Ed-Sandy-BlumWe started dancing several years ago. Sandy, a direct-mail expert, had been busy running her own marketing agency. Ed, who was working more than 60 hours a week for a major software company, needed something to help him relax. He no longer had the time (nor the knees) to keep letting off steam the way he had been for many years: off-road motorcycle endurance racing. We also wanted to do something together, as a couple.

We'd been going out socially with another couple, and we all realized that what we mostly did when we went out was eat, eat and eat. We spent money, we put on weight, and we got indigestion.

Together, we all decided to try something else with our nights out -- to try learning how to actually dance with people (rather than "freestyle": standing in one spot and wiggling). It was a little scary -- both of us had some musical sensibility, and like everyone else at college, we'd learned some kind of "freestyle" thing, but we'd never had any real training, nor really knew anything about actually dancing with a partner.

So we (and our friends) signed contracts at a major-franchise Ballroom studio. It was fun for a while -- we were using our bodies and our brains doing something together, we made some nice "dance friends", and we learned some key fundamentals and a lot of different dances. And while we were dancing, the pressures of work, etc., "melted away", and let us relax and enjoy each other.

But eventually we became dissatisfied with the franchise Ballroom scene, as both of us began to feel that:

• We didn't aspire to where these studios were sending us. We wanted to be able to have fun dancing, to be able to "get around" in a few kinds of dances, and to know enough about how you learn dancing to make it easy for us to learn other kinds of dancing. And, like everyone, we wanted to be able to show off some skills.

But when we looked at the "ideal dancers" the studios presented, what we saw didn't appeal to us. The very best Ballroom dancers on the franchise studio circuit, while graceful, skilled and athletic, often looked stilted and "fake". They seemed to be aiming at a single "best way" of doing each dance -- at the national dance contests on TV, the winning couples' styles all looked almost identical, and very artificial.

Perhaps we could "wow" somebody at a wedding with a subset of those skills that we might be able to master and afford, but we didn't think we'd feel very interesting at a local club.

• The quality of instruction was spotty. The instructors were usually good dancers, but often not great teachers. The franchises had the teachers working jam-packed schedules, but studio kept a large chunk of the tuition. Top-notch instructors usually wouldn't work for this pay and conditions for very long, so we'd often end up with "newbies", and/or folks who couldn't analyze, empathize or communicate very well.

• It got waaaaaaay too expensive. Franchise studios charged a lot of money for a little time, and they kept pressing us to spend even more. The longer you were there, the more they leaned on you to spend really big $$$. We went to some regional dance events, and saw folks spending crazy amounts to prepare for them and to participate.

When we'd just about "had it" with the franchise Ballroom scene, we found West Coast Swing (California's State Dance), New York Hustle, and Erik Novoa's SwingShoes community. These dances, even at the highest professional levels, looked like they were being danced by "real people". There didn't seem to be a single, fixed, ideal way to be "best". When we looked at online videos of the West Coast Swing "pros", you could see that they were great, but they were all great in different ways, with different interpretations of the music they were hearing.

We felt that West Coast Swing (and later, Hustle), looked "cooler" than the stuff we'd been doing in Ballroom, so we checked out what Erik had to offer. Here's what we found when we first started coming to his classes, and what we've seen in the few years since:

• It's a terrific bargain. We found ourselves learning more from Erik in his Hustle and West Coast Swing group classes than we'd been learning from very expensive private lessons at the franchise Ballroom studio. Each person gets in 3-4 hours of dancing for $15-$20. Erik even provides free food and drinks. And, in these tough economic times, he's cared enough about his students to let those who've lost their jobs come to lessons and dances for free.

• The folks taking class are a real community. Lots of us bring "potluck" dishes and libations to the lessons and dances for sharing, travel to dances together, etc. We're all over the map in ages, backgrounds and abilities, but we all enjoy dancing together.

• West Coast Swing and New York Hustle are all about communicating with your partner of the moment and with the music. What you learn about leading/following and about musical interpretation quickly becomes every bit as important as "steps" and "moves".

• In Erik's classes, you "rotate", dancing with everyone in your class. In the dances following the classes, where you really "sock home" what you just learned, you get to dance with folks at every skill level: beginner, intermediate, advanced -- and you learn how to have fun dancing with any of them.

• Erik shows us really good-looking "club" moves, the kind of stuff that made him a national champion. His years of ballet training, the body-awareness skills that made him two-time New York State high school wrestling champion, his musical background and his ability to analyze and articulate means that he can explain stuff better, use better exercises, create better choreography and better help us get over learning problems.

• The larger dance community that supports West Coast Swing seems much more focused on us dancers than on the money. We've attended several one-day and weekend regional events, and find that the instructional workshops and social dancing get just as much attention as the competitive activity (which is great for us, since Sandy doesn't want to compete, and Ed, the former racer, can now "take it or leave it"). And the cost of these enjoyable learning and social experiences has been only about 5-10% of what we'd been seeing folks spend on regional events in the franchise Ballroom studio world.

So we've been pretty happy dancing (and continuing to learn how to dance) this way. We've acquired and developed some skills that we're proud of, met some nice people in a very supportive community, and have gone to some fun events. And we've found that, using the internet, we can go to most metropolitan areas in this country (and in some other countries) and easily find places to do this kind of dancing and participate in this kind of community.