Island dance class keeps everyone on their toes
In a nondescript exercise room in Galveston, something beautiful is happening. Twenty people of different ages, ethnicities and abilities have come together to dance.
In graceful pairs they glide around the room, keeping time with a gentle beat. Some stumble and stop while others flow by in perfectly balanced momentum. There are words of encouragement, stolen glances, shared looks of love and plenty of laughter. The Galveston Dance Club is holding one of its twice weekly meetings and all are welcome.
The group meets each Tuesday and Thursday at Moody Methodist Church in Galveston. The first two lessons are free and then it’s $30 per quarter or $100 for the full year. Each quarter, the instructors teach a different dance. East Coast swing, waltz, rumba, salsa, cha-cha, Texas two-step and slow dance all are on offer.
The club has three instructors who exude health and happiness, making them the best possible advertisements for ballroom dancing. Jim Gilliam has been a dancer for 30 years and began teaching in the early ‘90s, including a decade-long stint at Galveston College.
Bill and Judy Biggs have taught ballroom dance for more than 10 years for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program offered by the University of Texas Medical Branch, and for different amounts of time at other venues, including Galveston College.
Judy Biggs’ favorite dance is the cha-cha because it’s peppy and fun, she said. She wishes more people would try ballroom dancing.
“It is really good exercise and it is a skill for life,” she said. “You can’t roller skate or play tennis forever, but you can keep dancing all your life. You can keep dancing until your legs give out.
“I joke that Bill and I only started teaching so we would have people to dance with. I say, why sit at home feeling all your aches and pains? Come dance with us and feel good.”
People who track such things estimate that 30 minutes of ballroom dancing burns from 200 to 400 calories, and research published in medical publications, including Frontiers in Aging and The New England Journal of Medicine, found dancing helped reduce dementia and loneliness in older people while increasing socialization, mental and physical fitness.
This rings true for Bill Biggs, who remembers a medical dance doctor “prescribing” lessons to a 92-year-old Galveston woman.
“He said it would help her stay in shape and stay sharp,” he said. “She came to us and she just loved it.”
Ballroom dancing has universal appeal, he said.
“I’ve taught high school kids who learned the steps so fast, it was just amazing,” he said. “I once had two kids too shy to date get to know each other through ballroom. They ended up dating, got married, had a kid and they are still dancing.”
Gilliam’s dancing start was very inauspicious.
“I learned how to Texas two-step from a girlfriend,” Gilliam said. “She taught me all the lady’s footwork, so when we went out to dance in public, it was an absolute disaster.”
The Texas two-step remains a favorite to teach because knowledge of the two-step leads to competency in other styles, Gilliam said. He is loath to pick a favorite dance, but when pushed selects the cha-cha.
“I don’t know how the Cubans came up with the patterns, but when you dance the cha-cha, it is just the best feeling.”
Allison and Nathan Jones joined the club almost two years ago as a New Year’s resolution.
“It’s a great way to unwind after work and you get to meet a nice segment of the island,” Nathan Jones said. “It has been fun getting to know everyone.”
It’s been said that ballroom dancing is romantic. Allison and Nathan Jones agree dancing together is beneficial. As a modern couple, they found the traditional gender roles with the man leading a little “funny” at first, but ultimately they learned it’s all about connection and communication.
Learning to follow is an act of faith in your partner, Allison Jones said.
“There is so much trust involved in learning to follow,” she said. “You really have to trust him …” “not to bang you into a wall,” interjected Nathan, and they both laugh.
The Galveston Dance Club has members from Japan, Argentina, Ukraine, Thailand and China. The club is open to anyone who is interested in learning to dance, welcoming couples and singles.
Each member has a personal story about what dancing and the club means to them. For one man, it’s helping his recovery from a stroke. A widower said the club was a social lifeline. One woman wanted to sharpen her knowledge of ballroom steps, while others were there just to have fun.