Teachers catch the beat as they prepare for dance competition

March 12, 2012

By ERIC STEINKOPFF - Bulletin Staff Writer

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories about couples who will compete in "Dancing for the Arts," a competition to benefit Piedmont Arts Association's educational programs.

When you ask Albert Harris Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Greg Hackenberg if he has any ballroom dance experience, he just laughs.

"I took social dance in college as a 'blow off' class," Hackenberg said Thursday, admitting that he vaguely remembers something called the Lindy Hop, as well as the cha-cha and the salsa.

"I went for the easy A," said the Erie, Pa., native, who comes from a family of three siblings, all teachers.

Although Hackenberg is in his third year of doing the "teachers dance"--"a choreographed presentation by instructors from various local schools” for the Minds in Motion dance program, he doesn't have ballroom dance experience.

That's part of the reason he was practicing last week for Dancing for the Arts, a fundraiser for Piedmont Arts Association that features 16 area residents in a primarily ballroom dance competition. Modeled after the "Dancing With the Stars" television program, it will raise money for Piedmont Arts' educational programs at Carlisle, Martinsville and Henry County schools.

Several of the contestants are people who, like Hackenberg, haven't spent a great deal of time on the dance floor. Others have more experience, including Hackenberg's partner in the competition, Katrina Perry.

A teacher at Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School, Perry took about eight years of ballet, tap and jazz dance lessons as a child. However, she has no ballroom background.

"Mom put me in dance class--there was something (she liked) about little tutus," said Perry, a native of Jacksonville, N.C. "When I started running track, that's when I couldn't do that (dance) anymore."

Perry is a mid-sprint distance runner whose specialties include the 400 meter, the 4- X 400-meter relay and the long jump. She also coaches track at Bassett High School.

"I always try to race the girls," Perry said. "At 31, I still have it."

Hackenberg is relying on Perry's slender track build during challenging dance routines.

"I was pumping iron so I could do the lifts," Hackenberg said with a laugh. "I'm up to 20 pounds," he joked.

Hackenberg and Perry's assigned dance is the fox trot, so-named because Vaudeville actor Harry Fox brought the steps from England to the United States in about 1913 and developed it in the 1920s. The dance was dubbed "Fox's Trot" in the 1930s, when it became the popular flowing dance it is today.

The fox trot features gentle swaying from side to side and a graceful rise and fall as the dancers glide in long, smooth strides across the dance floor. The fox trot was originally danced to ragtime music but later was adapted to big band vocal music. It now can be danced to a variety of contemporary tunes, usually medium-tempo jazz or swing music.

On Thursday, dance coach Jane Leizer, a former Radio City Music Hall Rockette, was focused on Perry and Hackenberg as they practiced in front of a mirror in Stone Hall at Patrick Henry Community College.

Leizer studied dance in New York for a few years, owned dance studios in Martinsville, Rocky Mount and Stuart, and has run tap, ballet and jazz dance companies that performed nationally and internationally.

She is also adjunct faculty at the college as a Zumba and exercise course instructor and a cheer coach for the sports cheerleaders.

Perry and Hackenberg began by practicing a routine as if they were a couple meeting on a park bench, who then go for a stroll to the beat of the music. They walked apart and then moved back together in an embrace, moving down the dance floor with turns, a promenade walk to the side and a series of quick steps Leizer called the grapevine.

It was a symbolic courtship ritual featuring the give and take between a man and woman early in their relationship.

"She's trying to seduce him," Leizer explained the scenario. "They play back and forth: come and get me, don't."

The couple embraced again, this time more closely, and Hackenberg completed a lift and spin with Perry in his arms.

Then they glided back to the symbolic park bench following the resolution of their courtship encounter.

"This is only their third practice," said Leizer of the routine set to the song "I Haven't Met You Yet" by Michael Buble'. "They're doing really well."

In addition to the assigned dance, each pair in the competition will do a free dance of their choosing. Perry and Hackenberg declined to elaborate on what theirs might involve.

"We prefer to keep that secret, to keep them guessing," Leizer said.

Whatever happens during the April 21 contest, they are happy to support Piedmont Arts.

"It's all for the sake of the children," Hackenberg said. "We appreciate what Piedmont Arts gives to the community."


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