Linda Burton with John Abrams.

Ballroom Dancing Makes a Comeback

So you think you can’t dance? Think again. Anyone can learn to shake a leg on the dance floor, especially at any of the “ballroom dance” groups that practice and teach right here in our region.

Linda Burton with John Abrams.
Linda Burton with John Abrams.

Maybe you’ve only seen it done on TV, but secretly wished that you, too, could float across a ballroom dance floor. Well, there’s no reason you can’t learn to ballroom dance. In fact, ballroom dancing is growing in popularity across the country, and there are plenty of people willing to teach you how, right here in our region. They not only enjoy the health benefits of dancing, but the active social life that comes with it.
Maria Varela, 36, has been dancing since she was three years old. In November, she opened Universal Ballroom and Performing Arts School at 8982 Main St. in Argyle, Ill., in a building formerly known as Edwards Dance Studio. She teaches ballroom dance classes five days a week and expects to offer ballet, jazz, tap and more, in the future, for people of all ages. She says there’s a large demand for ballroom dance instruction, locally.
“I’m happy to be giving people what they want,” says Varela. “In past centuries, dancing and music were a major form of entertainment. Electronics and computer technology have isolated us from each other and made life fast-paced. People are meant to socialize. We need to disconnect from the TV and computers and slow down, to bring joy and lightheartedness into our lives, so we can enjoy ourselves, each other, and connect to someone important to us.”
With degrees in dance and theater, Varela has traveled the world teaching dance; she considers her work to be more of a calling than a vocation. She recently taught a ballroom dance class at NorthPointe Wellness in Roscoe, Ill.
“Ballroom fell off the map for awhile in the United States,” Varela explains. “In other countries, people start dancing together at a very young age and it’s a part of their culture. Dance is connected to music, which is the universal language, and gives people an outlet for fun, relaxation and time to connect with a partner.”
And anyone can dance.
“People come up with so many excuses for why they can’t dance and it’s like anything else. If you want to do it, you can do it. All you need is good instruction, patience and practice. There’s no magic to it. Walking down the street takes rhythm and coordination and we just take that for granted. We learned to walk by trial and error. We toddled around, and even if we looked silly, we had a goal in mind and kept going until we reached it. The same is true of dancing.”
Varela will hold open dances one Friday a month for students and anyone who is interested in dancing. The next dance is 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19 at the studio.
Ballroom dances are partner dances enjoyed socially and competitively around the world. The World Dance Council regulates both International and American styles of ballroom dancing, which includes standard or smooth dances such as Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, and Quick Step; and the Latin or Rhythm dances, including Samba, Cha-Cha, Rumba, Paso Doble, Jive, East Coast Swing, Bolero, and Mambo. Other dances sometimes placed under the umbrella of “ballroom dance” include nightclub dances like Lindy Hop, West Coast Swing, Nightclub Two Step, Hustle, Salsa, and Merengue. Categorizations change from time to time, depending on the era and what’s popular at the time. Many of the oldest ballroom dances are now referred to as historical dances, such as the Minuet, Polonaise, and Mazurka.
Kristi Lambright, fitness manger at NorthPointe Wellness in Roscoe, Ill., says ballroom classes offered by NorthPointe have been very popular.
“Our goal is to continue offering ballroom dance classes as soon as possible, once we find a new instructor,” she says. People can monitor progress on that by visiting
Another route for ballroom dance instruction is through USA Dance Inc., the governing body of all amateur ballroom dancing in the country. It’s a nonprofit organization that works to improve both the quality and quantity of dance in U.S. communities. Organized in New York in 1965, USA Dance has 160 chapters, mostly for social dancing; it also hosts dance competitions for amateur ballroom dancers in major cities.
The Northern Illinois Chapter #2039 of USA Dance Inc. is a social chapter and was organized 18 years ago. Dave Bentley, who was on the original board of directors, is now chapter president.
The local chapter offers dance lessons, presented by guest instructors from the northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin area, from 7 to 8 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of each month in the Community Building Complex of Boone County, 111 W. First St., Belvidere. A dance follows, with a variety of music suited to various kinds of dancing. It includes two mixers, demonstrations, and information on where to take more dance lessons.
USA Dance also hosts a dance from 7:30 to 10 p.m. every second Saturday of the month, September-November and January-May, at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, 7326 N. Cherryvale Mall Dr. in Rockford. More information and a calendar of events are found online at
Dale and Ann Pizzitola of New Berlin, Wis., were the guest dance teachers in November and Maria Varela will teach in December in Belvidere.
Bentley says ballroom dancing is “holding its own” locally but is somewhat held back by a lack of places to dance. That’s changing, he notes, with the opening of the new school and a growing acceptance of ballroom dance among younger generations.
TV shows like “Dancing With the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Fame,” and “Dance Mom” have sparked fresh interest in ballroom dancing.
However, men in particular still find reasons not to dance, says Bentley.
“Dancing is a universal expression in every culture, going back to our earliest ancestors. I think men are put off by the glitz and glamour they see with any kind of television ballroom dancing. We don’t wear sequined shirts and get spray tanned to spend an evening social dancing. It’s very casual. Dockers and a polo shirt work just fine,” he says.
USA Dance is making an all-out effort to appeal to younger dancers.
“The demographics are changing and we need to draw young people into our dances. We reach out to colleges and advertise in various places and some of the music we play is contemporary and popular,” Bentley says. “A big part of dancing is the music and we pull from all decades and genres. For example, a typical playlist might start with a classic Doris Day fox trot, then a 1950s swing by Jerry Lee Lewis, an authentic Latin mambo by Tito Puente, a cha cha from Lady Ga Ga, then a soaring New Age waltz. We love the variety.”
Bentley was a young man, when he decided dance was a way to improve his life.
At 23, he took classes at Rockford’s Arthur Murray school, as a way to meet women and learn “just enough to get by” on the dance floor.
It was there that he met his wife Trish, and they’ve been dancing together for 30 years.
“Ballroom dancing has been a big part of our lives,” he says. “It became our hobby and gives me an artistic break from my job, while being good for us in so many ways. Physically, dance is good exercise, especially if done regularly. Socially, it’s a great way to meet and interact with people. And the complexity of dance step patterns, and coordinating them with a dance partner, is a great mental workout.”
According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, frequent participation in ballroom dancing led to a 76 percent reduction in dementia. And The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reports that people with Alzheimer’s are able to recall forgotten memories when they dance to music they know.
One local dance instructor is an especially strong believer in the health benefits of dance, for good reason.
Linda Burton is a competitive ballroom dancer, instructor, and member of the USA Dance Board of Directors. She began dancing in 1998. Recently divorced, at the time, she had joined a singles group and someone suggested she take dance lessons.
She recalls the experience as terrifying, at first, but also as something that became very theraputic, in time.
“Dance is great therapy for anyone,” says Burton. “I’ve seen it do wonders for people. Dancing is not only a skill in itself, but it gives people structure and poise and helps them to develop a social competence by interacting with others and enjoying each other’s company. Dancers are the happiest people I know, because they’re doing something they love and are so well socialized.”
A neurological disease brought Burton’s dancing to a halt, but in time, she used the dancing to bring her disease to a halt. In 2008, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and was unable to dance, walk or do many everyday tasks. She remembers going to dances, wanting to be with her friends, but having to sit with her back to the dancers, because it was so emotionally difficult to watch others doing what she could not.
Although her dreams of dancing competitively were dashed, she was still able to teach. It was a tough adjustment because she wanted to compete first and then teach.
“I had been an athletic person all my life and always felt that was my identity.”
Burton explains that MS causes nerve damage that results in a breakdown of communication between the nervous system and the brain; normally, the brain tells the muscles what to do.
“When I started on my recovery, I was inspired by what I had read about brain plasticity,” says Burton. “I couldn’t walk up the stairs, but I could think about it.”
If you persistently repeat an action in your mind, the brain and nervous system work together to find a way to accomplish it, says Burton.
Eventually, she was able to walk again. She found her way back to the dance floor by doing the Argentine Tango and then the Rumba; both dances can be done slowly and in a walk-like fashion.
“It seemed to take forever and ever, but eventually I got better and was able to do more dances, dance longer, and take lessons again.”
She also read up on her illness and learned that some people benefit from cutting certain foods from their diet and adding supplements.
“My health improved because of the diet and supplements, but I believe the biggest help was dancing,” says Burton. “I’m not a doctor, but I do know what worked for me. I wanted to dance and although it seemed impossible, at first, I was happy with whatever I got back. I still have bad days, but they’re better than my best days years ago. And although I don’t have quite as much stamina, to my surprise, I am dancing better than I ever have.”
Katherine Koehler, 25, was looking for more fun in life, when she turned to ballroom dancing. Today, she’s an instructor and a board member of Forest City Swing.
Forest City Swing began in 2003, when a group of about 20 people sought a place to swing dance. Today, the group meets from 8-10:30 p.m. Thursdays, except holidays, in the Mount Olive Lutheran Church gym, 2001 N. Alpine Road in Rockford. Each dance begins with a 45-minute lesson on the lively 6-count East Coast Swing or the high energy 8-count Lindy Hop. Admission is $3.
Average attendance has grown to about 80 people, during the school year, and twice as many in summer.
The goal is simply to provide a fun activity for people of all ages, but there’s more to it than that, Koehler says. As a nonprofit group, Forest City Swing donates its net proceeds from the Thursday dance and all special events to local charities in the Rockford area. So far, it’s donated more than $40,000. All teachers and board members are volunteers who attend yearly workshops to sharpen their skills.
A dancer since 2004, Koehler has traveled the Midwest and beyond to compete in swing dance competitions. She recently placed first in Iowa City.
“A swing revolution began in the 1990s, across the country, in every big city,” says Koehler. “The high action, high energy dance appealed to young people and it’s easy to learn. I heard about it and wanted something fun to do during the week. I met great people, and I love doing something outside of my comfort zone and learning a new skill. I was so impressed with the friendliness of people and I wanted to learn more. Today, the dancers there have a real sense of community.”
A first grade teacher in Rockford, Koehler says dancing is a great stress reliever. She’s taught basic dance steps to her students during physical education classes to help the kids learn the joy of dancing.
“Forest City Swing is such a gem in our community and is appreciated by so many people,” says Koehler. “I just want people of all ages to grab hold of it and enjoy this type of dancing that’s so much fun.”
The 12th annual Holiday Swing Out Rockford Event will take place Thursday, Jan. 1, at Mount Olive Lutheran Church gym and will feature live music by The Fat Babies. Admission is $5. For more information on this event and other updates, refer to the group’s web site at
Modern ballroom dance is rooted in the early 20th century, but lost its momentum in the 1960s, when changes in music led people to dance separately rather than in couples. Disco brought people back together in the ’70s. Today, along with a heightened interest in Swing, Latin, Lindy Hop and Jive, interest in ballroom dance instruction is increasing. The most competitive form of ballroom dancing is called dancesport and is regulated by the World Dance Council. The international Olympic Committee recognizes competitive ballroom dance through the World Dancesport Federation (WDSF), yet it’s still not part of the Olympic Games. The National Dance Council of America is the official governing body of dance and dancesport in the USA.

Where to Dance?

The good news is that you’re never too young or too old to start dancing. And there’s no requirement that you dress the part of a championship competitor to have fun, either. Dress comfortably and find a place to dance.
In their retirement, Kay and Leslie Govig of Dixon discovered the wonderful world of dance.
They started ballroom dancing just eight years ago, taking classes at Sauk Valley Community College. Since then, they’ve sought out additional training and have traveled the region and beyond to find great spots to dance.
“We started out just wanting to learn to swing dance and we found out it was so much fun,” says Kay. “Dancing is something we can do and we meet a lot of friendly people because everyone is out to have a good time. It’s like recess for adults. Dancing has given us great confidence.”
The couple belongs to two dinner dance clubs – Top of the Town and Cotillion. Each club hosts about five dances a year in various places. Evening events consist of a fine dining experience and live music to dance the night away.
To learn where to dance, just start dancing, urges the Govigs.
“You can search the Internet and just talk to people,” says Kay. “Once people know you like to dance, they’ll tell you about good places to go.”
The couple developed their own website to inform friends and acquaintances of places to dance. You can follow their lead by going to their site at
Here’s a sampling of venues that host ballroom dances in the Rockford area:
• Arthur Murray Dance Studio, 7326 N. CherryVale Dr., Cherry Valley, Ill.; (815) 516-1599. Second Saturday of the month, September through November and January through May. Dance only, sponsored by USA Dance.
• USA Dance, 7 p.m. Fourth Saturday of the month at Community Building Complex of Boone County, 111 W. First St., Belvidere. Lesson and dance. Admission $6 members, $8 non-members and $2 students.
• Universal Ballroom and Performing Arts School, 8982 Main St., Argyle, Ill.; (815) 721-0041; [email protected].
• NorthPointe Wellness, 5605 E. Rockton Road, Roscoe, Ill. (815) 525-4900;
• Rock Valley College, 3301 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, Ill.; (815) 921-7821.
• Forest City Swing, 2001 N. Alpine Road, Rockford, Ill.; 8 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday, except holidays, at Mount Olive Lutheran Church gym. Admission $3.
• Emerson Hall, 420 N. Main St., Rockford, Argentine Tango dance lessons by Maria Castello and Jacques Saint-Cyr from 7 to 8:30 p.m. first and third Friday of each month. Classes are ongoing and are taught at all levels. Call (815) 721-0994; On Facebook at
• Dancing at Harry’s Place, Harry C. Moore Pavilion at Riverside Park, 1160 Riverside Dr., Beloit, Wis., 7 p.m. lesson followed by 8 p.m. open dance Mondays, June through August.
• Birch Banquet Room at Boundaries Bar and Grill (formerly Marine Corps League), 3807 S. Riverside Dr., Beloit, Wis. The 16-piece Jack Farina Big Band plays music for ballroom dancers from 2 to 5 p.m. the first Sunday of every month. The band also plans to play Big Band music at Cliffbreakers Riverside Resort in December, date TBA. Call Jack at (608) 362-5241 or email him at [email protected].

Local Ballroom Dance Clubs

Want to socialize, dance and dine at a venue made for a great evening?
The good news is that the Rockford-Beloit area has three membership-only ballroom dance clubs, where people of all levels of accomplishment can meet other people who like to dance. In keeping with the spirit of 1940s-style ballroom dancing, they host several evenings of fine dining and dancing each year. Members dress formally, enjoy a good meal and dance to live orchestra music.
The private dance clubs in Rockford are Ostende, Top of the Town, and Cotillion. The clubs each have five to seven dinner dances during the year in various locations around Rockford and Beloit.
Ostende Dance Club is Rockford’s oldest, having started in someone’s garage 102 years ago. Nancy Whitlock, president, says dancing meets many needs for people and is a great way to have a night out, get some exercise and do something enjoyable.
“The dance clubs are fun for us because we get to dress up and have an elegant night doing what we like to do,” says Whitlock. “It’s a night of good music, good food, and good company – for not a lot of money.”
About 30 couples currently belong to Ostende and the club welcomes new members. Annual dues are $90 and most dinner/dance events are about $80 each.
Cotillion Dance Club in Rockford is a semi-formal ballroom dance club with five dinner dances each year. The dances are held on the first Saturdays of October, December, February, April and May, at local country clubs, always with live music. “Guests are always welcome,” says Ken O’Tool, club president.
While the high skill level of dancers seen on TV and in movies is indeed jaw-dropping, dance can be enjoyed regardless of what you do or don’t know about it, says Gary Zandonatti, co-president, with wife Deb, of Top of The Town Dance Club.
“Not a ballroom dancer? No problem,” says Gary. “Many people have joined our dance club over the years with little or no dance training, but have learned from other members where to go for group and private dance lessons.
“Club members are always willing to help newcomers understand the different dances and the music that goes with them,” says Gary. “Once guests or new members see the joy people get from dancing, in a more controlled environment, they most likely will want to learn more and seek out dance instruction,” he says.
Although many people associate ballroom dancing with the Big Band era that made it popular starting in the 1920s, the benefits of dancing are timeless, says Deb.
“It’s great exercise and a great way to spend time with someone special, while making new friends,” says Deb. “Whether you’re already sociable or wanting to be more sociable, once you know how to dance, you have a skill that lasts a lifetime.”
Deb says the clubs are reaching out to people of all ages who want to learn to dance or already love to dance. The bands featured at the dances play a wide variety of music, from classic ballroom tunes to more popular numbers, and always take requests.
Ballroom etiquette calls for traveling the dance floor in a clockwise motion around the perimeter of the room.
“No matter how much or how little you know, any dancer can get in a rut, and that’s why it’s important to practice and watch others dance,” says Deb. “The important thing is to go dancing and keep dancing. You’ll improve with practice and pick up new steps without even trying.”
“Although we try to have dances in locations with large floors, not many of the locations have floors like the older private social clubs such as Lithuanian Club and St. Ambrogio Society,” notes Gary.
Richard Sturm, vice president of Lindstrom Travel, has been dancing since 1972. His travel company has even hosted several dance cruises, the most recent one in 2012.
“I found a ship with great dance floors,” says Sturm. “There were five floors with a different band on each level. All cruises have music and dancing, but some ships have bigger dance floors than others. The ideal dance floor is the size of a gym, and although larger dance floors are better, any dance can be modified for a smaller space,” he says.
Sturm’s parents taught him to dance, and as a college student, he became president of the Ballroom Dance Club at University of Illinois. He taught his own daughter to dance when she was 8 years old and when she was in college at Illinois State University, she started a swing club there.
Sturm enjoys dance clubs for a variety of reasons.
“You know everyone can dance, at some level,” he says. “If you ask someone to dance, they can either dance well or are open to learning to dance. Every dancer improves by dancing with a variety of people,” he says.
Sturm also enjoys the informal atmosphere of social dancing. “Competitive dancing is so strict and you have to practice the same thing over and over, while staying within the confines of the level you are competing in to win,” says Sturm. “I like the freedom of dancing and going wherever the mood of the music takes me.”
Gloria and Paul Misik belong to all three private dance clubs and started dancing eight years ago, in their early 50s.
“We just love to dance and belonging to dance clubs gives us an excuse to dance and practice what we learn from our dance lessons,” says Gloria. “We enjoy the company of the friends we’ve made, the fine dining, and meeting new people all the time.”
The clubs each have about 40 couples as members. Each has a president and a board of directors. The private clubs have annual fees at various price levels and the cost of the evening varies, depending on the venue. The dress code ranges from semi-formal to formal and most dances are held on a Saturday night, with a few Friday night dances. Most dance locations are in the Rockford and Beloit areas.
Dance Club Contact Information
Top of the Town: Gary and Deb Zandonatti, (815) 394-0254, [email protected].
Ostende: Sue Holmes, (815) 519-3330.
Cotillion: Ken O’Tool, (608) 365-5558, [email protected].