Michelle Davis had her wedding shoes on.
“I had to practice in them,” she said, looking down at silver peep-toe slingbacks. She smiled at her fiance, Paul Hayes. “He didn’t want to see them.”
With a Nov. 12 wedding in Florida approaching, the couple, who are both 33 and live in Belleville, wove and spun their way across the long wood floor at Gabrielle’s Step by Step Dance Studio in downtown Belleville. Instructor and owner Gabrielle Almgren watched.
Remembering to keep elbows up, shoulders down and eyes on each other rather than their feet, Michelle and Paul still needed to occasionally stop and rethink a move as their “first dance” song, “Powerful” (lyrics by Major Lazer and featuring Ellie Goulding and Tarrus Riley), played: “There’s an energy/When you hold me/When you touch me/It’s so powerful. ...”
Gabrielle, who choreographed the dance for them, put the music on pause.
“It’s the twinkle, twinkle, then the turn, right?” Michelle asked about a waltz step.
“How many box steps?” said Paul.
It was lesson No. 4. While they had learned the steps and turns, remembering them in the correct order was taxing their memories a bit.
“We can leave this in or take it out, whatever you want,” Gabrielle said of a spin that left them flat-footed and uncertain about where to go next.
First, I listen to the song (a couple brings in), then I try to make the dance fit the couple. I pull moves from other dances and make it a hybrid for them.
Dance instructor Gabrielle Almgren on choreographing a wedding dance
She had them repeat a sequence, adjusting hand and body positions.
On the dance floor, she said, it is the man who is in charge.
“Make sure you start her on the correct foot,” she said to Paul.
And a bit later: “Remember, wherever your hand is directed, she will go.”
During a break, Paul laughed. “It’s a work in progress.”
Gone are the days when a married couple’s first dance at the wedding reception has them swaying in each other’s arms to a romantic song — and never moving their feet. Couples now hire pros like Gabrielle to choreograph that special moment as husband and wife, and then teach them the steps.
“First, I listen to the song (a couple brings in), then I try to make the dance fit the couple,” she said. “I pull moves from other dances and make it a hybrid for them.”
Gabrielle, 22, who competes professionally and teaches ballroom exclusively, said that typically it takes six private lessons to feel comfortable dancing in front of family and friends.
Ballroom dances range from the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep to salsa, tango and more.
You know, after you’ve been married 18 years, you want to liven things up a bit.
Jason Carter, of Granite City, on taking group dance lessons
Paul and Michelle turned to Gabrielle and her expertise because they wanted to not only enjoy dancing, but look polished and confident on the dance floor.
“It’s an exercise in teamwork,” Paul said.
He has a theory about learning steps like the progressive chassé and the natural spin turn: “Seven times. Seven times and it sets in.”
Michelle said she is unlearning a habit.
“Who’s leading here?” Gabrielle asked as they practiced some diagonal side steps.
Michelle looked over Paul’s shoulder, a tiny grimace on her face: “I think I am.”
The couple work their lessons around Paul’s schedule. A major in the Air Force, he is a meteorologist at Scott Air Force Base. The couple moved here in May.
They met while Paul was doing some training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Michelle, who has a Ph.D. in biology, was teaching at a nearby community college and has family in Fort Walton Beach.
They’ve invited about 250 wedding guests.
Paul said they’ve been doing a lot of practicing at home. Michelle laughed.
“It’s kind of hard to do,” she said. “We’ve got all carpet.”
One, two, three ...
Going by the numbers, America is gaga about ballroom dancing. The nonprofit USA Dance reported in 2011 that since 2001 there’s been a 35 percent spike in the number of people taking lessons and attending ballroom events. The group’s overall mission for the past 50 years has been to increase the quality and quantity of ballroom dancing in America.
USA Dance pointed out in an online post that ballroom dancing now covers the age spectrum, from elementary and secondary schools that offer lessons as a way to keep kids active to competitive college ballroom dance clubs to the millenials who want to look great on the dance floor when they get married.
Although ballroom dancing has never lacked for fans, its recent popularity has been boosted by TV shows such as ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and its FOX counterpart, “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Group lessons have long been popular as a way to socialize and meet and mingle while dancing, said Gabrielle, whose grandparents, Gillian and Gary Almgren, have danced together for decades and have a dance floor in their basement.
“They’re the whole reason I do this,” she said. When she was 9 or 10, she began going with them to group dance lessons and “got lots of attention.” It was only natural that she learned, too. She studied ballroom dance in St. Louis, competed around the country and in February 2013 opened her studio upstairs on East Main Street. This summer, she moved downstairs to a bigger space. (It’s the former location of the Pie Pantry.)
In February, Granite City couple Jason and Erin Carter started coming to the studio for group dance lessons on Tuesday nights.
“You know, after you’ve been married 18 years, you want to liven things up a bit,” said Jason with a grin.
Erin smiled. “We’ve been wanting to do this for a while.” Lessons on Tuesday (Thursday starting in November), run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. with a different dance style taught hourly.
For Mark Lohrding, of Fairview Heights, socializing and learning to partner dance have been fun. He says he’s the quiet sort, whose job keeps him in front of a computer all day.
“A friend told me about it,” he said of starting lessons in January. “I thought it would be a good way to meet people.”
He did turns on the floor with Erin Carter, then Susan Baugh, of Shiloh, whose husband David couldn’t come that evening.
“This is just my third time,” she said as she stood in hold with Mark. Gabrielle has dancers switch partners throughout the evening.
“I’ve always loved dancing,” Susan said as Mark whisked her away to do a quick step. “I’m a frustrated disco queen.”
The final step
Gabrielle marked off the studio floor for engaged couple Michelle and Paul during their private lesson. She wanted to be certain the couple could execute their routine within the confines of the reception hall’s smaller dance floor.
“The dance will be after dinner?” she asked them. Yes. With their song playing, she showed them how to get up from the head table, walk to the center of the floor and begin dancing at just the right moment in the music.
Paul was having a little fun. His favorite dance step was spinning Michelle away from him, then turning her back into his arms and kissing her. He had asked Gabrielle early on to add it to the choreography.
It got practiced a lot.
“That’s my signature go-to move,” Paul said with a grin.
Gabrielle wanted to improve on his technique of reeling his fiancee out and back in — though the kissing was just fine.
“Think of it this way: It’s like tossing a a Frisbee.”
The couple laughed, and tried again.
At a glance
Here’s what you need to know about Gabrielle’s Step by Step Dance Studio:
- Location: 310 E. Main St., Belleville (the former Pie Pantry)
- Instructor and owner: Gabrielle Almgren
- Specializes in: Ballroom dancing, including group and private lessons
- Group lessons: Tuesday and Thursday nights starting at 6:30 p.m.; 50-minute sessions, $8; six lessons, $40. Partners are not required.
- Private lessons: $50 for a 50-minute session; a package of four lessons is $176; six is $240.
- Information: 618-340-1694, www.ballroomdancetoday.com and on Facebook
At a glance
Here’s what you need to know about the “Thriller” flash mob in Fairview Heights:
- Who: About two dozen zombie dancers from Gabrielle’s Step by Step Dance Studio in Belleville
- What: They will stomp and dance inside the Weekends Only store in Fairview Heights to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as part of Thrill The World, an annual worldwide flash mob event.
- When: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 29. Free and open to the public
- Information: Thrilltheworld.com