Not Strictly Ballroom

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

At this Shackel's eyes light up. "That day when he 'got it' in the lindy hop was our biggest achievement--that feeling of, 'I'm dancing! My movement has a correlation to the music and it's not sheer memorization!' That was exciting!"

¬ In order to accommodate McCarvel's desire to work on the lindy hop rather than pursue Arthur Murray's typical "dance lesson" curriculum, Shackel suggested they gear their lessons toward learning routines for competition. And so it was that McCarvel was introduced to the feather-, sequin-, and rhinestone-filled world of competitive ballroom dance.

Dancing on competitive floors is an athletic, regulated, interpretive sport, a distant cousin of the celebratory wiggling that graces proms and wedding receptions. Dancers compete as amateurs, professionals, or as a pro-am couple (generally a student and teacher). Each category has its own regulations and requirements, most of them based on the Arthur Murray Standards, the Fred Astaire Schools, or the National Dance Council. Straying from the rules can result in penalties or disqualification. The result is more of a standardized test than a night on the town.

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

McCarvel has learned all the dances performed competitively in the athletic (and scantily clad) rhythm category, and he also competes in most of the elegant, Fred-and-Ginger-style smooth dances. "If I'm gonna get up in front of God and everybody as the solo couple on the floor, well then, I'm going to make it interesting," he says.

Here Shackel cuts in. Competitive dance, she points out, gets interesting especially in front of God and everybody. "We competed with this samba routine that had a theatrical opening to kick-start the dancing," the instructor recalls. "I come in carried on his shoulder, flying through the air, and I do this snakelike thing so I come down around his body, out between his legs, and wind up on the floor. Then I get up and start dancing.

"They start our music at the wrong time! I'm up there waving, trying to get them to start the music over again--but it keeps going. I'm saying, 'Tom, stop!' He's got me upside-down, and because we stopped in the middle of the move, all the static from the friction caught my skirt. Thank God for dance pants!"

Adds McCarvel: "I could hear all the ladies in the front row gasp."

"We had the greatest move where I was upside-down in this repeated dip," Shackel resumes, "and one of the moments I was upside-down, I had to unhook that same skirt from my heel. We've got all these pictures where you can see that everyone in the audience is watching my foot."

Still, McCarvel maintains that it's music, not stretchy skirts, that inspires his showpieces: He hears a piece of music that moves him, and he's compelled to learn the appropriate dance steps. He's currently plotting a routine to the Full Monty soundtrack classic "You Can Leave Your Hat On," in which he dances in little more than what he calls an "Elmer Fudd hat." He seems to relish the theatricality and creativity that dance inspires in him, and loses himself in daydreams about his next routine.

Even the Viennese waltz--an unlikely favorite for the rhythm dance-inclined couple--is on the agenda, because McCarvel developed a fondness for the music. "I've been to Vienna," he explains. "I've seen the Viennese waltz performed. They're spinning around the floor, and it's chaos. They barely miss each other! It's not because they were lucky. It's because they knew exactly what they were doing. It took me a little over two years, but we've worked up a waltz and did it as a showcase piece. I love the dance"--he pauses to look devilishly out of the corner of his eye at Shackel--"but I wish it were faster."

The Viennese waltz is only one of the dances McCarvel and Shackel will be performing this weekend in the Bronze Level Professional-Amateur category of the Twin Cities Open Dancesport Competition at the Marriott Southwest in Minnetonka. They'll also be doing the fox trot, tango, waltz, rumba, samba, mambo, cha-cha, merengue, and swing under the bright lights and the judges' watchful eyes.

"Even the week before competition, when we work at a fevered pitch and I get frustrated because there are so many things I want to work on, I still love it," says McCarvel. "I just don't think of not dancing."

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