It’s Monday evening and the ballroom in Prague’s Lucerna is slowly filling up with teenagers in evening dresses. Girls are rushing to the dressing room to take off their trainers and slip into high-heeled shoes while boys are instructed to tuck in their shirts and spit out their chewing gums before they are allowed onto the dance floor. A lot has changed since 15 years ago, when I used to come here, but the tradition of Czech dancing lessons or “taneční”, as they are called, appears to enjoy the same popularity.
Helena Karasová, who has been in charge of the ballroom dancing lessons here in Lucerna for several decades, says that as far as she knows there is nothing similar anywhere in the world:
“It is really a unique Czech tradition, which dates back to the years of the First Republic. There are a few dancing schools in Austria but they are quite different from what we have here. Here you learn the basics of every dance style during the season from September to March. My Austrian colleague would spend two months teaching one style. It is also less expensive here and I think anybody can afford it.”
It is clear at first glance that the young dancers still have a long way to go. Most of the couples are stumbling, their eyes fixed on their feet as they try to get the steps right. Some strange physical force seems to draw them all into one corner of the ballroom, where they bump into each other or even fall over. As Mrs Karasová tactfully points out, for many of them it is their very first encounter with ballroom dancing:
“In the beginning we struggle to teach them what is right and what is left. But I think that in the end most of them learn to coordinate their movements and pick up the basics of dancing. We teach them the basic movements that they can apply elsewhere. Even if they go to a disco, these lessons will teach them how to move and what to do with their arms and their legs.”
However, these dancing courses are not only about dancing, she says, but also about learning social skills.
“Czech dancing courses are not only about dancing but about social education. Boys learn how to wear a suit and girls must wear evening dresses. Nowadays everybody wears trousers but I think young girls should learn how to wear a dress, because it may be useful when they go to some formal event.”
During the break I catch up with two boys in suits and rather smudged white gloves and ask what has brought them here, of all places:
“To meet new friends. It’s quite interesting here and I like it.
Have you danced before or is this your first encounter with dancing?
“Well, I just danced at school parties… So this is the first real dancing.”
Is it difficult?
“It is not so hard and I would definitely like to continue.”
“It was my own decision to come and I like it here because I enjoy dancing.
And of course there are a lot of nice girls.”
Do you want to continue in the future?
“Yes. Tomorrow I am going to sign up for another course.”
I heard that you need a partner if you want to go to the advanced course.
Do you already have one?
“Yes I do.”
Ballroom dancing is currently riding on a wave of popularity here in the Czech Republic – thanks to the BBC licensed television show called Dancing with the Stars, or Star Dance in Czech. Czech Television has already broadcast two series and they both enjoyed record viewing rates. Every week the show attracted nearly two million viewers, that’s approximately one fifth of the nation.
But has it actually led more people to take up dancing? And what is currently the most popular style? That’s a question for Olga Proroková from DancePerfect, one of Prague’s biggest dancing schools:
“It’s Latin American dances, because of the television shows – Star Dance and Bailando. The dancers who were on the show are currently teaching in our school. It’s good publicity for us to have celebrities here. Our clients know them from the TV show and it motivates them to come.”
Michal Němeček is one of the Star Dance celebrities and he also teaches Latin dances here at the DancePerfect School. I catch up with him during a five minute break between courses:
“When I first started to teach, about twelve years ago, Latin dances were the most popular and I think it is still pretty much the same. Now Salsa is really hot. And people like it because it’s easy to learn. After a few lessons you can go to a bar and dance there.”
Mr Němeček’s lesson is quite different from the traditional courses I saw in Lucerna. There is not a single man among the dancers and there is no dress code. I ask Mr Němeček how he explains the popularity of the Star Dance show.
“It’s a very good show because it’s about dancing and people like dancing. There aren’t that many opportunities to see dancing on the television so that’s why this show was so popular.”
Many young Czechs may prefer the disco but when I look around the Lucerna
dance hall and see the young dancers, I wouldn’t worry about the future
of ballroom dancing. The teenage couples on the dance floor may not look as
graceful as the couples in Star Dance, but they seem to be getting there…