Learning outside the box

When receiving their diplomas this past spring, many graduates heard their speaker deliver the oft-repeated commencement advice: Though your formal education may have ended, life is now your classroom.

While that may be true, almost any student can attest that just because you are always in a classroom doesn't mean you are always learning. Sometimes, it takes a change of scenery. 
In a two-story studio in Arlington, directly across from the Virginia Square metro station, you can find just that in one of the Washington area’s most popular and enduring dance centers.

Since opening in 1976, the Dance Factory floors have had almost a quarter of a million dancers on them, bearing everything from the lurching clops of beginners to the lithe, elegant glides of professionals mastering their craft.

Whereas the most use your legs ever get in a classroom is from pre-test jitters, the Dance Factory requires a little work-out. Offering classes that run the gamut of modern dance, the Dance Factory taxes both limb and brain to get the most out of their dancers, who in turn get the most out of the dance experience

When I arrived at the Dance Factory on a recent Friday for their guest party, every ballroom step was on display. A mixed bag of partners, all ages and skill, ambled to the foxtrot, dipped to the waltz, spun for swing and did stop-dime, stunning cortés to the tango.

I had gone mainly to look, but when it was time for another swing, I was asked to dance and couldn't refuse. Taking a dance class in my last semester at James Madison University, I thought I knew a thing or two about the step. Though my partner was a little older than what I was used to, I thought this dance might be a good way to ease my legs back into the rhythm of things. I assumed the studied pose our instructor had taught us with an easy confidence: straight posture with right hand firm on my partner’s back, ready to lead.
“Looks like you’ve done this before,” she said.

“Once or twice,” I said.

“Good, good. Then you don’t mind if we do the skating Charleston with a triple step?”

“The what?”

Then the music started, and I just decided to go ahead and take the lead step. From that point on, I didn’t concern myself so much with leading as hanging on for dear life. I soon learned a lot about what I didn’t know, and in front of many people. 

After I was done being paraded about the floor, my partner apologized for not being as quick on her feet as some of the other 70-year-olds. I assured her no apology was necessary.
Thankfully, with the free dance over, it was time for a lesson. The room divided into groups based on skill. Humbled, I sided with the beginners. Daria, our nimble instructor with Russian training, guided us through the basic steps. Once we learned enough to stop counting beneath our breath, Daria spiced things up a bit by teaching us a hip-swiveling, eye-catching number called the vine, where a couple moves laterally across the floor in a graceful crisscross.
To the participant, these beginning efforts at dance can be clumsy and awkward, but Chris Thompson, who began his career at the Dance Factory in 1979, has not since tired of seeing new dancers take their first steps. While most people come in looking to learn or improve upon their dance skills, Chris believes that they end up strengthening much more.
“Learning how to dance gives people confidence. And the thing I notice the most is that it makes people stand taller,” Chris said.
Any apprehensions the newcomer waltzer may have with hitting the floor are put to ease by Chris and his welcoming staff. The relaxed, supportive environment they create assures participants not to worry about stepping on each other’s toes. Everyone wants you to learn and improve, because the sooner you do, the sooner you can join the dance.
For a good introduction to the Dance Factory, visit their Strictly Beginners Dance, free every Friday.