NORWOOD — Half art, half sport. That’s how dance teacher Petr Dubovsky
describes ballroom dance.
His students, too, like that combination of art and athleticism. Some have taken it to dance competitions across the country.
But ballroom dance is not just for competition; it attracts engaged couples rehearsing for their first wedding dance, older couples looking for a fun night out, and others — including singles — who just want to stay active and enjoy themselves.
Judging by the long list of local dance studios, plenty of them are doing it.
“It just happened to me one day,” said Olga Bassett, trying to explain how she got into dancing. “It came to me, like a decision, like an epiphany.”
Bassett, who is 65 and lives in Weston, takes classes with Dubovsky at Savaria Dance Studio in Norwood. She has been dancing for nine years, and she competes with him in pro-am competitions, in which one dance partner is a professional and one an amateur.
She has competed in so many cities she has lost count, but they include Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orlando, and San Francisco.
“It’s a wonderful hobby. It keeps you fit,” she said, adding with a smile, “Plus, I love the dresses.”
On a recent weeknight, I joined Bassett and the rest of the class for a lesson in swing — singles welcome. The class had twice as many women as men, which is common when the class does not require a partner, so we danced in two lines by gender, and the men moved down the line to a new partner each time we finished the routine.
This was not a beginner class, and it took a few minutes for me to catch on. But before long, I could get through the steps without any serious mishaps. Elegance, of course, was another thing entirely.
Ihor and Vera Mykyta, a husband and wife from Medfield, had the elegance part down, as one might expect if you knew they had been doing this kind of dance since their youth.
Both come from Ukranian-American backgrounds, and Ihor Mykyta said when he was growing up in New Jersey, the Ukranian-American community would hold cotillions a few times a year. He started dancing at the formal social events at about 10 years old, and his wife started in her early teens in Connecticut. Young people who attended the dances were essentially self-taught, she said.
Today, the couple enjoys the cha-cha, foxtrot, rumba, various swing dances, the waltz, and the faster Viennese waltz. Mykyta said he appreciates the benefits, both mental and physical. Dancing flexes the social muscles and keeps him physically fit; it even improved his skiing, he said.
While Americans of many different backgrounds enjoy ballroom dance, its popularity in Eastern and Central Europe has translated into a local popularity among those who share that heritage, according to Leslie Warner-Maloney, co-owner of Savaria with her husband, Kevin Maloney. She said the studio is named after a studio where its original instructors taught in Hungary. Today, two of Savaria’s four instructors, including Dubovsky, were born outside the United States — both in the Czech Republic.
One reason dancers immigrate to the United States, Dubovsky said, is to teach. By dancing professionally for a time and then teaching, dancers can extend their careers beyond the age at which they might stop competing. At 39 and with two small children at home in Roslindale, he no longer competes professionally, but still enters pro-am competitions with students.
Some local instructors do not teach at a brick-and-mortar studio. Instead, they rent space in fitness centers, social halls, and schools, often in a few different communities, so they can draw students from around the region. Instructor John Peters, who lives in Carver and calls his roving studio Everybody Dance!, teaches dance in Dedham, Duxbury, Plymouth, and Walpole.
He is also proof of how much dancers love the sport. He maintains a busy schedule of evening classes even though he has a full-time job managing a computer database for PepsiCo. Peters started dancing at 18 to lose weight, and later turned professional and began teaching. He competed professionally with his wife as a dance partner, took time off when his daughter was born, and is now getting back into competition.
“It basically makes you feel really good,” he said, because it releases endorphins and makes people smile. “I call it the best therapy that you can get. You can go to a psychiatrist, or you can take dance lessons.”
Not every studio aims to prepare students for competition. Some focus only on non-competitive, social dancing, while many do both, depending on what students are looking for.
Patrick Piazza, who runs Piazza Dance in Stoughton, and Claire Vaka, who teaches in Marshfield and Braintree, focus on social dancing. Piazza said his classes are popular with engaged couples and people out for a fun evening. He teaches foxtrot, hustle, merengue, salsa, tango, waltz, and club-style variations of salsa and hustle.
Vaka met her husband, Roger Vaka, while taking ballroom dance lessons in 1973. He was her instructor. Now they teach together, which she said enriches the classes because they can demonstrate the men’s and women’s dance parts at once. Their classes are held in rented spaces at Dance Forever in Braintree and the Daniel Webster Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Marshfield.
John Paul, owner with his wife of a studio in Weymouth called DanceSport Boston — “dancesport” is a term for competitive dancing — said he saw interest surge in the last decade with dance competitions on television, and the interest has not gone away. His most dedicated dancers, he said, tend to be women ages 30 to 50 who are established in their careers. They like the glamour and the fitness, he said.
Some studios, including his, host weekly or monthly dance parties for dancers to let loose in a social environment.
Teachers said interest is generally stronger among women, but, invariably, men who reluctantly start lessons end up having fun, too.
“I try to tell them, you have no idea how many women you could meet just by learning how to dance and getting out on the dance floor,” Peters said.
Carl Formichelli of Sharon is still dancing at 72 after learning 19 years ago when he was a divorcee looking to mingle. Today he studies with Dubovsky and teaches ballroom dance in an adult education program in Sharon.
Sara Norman, head instructor at ClubWest Dance Studio in Norton, recalls two of her most memorable students, a couple who had been married for 43 years and had never danced.
They were embarrassed, she said, that they did not know how to dance and felt like they had no rhythm. After 40 minutes of instruction, they were doing the waltz perfectly.
“I love the look on people’s faces when they get it,” she said. For anyone who claims to have two left feet, she has a reassuring one-liner at the ready: “I have a closet full of right feet.”
Jennette Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.