IN STEP WITH BALLROOM DANCING
- Bill Rautenstrauch
- The Observer
For anyone who's ever longed for bygone days when people danced with each other instead of with themselves, the La Grande High School Commons on Wednesdays is the place to be.
There you'll find a tall man with long, graying hair and a bent for showmanship teaching dance-floor moves America lost track of sometime before disco.
Watch him. With a group gathered around, he holds a female student in a light dancer's embrace. He moves. Eyes cast downward, she follows his lead.
"This is called a dig," he says, emphasizing a single small step, then adding to it. "You dig, step, rock, rock, dig, step, rock, rock Â… "
And after just a couple of tries, the girl's got it.
Jack Gruszczynski is a semi-retired schoolteacher who in another life made a living out of song and dance. These days, in his spare time, he teaches ballroom dancing to a surprisingly eager-to-learn community.
Gruszczynski doesn't like to give his age, though he dates himself by saying he got a start in show business in 1948. In his hometown of Bay City, Mich., he studied under the famed vaudevillian Lionel DeRemer.
But even before that, dance had been a part of his life. His parents passed their love of it down to him, and it never went away.
"My mother always said hers was the generation that would rather dance than eat," he says. "Dance has always just been there. It's the way I grew up."
By 1951, Gruszczynski was a semi-professional performer, dancing and singing at hotels, clubs, weddings and house parties. He toured the country.
He says he loved the life, not because of the applause but because of the happiness he gave others.
"I got my joy from doing my performance and making people feel good."
At some point in his life, though, he decided to change careers. He became an art teacher.
He earned a master's degree in education at Southern Oregon University. Later, at Western Oregon University, he picked up an endorsement to teach the handicapped.
He moved to La Grande in the 1980s, hoping it would be a good place to settle down. He discovered to his delight that the town had a number of lively dance spots.
Long past the time when music had gone electric and dance had gone free-form, Gruszczynski found places where people strutted their stuff in big band, swing and nightclub dancing.
They danced like that at the old Tropidara on Adams Avenue and at Chris's Woodshed on Depot Street. And for a while, the Eastern Oregon Folklore Society put on an annual ballroom dance at Hot Lake.
"The Trop was a real nice place, with the low lights and the bamboo. We'd go there for dinner, then just jump out on the dance floor," Gruszczynski recalls. "There were three or four places you could go, but then that kind of dancing finally disappeared."
Or, maybe, it just went dormant.
Not long ago, the regional arts and culture group ArtsEast approached Gruszczynski, currently a substitute teacher in the La Grande School District, about giving a ballroom-style dance class.
For the remainder of this school year, his services will be paid for through a grant from the Wildhorse Foundation.
It's money well spent, says ArtsEast Director Jane Howell.
"I think as a culture we've forgotten to dance and touch each other in that acceptable way," she says. "This has a lot to do with learning how to be a community and supporting one another."
With only a little advertising, 15 people came out for the first session in late February.
Word got around, and by the next class, there were about 30 students on hand, ranging from high-schoolers to senior citizens. On Wednesday evenings, the Commons are becoming a bit crowded.
The high turnout could have something to do with a rekindled national interest in the form. PBS, after all, televises high-powered, choreographed-to-a-T dance competitions in a program called "America's Ballroom Challenge." It's a popular show.
And ABC televises the highly rated series "Dancing with the Stars," which debuts Monday with, among other celebrity dancers, former Portland Trail Blazer Clyde "The Glide" Drexler.
But it's probably closer to the truth to say folks in La Grande are learning to swing just for the fun of it.
"It's like having a date every week, and even better, it's free," says Phyllis Mueller, who takes the class with her husband, Les.
"There's something romantic about it," she adds. "It reminds you of the old movies in a kinder, gentler time. It's the antithesis of head-banging."
Mueller says she's been trying to get her husband to take dance lessons for 15 years. Now that he's into it, she says, he's enjoying himself immensely.
That just about the way students Lloyd and Nita Baker got into dance, though they started much earlier, taking up western swing years ago.
"In the '70s, I wanted to dance, and Lloyd said he didn't know how," says Nita. "We took a class, and after that he couldn't get enough."
The Bakers say they came out for the ballroom class for a chance to be together Â— and improve their skills.
"We haven't done anything for a long time, so we're feeling rusty," Nita says.
The music plays on. Couples who come to class together tend to stick together. Singles pair up with other singles. Sometimes there's a wait for a partner, though everybody gets a chance.
Under Gruszczynski's watchful eye, people get better. They gain confidence and their dancing becomes livelier.
The teacher wants them to reach that blissful plateau where they're not dancing anymore, but "stepping."
"That's what my parents always called it, and they were the masters of the smooth move," he says. "It's give and take. Once you achieve it, it's