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Ballroom dance club finds footing in new roles

Mambo. Cha cha. Quickstep. Foxtrot. All ballroom dances involve a "leader," which is traditionally a man, who directs the "follower," traditionally a woman. To help others learn to dance -- regardless of gender identity -- through the ballroom dance club, first-year Brynne Menkhaus and graduate student Josh Schussler are learning to be both leaders and followers.

"It shouldn't matter who follows or who leads, so we let people choose," Josh said. "You become a much better dancer when you know how to do both."

Josh first switched roles while dancing at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he received his bachelor's degree in physics and a few years of ballroom dance lessons. Brynne's grandfather once won a dance contest in Jamaica by pairing American dances with reggae music, and years later he taught Brynne her first dance steps in middle school. She began learning to lead in ballroom dances last summer at A-Marika Dance Company.

"I went from the 'advanced following' class to the 'beginner leading' class," Brynne said.

Brynne and Josh jumped through the necessary hoops to start the club last fall, but they are still working out some kinks.

"This could easily be an ad for half-priced violins," Brynne said about the club logo, which she thought still needed work.

Brynne and Josh tucked themselves into the corner of an Armstrong conference room, which was devoid of furniture, to discuss the logo and other plans while waiting for people to trickle into the meeting last Wednesday. One of those people was first-year Brooke Bennington.

"My mom gave me a list of clubs to join this semester, and this is one I actually chose to go to," Brooke said.

After learning the basic foxtrot steps, Brooke paired up with sophomore Marcus Meyer. They traveled around the room without music, stepping slow, slow, quick-quick in unison.

The power dynamic in a dance is hard to trace. Marcus, the leader, gave direction to Brooke, the follower, by putting slight pressure on any point where they touched. But the follower can also direct the leader without realizing it. This makes it hard to find out how dancing partners end up making a misstep.

Once, Brynne and Josh stopped Brooke and Marcus mid-quick to figure out how the two made a wrong turn. They could not figure out how it happened, until:

"Oh, I was leading you!" Brooke said through surprised laughter.

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To newcomers, it can feel awkward to dance with a stranger. Dance partners hold hands, switch partners every few minutes and are close enough to smell the other person's deodorant.

But over the course of the night, everyone loosened up. The group danced to unexpected foxtrot tunes that ranged from Michael Buble to Bruno Mars. Josh flashed funny faces at a partner in the middle of a move. Marcus surprised Brynne by twirling her in the middle of dancing the hustle. Brooke cracked jokes at everyone's expense, including her own, and Brynne exclaimed in sheer glee while successfully leading her partner.

"Yes! I've never been able to lead a quarter-turn before!" Brynne said.

The MU ballroom dance club meets from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays in Armstrong 2084. Josh and Brynne will teach the waltz, hustle, cha cha, tango, merengue, salsa and other ballroom dances to anyone who comes during these times. Dues are $20.