In an open studio complete with ballet bar, hors d'oeuvres, and decorative lights, pairs of students ended the semester at Wake Forest University by showing off their new ballroom dance moves.
Ben Magee signed up for the social dance class because he was tired of sitting on the sidelines at dance parties. But after a semester of footwork drills and relentless practice, he proudly showed off his repertoire of swing, waltz, and tango.
According to nonprofit USA Dance, Inc., the governing organization of competitive social and ballroom dance nationwide, the number of people taking dance lessons and attending ballroom events increased by 35 percent between 2001 and 2011. College social dance teachers say student interest in ballroom dance classes reflects the same trend.
Although none of the students in class with Magee think they're ready for ballroom dance competitions after just one semester, the experience of learning to dance traditionally is well worth the time and effort, they say. The students' enthusiasm belies the common conception that ballroom dance is a dying art.
"I think everybody should have a class where you're not really doing school work-where you can have fun for an hour a week," said Magee, a senior at Wake Forest, in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Kaleigh Ward, a senior at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. who also took a dance class this semester, agrees: "It provides college students with the chance to try something new for free and get a little bit of exercise." Ward thinks more students would sign up for dance classes if schools made more of an effort to promote them.
Thanks to the flashy costumes and dramatics on display during the popular television show Dancing with the Stars, social dance may seem like something best left to professionals. But the dance steps are an attainable skill, according to Wake Forest senior Alec Yale, who used to be a terrible dancer.
"It was definitely worth it, I would recommend it to others and I hope to use it," he said.
But social situations that call for ballroom dancing aren't too common, Yale admitted. Ward agrees. Although her class learned a few popular dances like "The Wobble" and "Thriller," most of the dances she picked up are nothing like what she's seen during a night out with friends.
Dineth Bandarage, a sophomore at Wake Forest, also has a hard time finding places to waltz or tango: "It's kind of outdated in a way. With todays' music, traditional dance just doesn't fit."
But Bandarage, who hopes to take the social dance class later on in his college career, admits that he sees social dance skills as an important part of his future. Taking social dance early on would save you wedding dance classes later, he said with a laugh.
Even if she doesn't have an opportunity to use her new skills every weekend, social dance lover Audrey Galick doesn't think taking the class was a waste of time.
"I just love to be free and forget about life's cares and worries and just lose myself in the music, the fun, the people," she said. "It's an opportunity to let go of anger, sadness, even pain. It's a chance to just be spontaneous."
And as the popularity of social dance continues to rise, couples may find they have more opportunities to enjoy it. In the big picture, social dance is actually very new in the United States, said Wake Forest dance professor Adina Harper: "Slowly it's starting to pick up in the U.S. due to shows like Dancing With the Stars. People are becoming more aware that social dance is something they can do. Now, people see that they can actually move together and have a lot of fun."
The social aspect of ballroom dancing is just as important as the dance steps. As a part of school curriculum, dance classes offer a way for students to interact with the opposite sex in a controlled environment, Harper said.
Wake Forest senior Carrie Leggins praised the class for helping her meet new people while enjoying a little bit of stress relief between classes: "I'm actually proud to say that I can tango, waltz, etc. and hope I will able to actually use what I learned in the future."