None of the boys in Maryanna Koehring’s ballroom dance class really want to touch the girls. It’s not because of cooties — as middle schoolers, the kids are beyond worrying about imaginary germs carried by the opposite sex. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the girls, or “ladies,” as Koehring insists on calling them.
The reluctance to make physical contact, other than a limp hand hold or a gentle graze around the hip, is most likely due to the awkwardness of being this close to anyone you only marginally know, especially when you’re 14.
But when the music starts — on this occasion, a selection from the High School Musical movie franchise — the boys — or “gentlemen” — guide their partners around the room. Of course, no one is making eye contact, and nearly everyone is chomping gum, but they’re dancing. Maybe even liking it.
The 14 students are part of Koehring’s inaugural “cotillion,” or series of ballroom lessons for middle schoolers, held at the Sports & Fitness Edge in Essex. They have traveled from all over Chittenden County to learn formal dancing. Some have come by choice. Others admit to being nudged by their parents.
To me, “cotillion” is French for “trauma incurred on the dance floor during one’s formative years.” When I was in sixth grade, my parents required me to attend the cotillion in our community, where I was supposed to learn the finer points of comportment as well as the intricate steps of the foxtrot, waltz and tango.
My cotillion experience was as follows: Before every lesson, I would fake an injury or illness. Once it was determined that I was neither injured nor infirm, I would stress over which versatile knit separates from Units to wear, then fret about whether Renee and Ginny, the cool girls in the class, would approve of my choice. Once I arrived, a low-grade panic attack set in and lasted until my mother picked me up two hours later.
My worst memory of cotillion, which was taught by a toupéed man and a woman who happened to be his paramour (or so the kids said), was when a boy named Matt greeted me with a handful of blood. Floating in it was a tooth recently yanked from his mouth. Charming. I would not be shaking his hand that night.
When I set up my visit with Koehring, she guaranteed there would be no tooth pulling at her class. For 50 years, Koehring’s parents have taught ballroom dance to middle schoolers in southwest Virginia, so the Essex Junction woman knows a thing or two about ballroom etiquette. “It’s in my genes,” she says.
For the past few years, Koehring, a 37-year-old mother of three, taught ballroom dance to ex-pats in Zambia, where her husband worked for USAID. At one point, she had 40 people — missionaries, aid workers, government employees — all learning to rumba and cha-cha.
When the couple moved to Vermont a year ago, she offered to give members of her church — Christ Memorial Church in Williston — free ballroom lessons in advance of a formal banquet. After that, she figured the next logical step would be to teach children.
But drawing students to a class that showcases gendered, somewhat dated social mores has proved tricky for Koehring this far north of the Mason-Dixon line. She expected to have about 50 students for her five-week session but ended up with just 14. Koehring admits her class is a tough sell in a state where Carhartts are more common than corsages. “It’s a little outside of the Vermont comfort zone,” she says. “But I’m not discouraged.”
On the contrary, Koehring thinks the students are having “a blast” thus far learning the foxtrot, the English foxtrot and the waltz. Not that any of them would cop to liking the class — except for Elizabeth Rickert, a plucky homeschooler in Mary Jane heels and a mid-calf tartan skirt.
Rickert, of Williston, follows Koehring’s instructions to the letter. When Koehring tells the “ladies” to sit with their feet crossed at the ankle, not at the knee, Rickert complies and gently tucks her feet behind her. The 14-year-old watches with laserlike focus as Koehring demonstrates the one, two, three, one, two, three cadence of the waltz.
Not all the students are as keen as Rickert. Some of the other girls say their mothers forced them into the class. But when they get out on the basketball court that doubles as a dance floor, they appear to like it as much as any kid this age likes anything.
After warming up with a review of last week’s English foxtrot, danced to Anne Murray’s 1980 number-one country hit “Could I Have This Dance,” the kids move on to the waltz. Koehring reminds the girls to cut the boys some slack as they learn.
“Ladies, the gentlemen are thinking about so many things — traveling, dancing in a circle, turning counter-clockwise,” she says.
“Yeah,” pipes up 13-year-old Calvin Combs, “and I’m wearing dress shoes.”
Of course, the fact that the girls are doing the dance backward and in heels, as Ginger Rogers famously put it, is lost on him.
Most of the kids put in a good amount of effort and are polite-ish to their partners. Some, who already know each other, take every opportunity to poke and kick their friends playfully when Koehring isn’t looking. This is to be expected.
More surprising is that some of the kids are actually pretty good. They might not draw gushing praise from effusive “Dancing With the Stars” judge Bruno Tonioli, but they are graceful enough to make a stony-faced reporter smile and applaud.
During one waltz to a different (or perhaps the same) High School Musical number, Jacob Terry, a bespectacled 12-year-old in a crisp pair of khakis and a stiff navy blazer, shows himself to be an unlikely dance whiz. Since he’s somewhat younger than his classmates, Terry is also a little shorter. This makes things interesting when he’s dancing with girls who have at least a foot on him.
With his face straining in concentration, Terry successfully navigates the minefield that is a middle-school waltz. While most of the other couples clump into a logjam, he steers his partner away from the mess, never missing a beat. The boy has rhythm.
Dana Pucillo, whose daughter Callan is in the class, thinks the popularity of shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and movies like High School Musical has made it cool for kids to be into ballroom dance. She says she didn’t have to force her 13-year-old to attend.
Marie Whitbeck likewise says no persuasion was necessary to get her daughter, Amanda, to come to Koehring’s class. Though Whitbeck does admit to forcing her husband to take lessons before their wedding.
Pucillo and Whitbeck both say they like the class because it teaches the kids not just ballroom dance but also manners and a little formality — something which, Pucillo laments, is in danger of going extinct in her daughter’s generation.
Some of the students admit they like that piece of the program, too. “You have to learn how to converse with people,” 14-year-old Emily Geske says after taking a turn at the foxtrot to Gwen Stefani’s “It’s My Life.”
By the end of the lesson, the kids are punchy. They’re kicking off their shoes, and one of the boys tries to remove his jacket, though Koehring is having none of it. This is formal dancing, she reminds him. The jacket stays on.
But, despite their antsiness, their enthusiasm seems to have increased. When Koehring encourages them to “spice it up a bit” by adding a little backstep flourish to their foxtrot — a “twinkle,” she calls it — the kids comply.
The boys escort their partners back to their seats, and high fives abound on both the ladies’ and the gentlemen’s sides of the room. Not exactly the picture of decorum, but proof that ballroom dancing can be fun, even when you’re 14.