Not Strictly Ballroom

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

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.


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!'"

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.

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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