We sit waiting to go in. A big burly man next to me is buffing up his shoes. The undersides have got to be like velvet, he says, if he wants to dance well in them. We’re surrounded by kids, dads, girls in slashed jeans, mums with bottled water, dancers coming out of the studio, others on their way in, throwing off their cardigans and pulling up their leg warmers. Above the studio door hangs a sign which says, 'Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends'.
I follow through into a light, long studio with a vaulted ceiling. Already it's filling up with people shaking hands, hips, arms and legs. The boards beneath their feet are bare and worn. A glitter-ball hangs from a roof truss, strip-lighting is attached to a beam.
I seat myself on a red leather sofa facing a long wall of windows with sliding sashes, some of which are paned with frosted glass. I'm here as an observer, notebook in lap. I look around. On either side of me are electric fans. The wall to my left is decorated with flowers flocked black on white. To my right is a wall full of mirror-glass, which most of the class is now facing [it's hard to do anything else].
The lesson begins. Andrezej's in charge. Now everyone has limbered up, he wants them in two lines ready for the cha cha chaa. ‘Two, three, one...' he starts, clapping his hands. 'Cha cha chaa…’ He moves into the space between the lines, stamping his feet. His pupils copy his steps until they have them right. ‘New York, New York…’ he says. Or, at least, I think he does - given his accent and the din of all those feet I could have got that wrong. 'New York, and three… kick, three, cha cha chaa.'
The exercise ends with a kind of whoop from Andrezej. I'm guessing this is a word, but can't figure out what. Everybody stamps on the floor. They clap. They laugh. ‘Now we’ll do it with music,’ Andrezej says. ‘Partner up.’
This afternoon I interviewed Kamila Domanska, twice World Ballroom Dancing Champion. When she was a child, Kamila would take practice classes four times a week, each one lasting hours at a time. She loved to dance, but it often came with tears. In her own classes nowadays, she tries to make dancing fun. What she runs she describes as a ‘messy class’. I wonder if this is a messy class. Certainly I can see people having fun.
Another thing Kamila said was that dancing with music was different. It changed the steps. It changed everything. And now I see this for myself. People have partnered up and are starting to move round the dance-floor. Their feet pound harder on the boards, their turns are sharper, their arms rise higher, their hips are wigglier - if you can allow for such a word - and there’s a new elegance in the way they hold their hands, necks and heads.
Rain is lashing at the windows, but never mind the weather outside - there’s an English fire burning in Northampton tonight. Before entering this studio, these were just a group of ordinary people inhabiting their own ordinary worlds. But now, by the power of music and dance, they’re being transformed into something else.
And that’s even before the fairy-lights come on and the glitter-ball starts turning! For a few short moments magic happens. The lights, the music, the stamping, swirling dancers - 'Palais de Northampton' are the words that come into my head. And I'm not mocking here - on this rainy April evening, in every sense of what it means to be a palais, this is one.
The music stops. The fairy-lights go off. People reach for water bottles, pause to breathe, to readjust their shoes, to take a rest, hands on knees. But Andrezej’s only just begun with them. Already he’s counting again. 'One, two, three, four…' Everybody hurries back into their rows, stamping out new steps as the music comes back on. A voice sings out, ‘Baby, baby, I’m in chains’ and it's the rhumba this time. From where I’m sitting I can see a lot of posturing, heads and shoulders flung back, fancy footwork, thrusting hips. But then that's the rhumba for you. See what it's doing. 'Four, and one, and two, and three…'
Between the rows is Andrezej, dancing with partners chosen, one after another, from the group. Not for a moment does he stop talking. ‘Four and one and two and three….' he cries. 'Turn and one and two and three… Four and one and back and three. Four and one and walk and walk.’
I watch his feet. In fact, I watch everybody’s feet. To a non-dancer like me, it’s baffling how they’re moving this way rather than that. It’s not even as if people are looking at each other to check out the little frilly turns at the ends of the steps. How do they know to do that? And how do they remember what to do next?
Everybody partners up again, and I'm relieved to see that at least one couple is experiencing the sort of difficulties that I would be if it were me. ‘If you can’t make your mind up, we’ll never get started...’ blasts out the song, but it's over already for this couple. The girl has given up and is standing, arms folded, while the bloke soldiers on. He's really going for it, but he doesn’t have a clue. Two left feet on three right legs couldn't make a worse job of it. Not only that, but his body is continually ahead of his legs, giving the impression that he’s about to fall over, and this general lack of gracefulness is compounded by the continual twisting of his head to see what everybody else is getting up to.
In contrast, a girl in front of me is dancing alone, but with real style. She’s a slight girl with high-heeled sandals, long brown hair and lovely hand movements. Everything about her is elegant - except her chewing-gum. Beyond her is a girl with a golden bob of hair and silver shoes. When the dance ends, she hugs her partner. In fact, across the studio there are smiles all round. Even the man with the two left feet is smiling, and his partner has uncrossed her arms.
For a moment there’s clatter of voices. Chatter breaks out. People are drinking. They’re laughing. Then it’s time for the waltz. One, two three, one, two, three... A strange new softness creeps like sea mist across the studio. Moving in unison to Andrezej’s voice, everybody waltzes up the room towards the mirror at the end, then down again. A girl with little blue socks, gold high-heels and a pony-tail goes gliding by. She’s partnered by John Sullivan, who looks even taller in this dancing class than he does anywhere else. Behind him comes his mum who, from her every move, obviously loves to dance. Behind her comes the girl who’s dancing alone, but she doesn’t seem to care; she’s lost in the dance.
Everybody here is making something beautiful out of something ordinary. They arrived here on this dull Northampton evening bundled up in coats and the cares of their lives. And now those cares have been peeled off and cast aside. Even the couple who were struggled have been redeemed by the waltz. I'm so impressed by their willingness to give it a go, making something beautiful out of patience and hard work.
I'm impressed by everybody, to be frank. Across the dance-floor, a tall, bald man in jeans and black t-shirt is dancing with a woman in a black-and-white skirt. They’re not the most graceful dancers in the room, but there’s a power to the way they move, and a sense of togetherness that makes them absolutely watchable. But then everybody, it seems, has something special to bring to the dance. ‘You mustn’t be afraid to show what your heart holds in the world of dance.’ That’s something else Kamila said this afternoon. And watching these dancers I begin to understand what she meant.
The evening ends with a jive. ‘Return to Sender’ sings a famous voice and everybody goes for it. Everybody looks happy. The glitter-ball is going round as if even the stars in their courses are joining in the dance. Everybody's got it - the rhythm, the swing, the steps that work best for them. But suddenly, just when you feel that the dance could last for ever, it comes to an end. The song is no more. Elvis has left the stadium, and people are breaking apart. They’re ambling off. The class is done, and another's waiting to come in. People gather up their bags and water bottles, pull on their coats. Time to go home. Goodnight. See you next week. Good to meet you. Come again.
The photo is copyright John Sullivan, seen dancing with Mel Osborne in the finals of Strictly Northampton, held in aid of MacMillan Cancer Support.
If you want to see Kamila Domanska dancing click HERE.