rolled her eyes and said 'Tango'. The
woman and I got into dance position and she
immediately got much closer than I was
comfortable with. She told me she had
taken lessons before and this was the
'correct' way to dance the Tango. This
night wasn't going very well, was it?
Forward Forward Tango Close. I
remembered this much from the notes.
We did it again. We did it a third
time. We did it a fourth time.
The woman barked at me, 'What about the
Promenade?' I cringed. I
remembered the pattern being listed on the
syllabus, but I couldn't remember how to do
the Promenade and told her so. She
jerked our bodies into the Promenade
position only to find I wasn't sure what the
footwork was. That started an
avalanche of criticism. 'Well, then
try the Fan!' 'Do the Flare!'
I just stared at her. She rolled her
eyes and began to lead the Fan herself.
Together we looked like fools out there.
At that point the woman began to insult me.
'I thought you took the class. Don't
you remember anything?'
Yes, I was over-sensitive, but she was in a
bad mood about something and I provided an
easy target. Her words stung.
I was feeling too depressed to stand up for
myself, so instead I got more depressed.
I was feeling so much pressure that whatever
I did remember earlier on was now long gone.
I admitted I didn't remember anything and
said we should give up. As the song
ended, Katie and Jack were returning
from another successful spin around the
floor. Just as they reached the table,
the woman turned her back to me in disgust,
grabbed Jack and hauled him out on the dance
floor. Katie did a double-take at the
angry woman. I am sure she wondered
what that was all about.
I was feeling very shaky. Katie
asked me what was wrong. I told her I
felt like an idiot. I couldn't tell a
Tango from a Waltz. I couldn't
remember more than one step to any dance.
These notes were worthless. I slumped
in my chair in defeat. Katie was
sympathetic. She said I just needed
more practice and to cheer up. I
smiled wanly. I had wanted so much to
impress her and please her, but it was
obvious I had completely struck out.
But I couldn't tell her that's how I felt.
The next song came on. It was Swing, the
dance I had liked the best. Katie
looked at me hopefully. I looked at my
notes and screwed up my courage. We
got out there and danced the Basic.
Katie said, 'Swing me out like Jack does.'
I looked at her blankly.
'Katie, I don't know how to do that
So she lifted
my arm and swung herself out.
Then she swung herself back in.
While I did the Basic, Katie bounced
in and out of my arms doing her
Swing Out and Swing In. I felt
humiliated. A ladder with a
rubber arm attached probably would
have stood in for me just fine.
It was no use. Sometimes when
I get too frustrated I just lock up
and go into a shell. I was way
past the point of the good old
college try, even to please Katie.
I told her I would rather just go
back to the table. Katie
wasn't mean to me like the other
woman, but I could see she was
In dance class we had been equals,
but tonight Katie was the star and I
was the clown. This was not
working out like I hoped it would.
The next song came on
and Jack asked Katie to dance. My
heart sank as I watched her face immediately
light up with excitement. She couldn't
wait to dance with him again!
Sure enough, pretty soon Jack and Katie were
doing another Fred and Ginger impersonation
to a Waltz. I still couldn't believe
how well she danced together with him.
How did she improve so fast?
My pride was deeply wounded. I wasn't
very brave around girls I liked in the first
place, so this horror story was way more
embarrassing than my weak self-esteem could
tolerate. Once Katie and Jack got to
the far side of the floor and I was sure she
couldn't see me, I got up and left the
building. There was no point in
sticking around. I was way too
embarrassed to have the courage to ask Katie
out after my performance that night.
No more risk-taking for me on this evening.
Shame permeated every nook and cranny of my
psyche. Too bad Katie had never seen
me on the basketball court, but here at
Melody Lane I was clearly out of my element.
On the way home I analyzed what had gone
wrong. How could a woman who didn't
know any more than I did dance so well?
I knew the answer had to do something with
the secrets of lead and follow, but I was
angry that my evening had depended so much
on something I didn't even know about.
I felt so helpless!
Regrettably, there was no second chance.
There was no follow-up to my Beginning
Ballroom class. Nor did I have Katie's
phone number. In other words, when I
walked out the door, I had kissed any chance
of seeing Katie again goodbye.
I had no way of knowing I had been totally
set up for failure. I didn't know
'why' at the time, but our lack of work on
leads had doomed me to this fate.
No man could ever acquire the skills needed
to succeed on a Ballroom Dance floor under
Our instructor had chosen to entertain us
with new material each week rather than get
down to the hard work of explaining the
leads, practicing the leads with students
and a female instructor, and making us
review the patterns each week whether we
liked it or not. I liked Jack, but I
doubt he was a professional instructor.
He was probably just teaching the class for
the fun of it. Instead of giving
us what we needed to learn, he fed us Cocoa
There had been no dance practice after
class. When the hour was up, we were
out of there. In other words, not once
had I ever danced on my own without the
crutch of watching Jack. This kept me
blind to the importance of leading.
Furthermore I had no chance to develop any
muscle memory. Practice would have
made a big difference. Instead each
week's patterns probably disappeared from my
feet about the moment I got to my car, but I
didn't know it since there was no review.
I stayed blissfully ignorant that I knew
practically nothing. Unaware, that is,
until the Fateful Night.
I never had a chance. It was more
futile than the Charge of the Light Brigade.
At least they had the chance of being
As a side note, about the same time I was
taking a karate class. One weekend we
all had to pass a tough test to earn the
right to wear a higher-level belt and
progress to the next class. The test
included a demonstration of blocking,
kicking, and punching skills, we had to
break a board with a kick and a chop, plus
we had to spar with someone in our class.
The test was an all-day ordeal. Nor
was it a whitewash - a quarter of the class
didn't pass. When I came to class the
following week after passing my test, I
noticed several people were still stuck in
the White Belt class.
proud of ourselves, my classmates
and I were ridiculously cocky.
As we waited for our new class to
begin, we were all punching each
other and acting tough. Our
body language was pure arrogance.
'C'mon, kick me, just try it!'
Our new instructor walked in, took
one look at us, then started to
laugh. Someone had the
temerity to ask what he was laughing
He replied, "Last week if someone
had pulled a knife on you on the
street, you would have had the sense
to run for your lives. Today
you think you are so good you might
actually be stupid enough to stand
there and get yourself cut to
ribbons. You are all in great danger
and fortunate to have me tell you
so. I just saved your life."
As the man spoke, you
could hear the hiss of a dozen egos
deflating. However his words had a
different meaning for me. Inside a light
bulb went on. My Ballroom
instructor had taught me just enough to get
me cut into ribbons.
It took a while, but eventually I bounced
Fortunately I stuck with my dancing, which
is good since I was totally unaware I was on
a career path at the time. About a month
later I found another dance class to take.
Humbled, but not defeated, I started over.
I learned many lessons from the Nightmare at
Melody Lane. Mostly I learned about
the pain of embarrassment. Katie faded
from my thoughts, but the memory of my shame
did not. Three years later when I went
on to become a dance instructor myself, I
never to set up a student like that.
This is a true story. It explains once
and for all why I am so fanatic about the
value of Practice Night.