Bill Davies: In Pursuit of Excellence in Ballroom Dance
Part III: A Lifetime of Dancing
Bill turned his attention to his dance studio. "At the heart of ballroom dancing," Bill observed, "is boy meets girl . . . or humans meet humans." Armed with that philosophy, Bill ran his studio more like a singles club. It was a place for people to meet and make friends. Dancing was a way to form friendships and romantic relationships. Bill offered group classes, in a four-week package, with one class a week for four weeks, and half-hour private lesson and a party. The Learning Annex, an adult education provider, sent the studio about twenty-five students a month. The rest came through word of mouth. A monthly showcase open to the public, in which current and prospective students could come and enjoy a party with performances by the students and staff, also attracted enrollments.
The studio had two separate bars, serving alcohol, which helped set the social tone of the place, but it was not the main reason people came. Says Bill, "It was like a singles bar, with dancing as the liquor." People were drawn to the atmosphere of the studio. They started to refer to it as "The" Studio, as if there were no others in the whole of New York City. Andy Warhol had "The Factory"; Bill Davies had "The Studio." Bill recalled: "It took off, it was very popular. . . . We developed a lot of dancers, we had a staff of twenty-one."
By the late 1970s, Bill's fame in the dance scene had grown and people wanted to learn from him and be trained by him. "I expanded the space and all of a sudden people started wanting to come there because they heard about The Studio and what it was doing. It was all about how good could we make the dancing, how could we improve it . . . . [There was a] total experiment going on at the time."
Among the many who came through the doors of The Studio to learn from Bill and went on to teach there, and who later struck out on their own, were Richard and Bonnie Diaz, former United States 10-dance champions and members of the American Ballroom Theater; Eddie Vega, hustle champion; Maria Torres, renowned salsa choreographer; Patrick Taverna, a member of the American Ballroom Theater; Diane Lachtrupp, who started Stepping Out Studios; and Paul Pellicoro, who started Dancesport. Bill had so many teachers that the Monday night staff meeting "was like Animal House . . . it was chaos." Bill reflected further: "I think what I was trying to do was build a family for myself, the one I didn't have when I was growing up . . . trying to build this perfect family of humanity. Maybe I was the dad, and the staff was sort of the kids."
Bill's approach to teaching at The Studio was to train the students the same way as the teachers. Whoever came into The Studio, whether the person walking through the door wanted to just be a skillful social dancer or world champion someday, Bill taught them the same way. He believed the prevailing system taught students one way to dance and then once they reached a certain level of proficiency, the teacher would say, "Now throw away everything you just learned; this is the real way to dance." Bill's philosophy of teaching was to teach everyone the best way from the beginning.
At The Studio, Bill tried to foster "a sincere interest in producing the best dancing possible for the appropriate occasion." Carrying that notion forward, he taught his social group classes International style figures in a "crushed" way, meaning that the couples would keep their ballroom hold with arms dropped and kept close to their bodies, rather than up and extended horizontally outwards. Bill did not teach them to swing nor did he teach them movements that would interfere with other couples on the floor. Dancing in this way on a crowded floor allowed many couples to occupy the same space and enjoy the music together.
Bill held weekly socials on Wednesday nights where as many as 100 to 150 people would pack The Studio. It was a social party and competitive style dancing was not allowed. How was Bill able to enforce this policy against those who tried dancing with their frames held high? "We screamed at them!" Any competitive dancer who attempted to dance as if they were on a competition floor were admonished to "put your arms down, look at the people around you!" If they tried to swing out, they would be told to "cut it out!" In this way, Bill maintained the distinction between social and competitive dancing, making sure that appropriate behavior for social dancing was observed when a social party was underway. Competitors had their own practice sessions in which they could dance out in a fully extended frame, swinging their bodies and moving out across the floor with gusto. But no such exaggerated movements were allowed at the Wednesday night parties which were for social dancing only. "The system worked. People learned how to dance. They could dance with one another."
On the competitive front, Bill offered classes for those who were interested in pursuing medalist exams or competition dancing. He often brought in experts in the competitive dance world to teach and give lectures at The Studio to the students preparing for medalist exams or competitions. Bill believed in appropriate behavior for the style of dancing being taught. Competition dancing did not belong on the social dance floor, and vice versa. Bill began to develop a view that the positive lessons learned on the ballroom floor can translate to proper behavior in the outside world, off the ballroom floor.
From his experience running The Studio Bill was "hopeful that we created a sort of society within this group which would give examples of how to treat each other in the bigger world." Bill explained further: "Dance is an expression of behavior. . . . Behavior is something you have to adjust to the occasion." To illustrate his point, Bill pictured a ballroom filled with people. Teach everyone on the floor excellent ballroom dancing so they can respect the space and others occupying the same space. In this way, all the dancers on the floor would create an orderly environment out of the collective decision of the individuals and the group who are simultaneously sharing the same space. Bill hoped that his students at The Studio took that view beyond the confines of the ballroom and applied it to other parts of their lives. Bill's concept is reminiscent of that old Coke commercial from the '70s in which people passed a Coke from one person to another across the globe, and the song in the background contained the lyrics, "I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony . . . ." In Bill's case, the song would go: "I'd like to teach the world to dance (and behave), in perfect harmony . . . ."
One evening in the early 1980s, maybe it was 1981 or 1982, Bill was teaching a couple at The Studio. In the distance, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps trudging up the stairs. In walked a pair of firemen in full gear, helmets, boots, axes, the works.
"I didn't know we were due for an inspection," said Bill.
"This place is closed," said one of the firemen, interrupting Bill's lesson.
"What?" Bill exclaimed. "What do you mean?"
"You're operating this place as an illegal cabaret," the fireman replied.
"What are you talking about? What do you mean we're operating this place as an illegal cabaret?"
The fireman pointed to a glass on a nearby table. "You have a drink on that table." The fireman then pointed to the couple taking the lesson. "There's music playing, and they're dancing. And you haven't got a cabaret license." The fireman pointed to the ceiling. "No sprinklers. Violates the fire code." He glared at Bill. "Are you the tenant here?"
"Yes," Bill replied.
"Get out. This establishment is shut down as of now until the proper licenses are obtained." The firemen turned and left, their heavy footsteps thumping along as they descended the stairs.
Bill complied. He did not know what to do. He turned to Vernon Duckett, an architect friend of his, to ask for advice. After tossing around a few ideas, they decided to file for a catering license. "That's what you need, Bill," he said. "With a catering license, you can have alcohol, dancing, food. And you won't need sprinklers." A week later, Bill was back in business.
The teachers and the students from The Studio attended competitions and entered as pro/am couples, amateur couples or professional couples. According to Bill, "We would just clean up." They came in a large group to the competitions and cheered loudly for all the couples representing The Studio. Their success enhanced The Studio's reputation and fueled its continuing growth.
Around 1981, Bill resumed his competitive career. He arrived at The Studio one day to find one of his teachers, Amy Block, crying in a corner. He went over to find out what was wrong. "It's my partner, John," she sniffed. "We had been practicing for weeks to get ready for the competition. We've signed up and entered. It's only days away and he tells me he doesn't want to do it. All that time and practice -- for nothing." Amy majored in dance history in college, and had been trained as a modern dancer. She had no background in ballroom but wanted to learn more. From her friend Paul Pellicoro, she heard about The Studio and its dedication to creating the best dancing possible, and she, like many others before her, came to see what it was all about. She stayed, took classes and joined the staff. Now she was upset over the fact that days before her first competition, her partner had abandoned her. Bill looked at Amy. "Oh," he said, "I'll dance with you, Amy."
Bill and Amy competed at the North American Championships. It was their first time on the floor. After dancing a quarter-final, then a semi-final, they made the final. Not bad, considering that they had only gotten together a couple of weeks before the competition.
By this point in his life, Bill had turned 40. Because of his athletic background, he remained fit. By the time he started dancing with Amy, he had quit drinking. He decided that he had a problem, developed from the wild party atmosphere of the dance competition circuit in the 1960s and 1970s, and took steps to cure himself of it. Bill joined Alcoholics Anonymous. "Best thing I ever did." Bill has not had a drink in nearly thirty years. He also began chewing Nicorette gum to get rid of his smoking habit. It was stop and go, but after a time, the Nicorette took and out went the cigarettes from his life.
Outside of dancing, Bill did not engage in any other form of exercise to keep himself fit. He did continue to compete in pro/am events, with many students, even while he was competing professionally himself. At competitions, Bill would be dancing in the pro/am events during the day and in the evening, he would be competing with Amy in the professional events. With all that dancing, Bill had all the exercise he needed.
In Amy Block, Bill found a skillful partner. Bill danced with her for several years, and he took her as someone with no previous ballroom dance training to number two in the country. He attributed their success in large part to the training imparted by The Studio. For Bill, Amy represented the fruits of his teaching philosophy at The Studio, where someone was trained properly and given the correct information from day one, whether that person just wanted to be a social dancer or a competitor. There was no counter-productive process of teaching a student one thing at the beginning only to throw it out later when the student got more advanced.
In 1984, where the Fire Department had failed, the reality of the New York City real estate market forced the closure of The Studio. The owner of the property where The Studio stood decided to demolish the building to make way for apartments. Bill looked around for a new space to continue The Studio and finally found a place downtown, on 21st Street between Park and Broadway, about a block north of where his former partner Sandra Cameron had opened a studio called the Sandra Cameron Dance Center.
The new studio was a bit smaller than The Studio. The transition to the new studio was not smooth. It was far from the Upper East Side. The neighborhood was not in great shape back then. Many of the students did not move over. One of Bill's teachers had left to start his own studio and took a bunch of students with him. Once Bill opened the doors at the new studio, "it was slow as hell." Bill was getting sick with anxiety. "I wasn't sleeping . . . . I was in emotional agony. . . . I was getting to a point where I was . . . running a business and I wasn't dancing. After three months, Bill shut down the new studio.
Bill began to freelance out of various studios throughout New York City. He taught pro/am students and amateur couples. He taught at Alexis studios on the Upper West Side. He taught at Stepping Out when it was on West 57th Street. He taught at Dancesport when it was on West 60th Street, near Columbus Circle. He taught at Johnny Myers' studio in the East 70s and later at Hungarian House on East 82nd Street when Johnny moved there. He taught International style classes at Sandra Cameron Dance Center. Perhaps the most intriguing place he taught was a place in Soho called the Blue Door. It was a performing arts studio where ballet and modern classes were taught and only those who knew to look for the blue door and ring the buzzer would be able to get in, like a speakeasy during Prohibition.
In 1986, after reaching second in the country with Amy Block and representing the United States in several world championships, Bill's partnership with her ended. Shortly after that, a woman named Rebecca Peter approached Bill at a competition in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and asked if he would be interested in partnering with her. Rebecca was formerly a pro/am competitor who turned professional with her pro partner. They were based in Washington, DC, and they would periodically make the trip up to New York to get coachings from Bill. Rebecca and her partner split, but she continued making the journey herself to take lessons with Bill. Bill was impressed by the fact that she regularly drove up for lessons with him. "Would you like to be my pro partner?" Rebecca asked. Bill told her he would think about it. By this point, Bill was in his mid-40s.
Bill called up Rebecca and invited her up to New York one weekend to practice. They danced the entire weekend, from morning till evening. "Her feet must have been bloody by the time she went back to DC," Bill thought. After the marathon session, Bill told Rebecca that they should keep practicing. After a few months, Bill said to Rebecca, "We need to go to England and train there for a month." Without hesitation, Rebecca packed her bags and flew to England and met Bill there. Upon their return to America, they started to compete together. During the entire duration of their partnership, Bill remained in New York and Rebecca remained in DC.
With Rebecca, Bill also reached second in the country. They danced together until 1995, when Bill had reached his mid-50s. She told Bill that he was getting too old to compete. Bill did not completely agree but he listened to her. She was right that the other dancers in the field were much younger than Bill. He was certainly the oldest dancer on the competition floor in the professional division.
Bill's retirement was announced and broadcast on national television on the PBS favorite, "Championship Ballroom Dancing," which was a taped version of the Ohio Star Ball, one of the country's largest competitions. In the broadcast, Bill began by dancing with Rebecca and in mid-dance, a lovely young blonde woman came on the floor to cut in and dance with Bill. It was Bill's daughter, Wendi, who followed in her parents' footsteps and became a professional ballroom dancer herself. It seemed like only yesterday that she was in her mother Bobbi's womb, in that car ride to the Peter Stuyvesant Hotel, and not too long thereafter, in Washington, DC when her parents competed with her in the womb while they danced in their first competition together.
After retiring from competition, Bill and Rebecca decided to get a boat together, because Bill thought they should have a mutual hobby besides dancing. After being together for thirteen years, Bill and Rebecca got married in 2000. Their marriage ended a few years ago.
Bill has kept himself busy coaching and judging. He continues to coach top competitive couples in the country, both professionals and amateurs. He judges at major competitions throughout the country. He has judged almost every single Manhattan Amateur Classic since its inception in 1991. Bill sponsors the Open Standard Perpetual Trophy at that competition, given to the top couple in the Adult Amateur Standard division. In January 2010, the twentieth recipient of the Bill Davies trophy will be crowned, and to mark the occasion, his daughter Wendi has joined him in endowing the trophy. In April 2010, he will judge at the USA Dance National DanceSport Championships in Los Angeles.
Bill enjoys judging. He likes seeing people dance in any context. When judging, he looks for three qualities: floorcraft, partnering and musicality. By floorcraft, Bill is not talking about avoiding traffic and bumping into other couples on the floor. For Bill, floorcraft has more to do with the quality of how a couple gets around the room and uses the floor to produce musical movement. Partnering shows how one member of the partnership is connected to the other and how they touch each other, both emotionally and physically, while they're executing their floorcraft. Musicality relates to the types of pictures that a couple creates through their partnering and floorcraft to show the sounds of the music.
On the competition floor, Bill can see that the couples are more competitive than in his day and they work hard to win, "but they're working with stuff that isn't always pretty." Bill finds that today's couple lack musicality and their dancing is not as connected to the music as it should be. He laments that dancers do not seem to be taught to be beautifully musical. Instead they seem to be taught in a more mechanical fashion. "Our notions of musicality seem to focus on the beat. But the beat represents time. We use time to measure space. What fills up the space is the melody, the joy, the good feelings. We don't use that, we use 'tick, tick, tick.'" Bill's focus is more on how to show the melody.
On partnering, Bill believes that antiquated notions of the man leading and the woman following should be thrown out. Starting with The Studio, Bill developed the idea that women and men have equal position in the partnership and they should be helping each other toward a common goal. When dancing Standard, Bill opines, "the idea is to get the woman around the floor, looking beautiful, not the man around the floor, so if you have a woman who can move beautifully on her own, you're in good shape." If that's true, why would you need a man? Bill shrugs and, with a chuckle, answers: "Someone needs to protect beauty."
The most significant development that Bill has witnessed in the last five decades in the ballroom world is the arrival of the Eastern Europeans and Italians in America. He finds them to be fantastic dancers who have raised the standard of dancing in this country. In teaching Eastern European couples, the most striking difference Bill notices when teaching them is the different attitudes adopted by the women during his coachings. With American couples, when he speaks to the man, the woman would walk off and take a break. In contrast, when he does the same with Eastern European couples, the woman does not walk off; she is right next to Bill, paying close attention to every word. Bill perceives Eastern European women to be more active, more responsible for their own dancing and their partner. They illustrate his theory of equal partnership, in which the woman is a co-equal partner, not a submissive follower, just going along for a ride with the man in the driver's seat.
Over the course of his long career, Bill regrets that in America, there does not seem to be a system of teaching that produces dancing as beautiful as that which seems to have come in greater numbers from the Eastern European countries. Bill is not sure what brought about the superior dancing from Eastern Europeans. Perhaps they focus more on the dancing and not on technique? He does not know but he does like what he sees.
Bill currently serves as Eastern Vice President of the Professional Dancers' Federation (PDF), a post to which he was elected in the mid-1990s, around the time of his retirement from competition. The PDF represents the issues and concerns of ballroom dance professionals and is a member organization of the NDCA. For about the last ten years, Bill has sat on the Board of the U.S.I.S.T.D, another member organization of the NDCA. In that capacity, he helps to improve the teaching of ballroom dance in the United States. Bill wishes that the NDCA today would focus more on dance education than on competitions. In the leadership roles he has undertaken with the PDF and U.S.I.S.T.D. he does his best to turn the NDCA's attention to the subjects that matter most to him and the two organizations that he has long represented.
Well into his 60s, Bill underwent his first knee replacement. Yet the operation presented not an opportunity to lay back and slow down; instead, one of Bill's students, Vivian Capuccio, approached him about getting back on the pro/am floor. Bill did not hesitate and entered a Cherry Hill Imperial competition with Vivian. They danced Open Gold, and they were the only couple on the floor. They danced all five dances and at the end of the final dance, as Bill spun Vivian out to the audience, Bill looked up to see that the audience had risen to their feet to give Bill and Vivian a standing ovation.
When he has a chance, he tries to catch Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. He thinks the shows are great and the media attention is terrific. Ballroom dancing, Bill believes, is "a fantastic recreation. Every couple should do it. It's a really great experience to see how well you work with one another."
For the future, Bill hopes to see ballroom dancing as a way to teach social human behavior for the good of humanity, to use it as a way to improve relationships with one another "Dance is behavior. Good dancing is very civilized, making beautiful pictures on the dance floor without interfering with each other." This philosophy was developed at The Studio, and although The Studio has long since closed its doors, Bill continues to take this approach in teaching dance.
"The only teacher in life is yourself, inside of you is the teacher. The only way to learn is to get that [inner] teacher to show you the way. My job as the coach is to communicate with the inner teacher." Bill first developed this approach at The Studio some three decades ago, and it has served him well, as he enters his seventh decade of life.
Looking back over his more than five decades in the ballroom industry, Bill is proud that The Studio produced so many fine dancers. Many people met and got married through The Studio. People learned the difference between social and International style at The Studio. Bill helped to introduce International Style into the United States and helped to develop pro/am competitions as way for ballroom dance professionals to earn a living. He helped to produce a rulebook for competitors and organizers and helped to bring forth the United States Ballroom Championships.
So what legacy does Bill hope to leave behind? "I'm too young for that," Bill answers with a laugh. Then, he replies, smiling broadly, "That you can dance until 125." No doubt, Bill Davies. No doubt.