Having a ball at McCathran Hall

Kids, former mayor hit the dance floor

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Charlie Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Dylan Hodges, 14, dances with Madeline Brasunas, 14, during a ballroom class for youngsters in Washington Grove on Friday night.

Steam crept up the myriad of windows at Washington Grove’s McCathran Hall Friday as about two dozen youngsters transformed the meeting space into a ballroom.

Instructor and Grove resident David Rapkievian led elementary-aged students and teens in the finer points of ballroom dance, as he has done for a string of Fridays.

Last week marked the finale of the new youth offering on the Washington Grove Recreation Committee class schedule, and organizers proclaimed it a success.

‘‘It helps stimulate their minds through their actions, through dancing,” Rapkievian said of his young charges. ‘‘I am absolutely stunned and floored when kids in one session learn the polka and the waltz.”

Dance student Emma Strother, 13, said she enjoyed the lessons.

‘‘This is the first time we’ve had anything like this,” she said.

Rapkievian said while all his students were not successful first time around, he assured them not to worry.

‘‘Like film in the camera, it takes a little exposure before the final picture is developed,” he said.

To cap Friday’s session — the last of four in the series — former Washington Grove Mayor Charlie Challstrom, his wife Mary and their longtime dancing friends Gary and Paula Gillette displayed their gold-level ballroom skills.

‘‘We’re hoping more kids would take lessons,” said Challstrom, mayor from 1985-87. ‘‘It’s a great way for socializing throughout school and in enjoying something that whole groups of folks do together.”

Bathed in the Hall’s gentle hues of brown and orange, Rapkievian held the hands of pint-sized participants and sashayed with phantom partners to demonstrate dance styles such as the foxtrot, polka and waltz.

He untied mental knots by comparing the cha-cha to the game ‘‘hide and seek,” and particular moves to ‘‘a puppy dog chasing its tail.”

With three claps, Rapkievian set the students moving, prompting the wooden floors to rumble under the shuffle of feet.

Parents and neighbors sat at the edges of the dance floor to watch, some mirroring their children’s movements while others swayed and bobbed their feet.

‘‘I think it’s an outstanding thing to teach kids, because when they get into high school they’re inhibited,” said Washington Grove resident Kitty Vogan. ‘‘We did it in high school, and it was all boys over there, all girls over there.”

Sylvia Horan, another Grove resident, noted the turnout was lower than before because Friday was homecoming for some area schools. Rapkievian said attendance wavered, with the peak at about 25.

‘‘When it comes time for prom, they’ll be sorry they hadn’t learned,” Horan laughed.

In addition to improving social situations, Rapkievian said dance is an effective workout that can boost health.

‘‘The less you do move, the less you are able to move. A lot of the joints depend on activity to pump fluids into them,” Rapkievian said. Rapkievian has taught dance since 1969, and his background includes performing with a variety of international folkdance troupes, such as Hungarian and Polish. His roster of pupils even includes former Vice President Al Gore’s children, who he taught at Red Gables in Tennessee when Gore still was a senator.

Boys generally are uncomfortable with dancing, Rapkievian said. To help them, he has them dress comfortably — no jackets or ties.

‘‘I’m not a formal kind of teacher. I try to get them to do what they normally do,” he said. ‘‘They’re walking, they’re hopping, they’re skipping, they’re playing basketball, football; all of those moves are incorporated in dance.”

Playing on Rapkievian’s black boom box was a CD he said had ‘‘strict international dance music” with lots of trumpets and violins, though he admitted his own standard was more along the lines of The Mama’s And The Papa’s and Chuck Berry.

Tad Stahnke mouthed the lyrics while his daughters, Emma and Sita, danced to ‘‘Johnny B. Good.” He said it’s healthy to expose children to this diversity of dance culture, something they might not learn on their own, and theorized that the experience of dancing together as a community can be more enriching than watching a single musical performance.

‘‘Maybe what it is, it’s not a private thing. It’s a shared thing, a shared experience,” Stahnke said while his wife, Terry, waltzed with their youngest child in arm.

No definite plans have been made to continue the ballroom series, but both Rapkievian and event organizer Meredith Horan have expressed interest in additional ballroom dancing lessons.

‘‘It looks like it may go that way, and I certainly would be happy to do it again,” Rapkievian said.

Applause poured over the students after they finished the last dance, then lined up against the wall to watch as the Challstroms took center stage. The couple slid across the floor to the music from dancing movies such as ‘‘Moonstruck,” with the occasional flourish from Mary Challstrom’s dress punctuating their movement.

With a sly smile, Sylvia Horan pointed to the row of children, many watching with wide eyes.

‘‘Look at the faces over there, look at the kids. They’re rapt with attention,” she said.

Her husband, Charles, leaned in close.

‘‘We’ve never had a night like this in Washington Grove,” he chuckled.