Is Detroit Ballroom Dwindling?

Will it ever evolve?

Detroit style ballroom; one of the newest dances to grace the Detroit ballroom Urban dance scene, is a style that resembles the cha cha and has been around since the 70’s. It’s cha cha, but with a good ol’ Detroit style flare.

It started on a whim at a party, as Tyrone Bradley (the originator) vividly recalls. He was dancing with a lady to a song by Eddie Kendricks (the former singer of the legendary Temptations group called “Can I”). The song, if you’re familiar with it, has a very slow, yet intimate rhythm, as many songs were back then. As Tyrone “The Godfather” Bradley explained, he was in a zone. One with the song and his partner. Midway through the song, the beat changed, and when that happened, so did his dance. He went from dancing with a close embrace, to opening up to a cha cha rhythm. He was unaware of what he was doing; he was JUST DANCING! When the music stopped, and he looked around, people were staring at him and someone asked, “What was that?” Baffled, he asked what were they referring to and they mentioned the moves he was displaying. They asked for a repeat performance, but he couldn’t remember what he’d just done, so he asked the DJ to play the song again. Just like before, he danced to the slow rhythms of the first part of the song, and when the beat dropped, he broke into what he’d allegedly did the first time. From that moment on, Detroit Style Ballroom was born.

But, this article isn’t about how it started, or its glory. Detroit style ballroom is scattered across the country and is stamped as a legendary Detroit urban dance. This article raises the question of whether or not this style of dance is dwindling? More importantly, how do we keep it alive? But first, lets focus on the latter.

I’ve been in the Detroit dance scene since February of 2013. Since my entrance, I’ve seen some extreme highs in the growth and progression of the dance. From legendary dancers in the community such as Kevin Collins (Motor City Fusion), Demetrius Jones (Ballroom Xplosion), Martin Hall’s (Ballroom Convention) and Bobby Green’s (GrAystone Legacy) that helped pioneer Detroit style dancing to another level. Various Detroit dance groups have competed across the country winning competitions, Versatile Dance Productions running the longest dance competition Detroit has ever witnessed, and Mr. Smooth running the biggest ballroom cruise that seems to sell out before the next date is posted.

Over time, new waves of dancers would come onto the scene, with new energy, eager to learn how to dance and you would see them out dancing quite often. Then, you wouldn’t. Where’d they go? One could speculate, or ask. Over the last few years, I began to pose the question to dancers whom I’ve often seen, but didn’t anymore. What I learned was a little daunting.

There were some interesting views and reasons that left me wondering if their opinion was just that. Someone once responded, “Detroit ballroom is boring and not challenging enough”. When I heard that, I thought, ‘how so?’ Another person stated there wasn’t enough freedom in the dance. So I delved into their reasoning to find out more. If the dance is boring, could it be that the person is more attracted to a faster paced dance? That’s understandable, but what about the “more freedom” and “not challenging” comments? Those in particular held a lot of weight in my head, so, I did some observational research to understand what they could have meant. Years later, I figured it out.

It appeared that many people that danced ballroom as a first dance, eventually transitioned into a dance from Chicago called (stepping). A dance that was popularized by Chicago native, R. Kelly when the song “Step In the Name of Love” hit the charts. The Chicago native dance flourished throughout the urban dance community around the nation. As the dance made its way to Detroit, many dancers started to cross over.

When I asked a few people why they stopped Detroit ballroom dancing, most of the comments were the same; that ‘there’s more freedom to dance different patterns’ in stepping. Some individuals also stated that they felt they couldn’t express their individualism in Detroit style ballroom. This was an interesting statement. Could it be that Detroit style ballroom hasn’t transformed or grown as a dance in 40 years? One could argue.

The Stepping genre of dance has definitely evolved from the way it was danced in the beginning, which is why they created a “New Skool” category. By observation, the “New Skool” genre has catered to the up-and-coming generation of dancers – the Millennials. The original style of stepping is still prevalent and respected today, but there was an obvious need for a ‘passing of the torch’ so-to-speak. There is new energy, a fresh perspective, and a wave of dancers that are creative and persistent in their dance, interpreting the music in a different way, while still respecting those that came before them.

If you look at a dance style such as Waltz, even 10 years ago, it looks completely different today than what it did then. The dance itself is still respected, but how dancers are interpreting the music is different. This brings me to my next point. Is the flow of Detroit style ballroom stuck on playing music from the 50s 60’s or 70’s? And, could this be why the older generation is stuck on keeping it the way it is? Are we stuck in a time warp?

At a recent competition put on by Versatile Dance Productions, I noticed that the number of entries in the stepping category far out-numbered the Detroit style ballroom category. Even if the numbers have historically always been lower, that doesn’t explain why there were only TWO contestants in the ballroom category. One of the contestants was from out of town and happened to be the winning couple! You may argue that maybe people don’t like the spirit of competing, and that statement could be valid, but it was contradictory in that more than half of the contestants in the stepping category of the competition were from the metro Detroit area.

Still In pursuit of understanding the dancers plight, I vaguely asked around to hear peoples thoughts and the younger generation had the same type of response. They don’t know much about the music from the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s and can’t relate to it. They’re more familiar with the newer R&B music they hear on a day-to-day basis. So, what’s the DJ to do if his/her crowed is generally of the older generation?

The answer is simple. Create an environment where younger dancers can go and hear music they are more familiar with and gravitate toward. In order to reach a generation younger than your own, you have to speak their language. So, if this dance is to evolve and stay alive, there has to be a evolutionary bond between the older generation and the younger. If not, within the next 20 years, Detroit Style Ballroom will meet its demise.

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