What do teenagers do in their spare time? Cha-cha, fox-trot and waltz might not be the first things to come to mind, but here in the Czech Republic, lessons in ballroom dancing are still an important rite of passage for most adolescents.
In the capital, dance schools abound and are still well-attended – most often by teenagers, who take classes in ballroom dancing to prepare for their maturitní, or graduation, ball, a tradition that has survived the advent of nightclubs.
Jakub Vavruška owns a dancing school and has been teaching young Czechs the basics of the waltz and other classic dances for many years. He says balls are still very much a part of the country’s social and cultural life.
“Every city or every town organizes a lot of balls during the ball season, and also classes of the secondary schools organize their own balls before students leave for university.”
Typically, teenagers who come to Vavruška’s school will be total beginners and often are sent to the ballroom dancing course by their parents. So does he witness a dramatic improvement in his students’ moves over the course of a semester?
“The progress is really big. When they come, they usually know what is their left and right leg, but nothing else, but when they leave the course, they really can dance something like nineteen or twenty basic social dances.”
In another school across the city, Helena Karasová has been teaching teenagers the basics of ballroom dancing for decades. Karasová and her husband have been running the Karasoví dancing school since 1964, making theirs the longest-standing institution of its kind in the capital. Located in the elegant Lucerna passage, just steps away from Wenceslas Square, it was founded in 1920, and teenagers continue to come here, over 90 years later, to learn classic dances in the gorgeous and opulent ballroom. The experienced teacher says that they learn more than how to dance.
“I would say that this is a good addition to adulthood, or becoming an adult, when they don’t believe everything their parents say and don’t do everything they are told and feel that they know everything, and that they will figure everything out. But then, when someone new, someone they don’t know that well, tells them something, then the reaction is different, especially if it happens in as gorgeous a ballroom as ours. They are fascinated by it. And some of them might not need it, but most of them will. Most of them will have to know how to wear a suit, how to express themselves, make an introduction, and in some families, this is being neglected today.”
Karasová says that these basic skills in etiquette are more important than ever, because they are often neglected in modern families. She believes that picking up these skills early in life will often have a deep influence on her students when they become adults, whether they are aware of it or not.
“They might not realize it immediately. But once they do, they will remember this realization for the rest of their life. And they come back here, and thank me. Because if you are the head of a company, and you have two applicants to choose from, both intelligent with a good education, and one of them has their hands in their pockets and is wearing jeans, and is speaking slang, and the other one knows how to introduce himself and how to behave, then of course that candidate has the better chances.”
So is this phenomenon of teenage ballroom dancing courses a Czech one? Karasová again.
“I would almost say that, I think we are the world leaders in that department, especially when it comes to the style in which we organize it here, because it is for children of a certain age, the general public. This is the first time that they enter a formal, social environment, and it is their first contact with formal wear, and with the etiquette required in such a situation. And that you can find across the entire Czech Republic.”
At a recent evening course in ballroom dancing in the lavish ballroom, teens had donned suits and evening dresses and were doing their best to keep up with the instructor’s instructions, delivered from the stage, where a live band was playing ballroom classics. I caught up with a few of Karasová’s students during the intermission and asked them why they visit the course. Lukáš Chroust has been coming to the dancing classes since the fall of last year. He says he enjoys it.
“Because I like the dancing and the clothes and so on. And the music is also very nice.”
And even though it’s very old-fashioned, do you enjoy it?
And do you think that young people here in the Czech Republic are still interested in ballroom dancing?
“Yes, but some… it’s a small group of young people.”
And is this a good way to meet girls, to interact with them and practice talking to them?
“Yes, I think so because when we are going around the hall, we can talk to each other and maybe even go out.”
Another young man learning the basics of cha-cha and waltzing, Matěj Radčinský, told me it is exactly this old-fashioned aspect that he enjoys.
“I like that we learn traditional dances and that I met nice people here. There is a great atmosphere and it’s a social event.”
It’s a very old form of dancing. Do you like it even though it’s not trendy?
“Trendy things are for sheep. People are like sheep, everyone is the same. They almost forgot the old customs. When someone says something’s fashionable, everybody does it, everybody wears it. I like the old dancing styles, I think they have spirit.”
Ondřej Veselý, who also just recently started attending dancing classes, says he mostly enjoys it, even though some aspects of it are not so pleasant.
“I like it, but this old teacher is sometimes quite strange because she likes to shout at us, but yes, overall, it’s ok.”
And what about the romantic aspect of a group of teenage boys and girls dancing closely together? I asked dancing teacher Jakub Vavruška about this aspect of lessons.
“Some of them come in couples, but most of them are singles, and maybe for some of them, their first love starts right here, in these courses.”
But dancing courses are not just for teenagers. Vavruška offers a number of dancing classes for adults. Which dances are popular amongst late starters?
“I would say that every two years, a new form of dancing becomes popular. Three years ago, it was Cuban Salsa, then we can say something about Tango Argentino, and right now, it is Zumba.”
What is Zumba?
“Zumba is fitness dancing, it’s a mix of Latin American dances, practiced at a very high tempo. It’s fitness dancing.”
A recent dance class for adults was well-attended and the students, couples from their mid-twenties to mid-fifties, seemed to truly enjoy themselves. I caught up with one of the class participants, Petr Kantor, and his girlfriend during the break. How long have they been coming here?
“This is our fifth lesson so far, we unfortunately skipped one, so we are slightly struggling. But the teacher seems to be very responsive to our needs and we are getting along very well.”
And what do you like about it, why do you come?
“Well, I was kind of forced by my girlfriend, over here, because it was more as a gift for her. So this is my part in being a guide and a partner.”
Going in couples seems to be quite common. Martin Borol, who has been coming to the lessons for six weeks now, says it is a good way to do something social together.
“I come here with my girlfriend, so we are enjoying this evening every Tuesday. The thing is that I did not visit dancing courses when I was younger, so now we have the opportunity to practice a little bit. From time to time, we go to balls, and there we can show off what we’ve been learning here.”
But even those who took dancing classes in their teens enjoy coming to the adult courses – if only to refresh their moves, like Jana Kubátová.
“Actually, I used to learn dancing in high school, but then I forgot all the steps and the dances, so we are trying to learn it again. We are also playing a wedding for the summer, so we are practicing for that, too.”
Would you say that ballroom dancing, classical dancing, is still very popular in the Czech Republic?
“Yeah, I think so, and you can see, the lessons are also pretty full, so I think it is still quite popular”
With plenty of balls still being put on every season, and most dancing schools doing good business, it seems that Kubátová’s assessment is right: In the Czech Republic, dancing is here to stay.