Care to tango: Ballroom dance beats the winter blues

July 19th, 2023Care to tango: Ballroom dance beats the winter blues

You know those couples. The ones who, when called upon, can trot out a mean foxtrot, waltz or tango at the rellies’ wedding while you – er – improvise...
Local ballroom dance instructors Andrew O’Connell and Elizabeth Howard at Creswick Town Hall. Image: Eve Lamb

Words and Image Eve Lamb

You know those couples. The ones who, when called upon, can trot out a mean foxtrot, waltz or tango at the rellies’ wedding while you – er – improvise…

They glide across the floor, demonstrating superb synchronicity, smile smugly into each other’s eyes as they execute a tricky manoeuvre the way it’s meant to be done.

Well, chances are there’s quite a few of these types happily residing in the Creswick area.

I say ‘happily’ because taking the ballroom dance lessons that local instructors, Elizabeth Howard and Andrew O’Connell dispense each week through Creswick U3A, tends to boost participants’ happiness quotient considerably.

Partners in life as well as in dance, Elizabeth and Andrew have been teaching ballroom dance to the locals here for the past ten years.

Now, through Creswick U3A, they volunteer their time to take ballroom dance lessons every Tuesday, for all levels right through from absolute beginners to advanced dancers who can cut up the floor.

In fact a couple of those who regularly attend their advanced lessons have recently introduced a new monthly social ballroom dance at nearby Clunes. A bit more on that later…

For Elizabeth and Andrew, teaching ballroom dance is something they simply love to do.

Both have professional backgrounds as teachers and bring this to their ballroom dance lessons, patiently adapting the pace to match their students’ abilities.

The Tuesday classes through the local U3A take place in the Creswick Town Hall with beginners from 10am, transition from 11.30am, improvers from 1pm and advanced at 3pm.

For the participants the cost of the lessons is covered in their annual Creswick U3A membership which is $25 a year and provides members (aged 50 and over) with a wide range of other classes and activities to participate in as well.

Elizabeth says the focus of their ballroom dance lessons is firmly on having fun and socialising.

“It’s a happy-making activity,” she says.

“We love it. We teach foxtrot, waltz, tango and quick step, new vogue sequence and old time dancing.”

“We get compliments all the time,” Andrew says.

The couple, who reside at nearby Springmount, both started dancing fairly late in life but quickly discovered a natural aptitude.

Besides teaching the regular lessons through U3A at Creswick they also do occasional private lessons, typically for events like weddings, deb balls and the like.

Those who learn to dance with them can then take their skills to any of the social dances that happen around the region and beyond.

Clunes’ Graeme Grigson and Ballarat’s Helen Wallis are regulars in Elizabeth and Andrew’s Creswick U3A advanced class. But both had also studio-trained in ballroom dance previously and they recently took the lead in introducing a regular series of social dances to Clunes. These now happen on the first Friday night of the month from 7.30pm-11pm.

Helen says the new Clunes social dance is not just a great way for people who like to dance to come together and do just that. It’s also a great way of bringing life, and sometimes a dash of glam, to the “beautiful Clunes Town Hall”.

“We wanted to bring dancing back to Clunes. We both have a passion for dancing and for the town hall at Clunes,” says Helen.

The new series at Clunes started in June with the next dance set for August 4, and despite the chill winter conditions, devotees have been turning out in good number for this new social series.

“When we held our first dance we had 35 people turn up, and we had 26 last time,” Helen said.

“Yes people can just roll up, but it is sequence dancing so you do need just a little bit of experience.”

Graeme, an accomplished ballroom dancer, is also a member of the Clunes Tourism and Development Association which is supporting the new Clunes series of social dances.

Helen says participants bring supper, and any money raised through running the dance goes back into the community.

The new Clunes dance is among multiple social dance opportunities around the region including dances at Ascot, Newstead and Maldon.

“We’re not affiliated with the new Clunes social dance but we encourage our students to go to it,” Elizabeth says when we get to talking about its recent introduction.

It’s true to say that ballroom dance played a vital role in Andrew and Elizabeth getting to know each other.

“I started learning to dance in 2010 and Elizabeth started three years before,” Andrew recounts.

“We didn’t know each other. We actually met through TAFE college in Melbourne.”

“When Andrew asked me out, I asked him could he dance, and he said ‘Yes’… and then went straight down to the studio (in Ferntree Gully) to get a lesson,” Elizabeth chuckles.

“I got lessons for two weeks. I worked extremely hard, and I was then able to do a fairly complicated waltz that I’d seen Elizabeth doing with another chap,” Andrew says.

“So when it came on at the little social dance we used to go to on a Thursday I said -‘OK. I can do this’. And she said ‘What!’ and I said ‘Yes. Let’s do the Honeysuckle Waltz’. And we did!”

Andrew’s sporting background may have assisted in his ability to pick up the coveted dance moves after just a fortnight of dedicated practice. The effort clearly paid off.

While it cannot be guaranteed that you’ll meet a new life partner by taking up ballroom dance, it’s pretty much a certainty that many other benefits will accrue.

“Co-ordination is one,” says Andrew.

“Actually getting up and exercising. You are moving quite a bit. Your spacial awareness is really heightened. Gets your heart rate going. Gets your breathing going. When I was first learning I forgot to breath!”

“People have to be over 50 to be in U3A but we have students over 80. We have an 83-year-old,” says Elizabeth.

“Also with dance you’ve got to think, move your feet, remember the moves, so it’s cognitive in so many ways. It’s fitness and thinking and social all at once.

“It’s heaps of fun and it feels beautiful to do, and you don’t have to have a partner to participate.”

“We joined Brian McDowell’s Ballroom Dancing Class at Creswick U3A soon after he started teaching in 2014, and became co-teachers with him,” Elizabeth said.

“He is also a musician. He reduced his teaching work as a result of our volunteering and retired from teaching several years ago, but he continues to play for our classes on a part-time basis. We may never have become dance teachers if he had not already got the ball rolling.

“Many (who take the Creswick U3A lessons) venture out to social dances in the region. There are many in Hepburn and Ballarat,” Elizabeth says.

“We put on two dances a year at Daylesford Town Hall. They frock up.”

Frocking up is part of the fun, Helen says, and right now she and other dancers who take Elizabeth and Andrew’s lessons are among the many particularly looking forward to the dance set for Daylesford Town Hall on October 7.

More information about Elizabeth and Andrew’s lessons is available through Creswick U3A or 0402777852. More information about the Clunes social dance series is available on 0417233373 or 0418536189.

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