Not Strictly Ballroom

What's the Viennese Waltz Got to Do with the Price of Beans? Ask Tom McCarvel.

There are four generations of tractors on the McCarvel family farm just outside Brewster. The oldest, a John Deere that surely saw the Second World War, is dwarfed by a model that's probably too young to remember the Gulf War, complete with a climate-controlled cab that hovers 15 feet above the field--a far cry from its grandfather's bare metal seat and low ride. Ask Joe McCarvel why he still keeps the 1940s-era machine around and he'll say, simply, "I don't get rid of much." Spoken by someone who lived through the Depression, the words land heavily. "I never thought I'd live to see a 16-row cultivator," he says, shaking his head.

Of course, without that 16-row cultivator, Joe's son Tom couldn't possibly pull off the improbable stunt of living in Bloomington and working as a banking consultant during the week and commuting 150 miles to the southwest corner of Minnesota to farm 2,700 acres of corn and soybeans with his father and brothers on weekends, as he has for nearly ten years.

It's strange to look at 40-year-old Tom McCarvel in chambray work shirt, low-slung jeans, and a baseball cap that picks up protecting his scalp from the sun where his hairline leaves off and imagine him in business attire. But that's nothing compared to what happens when, in the same matter-of-fact tone he uses to explain his strategy for selling corn at the highest price, McCarvel starts telling you about the thinking behind the design of his custom-tailored, Latin-style dance pants.

Shall we dance? Tom McCarvel at home on the farm
Michael Dvorak
Shall we dance? Tom McCarvel at home on the farm


Tom McCarvel is a fixture at Lee's Liquor Lounge, the Medina Ballroom, the Wabasha Street Caves, the Half Time Rec, the Hexagon, and anyplace else the regulars rumba. He has been awarded with Top Student Dancing on a Bronze Level in four national Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance Competitions, in which he dances as the lead half of a Professional/Amateur entry.

Dancewise, McCarvel's base of operations is the Arthur Murray studio near France Avenue and 50th Street in Edina, where he has come for a Monday-night lesson with his partner and instructor, dance pro Karena Shackel. Tonight McCarvel has traded his jeans and cap for a tropical print shirt and khaki Dockers. Shackel is dressed for the dance floor in a clingy sweater set and matching skirt, with a rhinestone choker for razzle-dazzle and high, black leather dance shoes with laces that wind twice, maybe three times, around her ankles.

To watch the pair in action is to see the difference between people who will partner-dance and people who understand partner-dance. McCarvel is quicker and more flexible than his heavyset appearance might suggest. And Shackel's response to his cues is so smooth and instantaneous that it appears more intuitive than studied. But non-dancers have only to dance once or twice at a wedding reception to realize how much more than intuition is involved. What McCarvel and Shackel do requires more than love at first sight (or a few cocktails); it takes study, communication, and endless practice.

We decide to conduct our interview at a restaurant around the corner. Because pavement is to sueded dance shoes as daylight is to Dracula, Shackel excuses herself to change into more appropriate footwear. She emerges wearing the dance-pro version of walking shoes: rhinestone-studded, sling-back, two-inch heels in clear Lucite.

McCarvel and Shackel have been working together for about three and a half years, almost exactly as long as Shackel has been teaching at Arthur Murray. Although she's 13 years younger than he is, she refers to McCarvel as "my baby" in the affectionate, high-pitched voice women usually reserve for kittens and shoes bought at half price. McCarvel looks to his teacher for an approving nod before launching into the story of how he discovered ballroom dancing.

"When I moved down here [to the Twin Cities] eight years ago, my work kept me traveling a couple days a week so I didn't have a lot in the way of hobbies. When things changed at work, I started to have more time. I'd always liked swing music, so I went to the Fine Line on a Tuesday night when Vic Volaré played. I started watching the dancing and thought, 'Oh, God, I gotta be part of this!'"

McCarvel walked into Arthur Murray with one goal in mind: to master the lindy hop, a playful swing-dance step. His exact words, he says, were: "I'm going to learn to lindy hop, and they'll have to haul my cold, dead body off the dance floor before I quit."

It was eight months before McCarvel made it successfully through a lindy hop song without stopping or stumbling over the switches from six- to eight-count steps. "At one time Karena said I was a bit of a masochist," he recalls. "But I was just determined."

Even if it was masochism, it eventually paid off. "One night I was dancing at Mario's," he says, in reference to the northeast Minneapolis restaurant that used to hold Sunday-night swing dances in its basement. "Karena was there. I asked her to dance. At the end of the dance, she said, 'Tom! Do you realize what you did? You led the whole thing!'"

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