Group mixes swing, ballroom styles with 'big band' sound
By Dana Gochenour -- Daily Correspondent
Forget "Dancing With The Stars." Los Angeles has nothing on Front Royal, the home of Dance Club Shenandoah, which could more aptly be called "ballroom dancing for the rest of us."
Possibly the best kept secret in the Shenandoah Valley, Dance Club Shenandoah offers couples a chance to meet new people while enjoying dancing and live music. The group holds one dance per month from October to May, with music provided by a local band.
Bruce Jackson has been a member of the club for three years.
"It's wonderful to hear music of this variety and quality," Jackson said.
The organization, which began in 1969, has used several different venues in Warren County, including garages and country clubs, but currently calls the North Warren Volunteer Fire Department home. Club members sing the praises of the social hall's wall-to-wall wood floor, which gives the dancers plenty of space to learn and practice.
Steve Nichols serves on the group's board along with his wife Ellen.
"I thought I hated dancing," Nichols said. "What I hated was not knowing how [to dance]."
Each dance night begins with an hour-long lesson on a particular style of dance, usually taught by professional dance instructor Kit McGinnis. The lesson costs an extra $10 per couple and is open to everyone, regardless of experience. At the group's most recent event, McGinnis led couples through the steps of a hustle.
Karen Leeds, a three-year club member, said "you pick up one step at a time."
"I've never felt intimidated or like anyone was judging me," she said.
Club President Mike McCool said the club has all levels of experience, and 16-year member Rich Vossler added, "People don't care if you are good or not, and it's fun to watch the great dancers."
Membership in the club, which covers admission to all eight dances, costs $250 annually per couple. The only requirements are that members must be at least 18 years old and must bring a partner to the dances. "It's a good value and a confirmed date night," Vossler said.
Spending time as a couple is a benefit commonly acknowledged by the members.
Club newsletter editor Bill Prokopchak said his wife didn't dance.
"I taught her while we were courting, and she's been my dance partner ever since," he said.
Currently, the club consists of 37 couples that hail from as far north as Hagerstown, Md., and as far south as Harrisonburg.
McCool said most of their members are not from Front Royal.
There was a time when the club was at its maximum membership of 100 couples and had a waiting list, and McCool said he hopes that they can get back to that level of participation again because of dancing's appeal to people of all ages and occupations.
Ellen Nichols noted, "It's about a love of music and a love of dance."
Couples interested in getting a first-hand taste of what membership offers can attend a single dance as a guest couple for a fee of $40. The various fees are necessary in order to bring members the unique experience of live bands, which range from three piece groups like the Eclectic Coalition Band that played swing music at the group's last dance up to 18-member groups that specialize in a "big band" sound.
Prokopchak said the bands are more special than just having a disc jockey.
"It also gives the bands a forum to practice their craft," he said.
Those with no prior dance experience are welcomed with open arms, said Peg Thoreson. She and her husband Bob have been members of Dance Club Shenandoah for six years and are affectionately known as the polka king and queen.
"Come as a guest, take lessons, and don't be intimidated," she said. "We dance our way, and that's all right."
It is common to see couples giving each other mini lessons in the middle of the music.
Club member Sara Bicking noted that people practice and watch each other.
"You can even dance in the hallway or in the corners where no one sees you," she said.
For those who want to practice their footwork more than once a month, private lessons are a great way to master the basics more quickly before cutting loose with the club. McGinnis teaches lessons in Warrenton, and many of the club's couples have also studied with Lee Santos, an award-winning dancer who teaches lessons in Woodstock.
McCool and his wife Jane both hold leadership positions in the club, but are relatively new to ballroom dancing. "We told ourselves for 30 years that we were going to take lessons and we just got started about four or five years ago," McCool said.
Dance Club Shenandoah's next event will be held at the North Warren Volunteer Fire Department on Feb. 16. It will feature a tango lesson and music by Jump Alley. For more information, visit the club's website www.danceclubshenandoah.com or call club President Mike McCool at 540-631-3968.