For increasing numbers of German teenagers, partying no longer means long nights at the disco. More and more teens are revisiting a pastime more often associated with their grandparents' generation: ballroom dancing.
Teens are learning social competence along with dance steps, according to one teacher
If youth has its finger on the pulse of popular culture, then Germany's heart is beating to the rhythms of the rumba, cha-cha, foxtrot and waltz.
Mia Hinrichs is a 15-year-old high school student from Cologne whose passions include playing soccer and watching the "The Gilmore Girls" on television. Last year, when a boy in her class asked her if she would be his partner in a ballroom dancing class, she had to think twice before she agreed.
But that was three classes ago, and Mia and her friends -- their number has since increased -- are still going strong. "I'll keep it up if my parents allow me to keep going," Hinrichs said. "I'd like to get my bronze and silver (proficiency-level certificates.)"
The drama of ballroom dancing was shown in Baz Luhrmann's film "Strictly Ballroom"
A ballroom dancing class was once an unavoidable rite of passage for middle- and upper-class German teens; a necessary tool for getting by at social events like formal work functions and weddings. But those classes began to fall out of favor in the 1980s and 90s.
Recently, Hamburg dance teacher Jan Giesel told Stern magazine that the "low point was 1996 … that's when nothing was less cool that couples' dancing." Many dance schools didn't survive those decades; those that did banked on hip hop and aerobics classes.
Now, however, ballroom is back. The Association of German Dance Schools (ADTV) reports a 10 percent increase in overall attendance in dance schools across the country from 2004 to 2005, and association spokeswoman Antje Kurz said she expects similar growth this year.
"I used to think ballroom dance was old fashioned, but I guess it has become hip," said Thomas Eck, a 15-year-old Cologne high school student who has been studying ballroom dance along with Hinrichs at Cologne's Tanzschule Breuer for the past year.
In the film "Mad Hot Ballroom," inner city kids learned ballroom dancing
"At first there were only six of us. Now there are at least 30 kids from my school who go, from different grades," Eck said. "It's become popular -- it's not just the total outsiders who take ballroom dance."
The power of reality shows
The new popularity of standard dance goes hand in hand with a sudden, widespread presence of ballroom on the big and small screens. Recent movies have had titles like "Strictly Ballroom," "Shall We Dance," and "Mad Hot Ballroom." The latter is a documentary on a social program for underprivileged New York school children, which successfully uses ballroom dance to teach life skills.
And since early April, Germany has been under the thrall of a reality television show called "Let's Dance." Based on Britain's outrageously popular "Strictly Come Dancing" and its equally beloved American spawn "Dancing with the Stars," "Let's Dance" pairs B-list celebrities with professional ballroom dancers. The semi-famous couples then compete, showing off their foxtrots, paso dobles, and rumbas for a professional jury and for viewers at home, who then call in to vote pairs off the show until a winner remains.
More teens are taking dance courses in this Hamburg school
"Let's Dance" regularly achieves audience ratings of around 20 percent; the numbers are higher among 19 to 39 year olds, according to German marketing group Quotameter.
ADTV's Kurz said another reason young people are increasingly drawn to dance class is that the schools themselves have changed. Gone are the dusty institutions that could count on teaching entire classes of preteens preparing for their first formal dance. Today's schools have updated their music repertoires and added diverse array of activities, offering everything from videoclip dance to same-sex ballroom classes for gay couples.
"The schools saw they had to do more to keep their clients. Now they are more like clubs. They throw parties, have youth nights and workshops, or they'll take a group out to a musical," Kurz said.
Etiquette and grace
Other observers say the trend is tied to a renewed interest in old-fashioned values like polish and politesse. Kids today long for security and constraints, they say. And ballroom dance -- with its evocation of supper-club class -- fits the clean-fun bill.
In 2004, Jennifer Lopez starred in "Shall We Dance?"
The ADTV has even started a "no-disgrace" program, which calls on its members to go beyond teaching dance steps and enter the world of etiquette education. They see dance schools as the perfect place for kids to learn how to present themselves in the wider world. "Good etiquette is cool, and keeps you from getting stressed out," an ad on the ADTV Web site says.
Hans Georg Steinig, who runs the Breuer Dance School in Cologne, agrees. "My students are being prepared for life. They will be ready for a job interview. They learn how to present themselves," he said.
For Steinig, teaching dance "is all about social competence. They have to change partners, and everyone is accepted, tolerated, not judged. Each class ends with a round of applause; and the kids have to look in each others' eyes."
"I teach the kids that they are not coming here to learn how to look good on the dance floor," Steinig said. "They are dancing for themselves and for their partner. Learning the steps is the best way to feel the music."
Fifteen-year-old Eck agrees. "At the beginning it was a little boring, just to learn the steps. But then you notice you get better, and it feels differrent when you really learn to move to the music. It feels good."