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Detroit Ballroom moves put soulful new twist on traditional dance

Thursday, March 13, 2003

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dapper men in black twirl their graceful partners. The shuffling of their feet on the gymnasium floor makes an old soft shoe sound as they engage in a pas de deux, Detroit ballroom style.

They half-turn, spin left and right, hesitate, double cross, calypso, kick curl and shuffle back.

John Adams and Alyce Bell, members of The Detroit to Cleveland Connection New Ballroom Dancers, waltzed into Eastminster Presbyterian Church in East Liberty last weekend to teach Pittsburghers Detroit Ballroom dancing. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

The elegance of it all brings to mind a time when dancing always meant that hands touched and arms circled waists, that men led and women followed.

On this particular Saturday afternoon the moves are smooth and not so smooth as Detroit Ballroom instructors from Cleveland lead their Pittsburgh pupils in the gym of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in East Liberty.

It's the second of three sessions arranged by the Pittsburgh S.O.U.L. Club.

"1, 2, 3, step up, 1, 2, 3, step back," instructs Donald L. Gardner III. "It's as easy as walking."

Well, not quite. But it looks to be a lot more fun.

With the basic cha-cha steps as its foundation, Detroit Ballroom uses R&B, blues and even hip-hop music in place of the Latin sounds played for traditional ballroom dancing, he said. Still, as couples glide across the floor, there are graceful dips and twirls aplenty.

And no mistaking whom you're dancing with.

"We decided to do something together, and we both love dancing. That's what brought us here," said Cede Mathis, 53, of Wilkinsburg, who's taking the class with her husband, Pete, 56.

A few decades younger are Jeremy and Hannah Heis of East Liberty. "It's a lot easier for me this time than last time," said Hannah, a 25-year-old piano teacher and graduate student.

Her 24-year-old husband is also a graduate student.

"I've tried traditional ballroom dancing and waltzing, but this is easier, more natural," he said. "The instructors are really good, so that helps a lot."

Gardner is founder and lead instructor of The Detroit to Cleveland Connection New Ballroom Dancers.

His attraction to the dance is a simple love story.

Two and a half years ago, he went to Detroit for work, discovered Detroit-style ballroom dancing, fell in love with it, took lessons from nine instructors to learn the various moves, began doing them in Cleveland clubs, got requests for lessons and began giving them.

He brought 16 instructors, men and women whom he had taught, to Pittsburgh last week. On Sunday, about 13 Pittsburgh folks will travel to Cleveland to take lessons.

"It's a smooth, sensuous, elegant dance if done right," Gardner said.

It's also a big hit with the ladies.

Vicki Lee of Sheraden picks up pointers from instructor Scuchie Thompson of Cleveland at a Detroit-Style Ballroom session in East Liberty. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

"I went to a club called Flood in Detroit, and there was this one man, and he had all these women waiting in line to dance with him," Gardner recalled.

Gardner asked one of the women to show him how to ballroom dance, but she advised him to take lessons. "You need a man to teach you how to do this dance," Gardner recalled her saying.

When he started offering lessons in Cleveland, he was the only teacher; now ballroom addicts can find a class in Cleveland every night of the week.

"It kind of fills me with pride to know I started it," Gardner said.

Don Patterson, Cleveland native and founder of the Pittsburgh S.O.U.L. (Save Our Unique Legacy) Club learned of the burgeoning dance craze from a Cleveland friend.

"I went up there one Sunday to the class, and I saw what the magic was," Patterson said.

Still, he wasn't sure about bringing it here, until he talked to S.O.U.L. Club production director Estrella Brooks and local Detroit Ballroomer Susanne Pearson.

Pearson was introduced to this style of dance by a friend who had moved to Southfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

"She said, 'You've got to come here and learn ballroom dancing. You're gonna love it,' " Pearson recalled.

The friend was right.

"I'm truly addicted," she said.

Brooks loves the finesse of it. "I like the way the men lead, and if you know how to follow, you're all right," she said.

It was their enthusiasm that convinced Patterson to invite the Cleveland instructors to Pittsburgh.

"They're the ultimate in professionalism," Patterson said of Gardner and his partner, Alyce Bell. "Their techniques are not intimidating."

Bell, 52, in a leather miniskirt and heels, defies all the stereotypes of middle age. When she's not dancing or teaching, she roller-skates, and she has a tattoo of skates on her right shoulder to prove it.

A friend with whom she roller-skated turned her on to Detroit Ballroom two years ago.

"I've been hooked on it ever since," said Bell, an administrative assistant at MetroHealth Hospital in Cleveland.

Asked for the secret to remembering the steps, Bell said, "You've got to maintain the cha-cha."

Helping the beginners find their cha-cha was instructor David Jackson.

"Women pick this up really fast," he said. "Guys have a tendency to make this harder than it should be."

Pamela Johnson and her husband, James, co-founders of the Afro American Music Institute, are in the more advanced class.

"This is challenging because there's a certain groove to it," said Johnson, who's taught aerobics for 16 years.

Among the beginners is Anthony Powell, 46, of Moon. He learned of the classes through his girlfriend, who couldn't make this session.

"I like it, it's fun," said Powell, who doesn't dance much but vowed to come back for the next session.

Deresha Patterson, 15, of Penn Hills, also a beginner, is a new convert.

"I loved it. I'm bringing my friends next time," she said.

For Pearson, an executive assistant, dancing is a stress reliever. "It's therapy," she said.

A statuesque 5 feet 10 in heels, the 48-year-old Pearson is an impressive figure on the dance floor, making her moves in a black dress with handkerchief hem.

"My girlfriend's motto is, if it doesn't twirl, don't buy it," Pearson said.

For more information on Detroit Ballroom Dancing, contact Don Patterson at 412-377-4681 or Estrella Brooks at 412-361-5614.

Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.

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