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Old-time dance fever sweeping across southern Manitoba

Bob Williamson has sparked a revival of dances such as the foxtrot and polka in southern Manitoba

It began with an impromptu lesson for a couple of students, but an old-time dance craze has been started by shops teacher Bob Williamson — and it’s spreading across southern Manitoba.

Williamson, who came out of retirement to teach at Glenboro School, surprised two students hanging around the shop door by asking, “Why don’t you learn how to dance?”

Perhaps the hit TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” helped them overcome their initial reluctance, because they decided to try. Williamson, who plays violin and piano, taught them to waltz and polka. Then he asked them to demonstrate their new skill at a variety evening at the Cypress River church.

Their waltz on stage, gracefully performed, drew a good round of applause. But when they started to polka, audience members were soon on their feet, clapping and keeping time with the music. It was a huge success and the talk of the town.

Things snowballed from there.

Williamson asked Glenboro School principal Kevin Newton for permission to teach more students and enlisted other teachers (after educating them on the basic steps).

So before recess, students now practise their polka steps: “1,2,3; 1,2,3… Now go for recess.”

Bob gets each class for 10 minutes a week, at a time arranged with the teacher to be least disruptive to their schedule. There they all learn to dance with a partner. The rules are firm. Everyone is polite. The boy must ask, “May I please have this dance?” and the girl must reply, “Yes, you may.”

“I’m not trying to take away from sports, but dance has its own positive impact,” Williamson said.

He often starts with younger students who tend to be less inhibited. As for the older ones, he’s not above bribing them with cookies or doughnuts to get them started. Once he gets them dancing, most of them are hooked and willingly continue.

They learn five dances: waltz, polka, foxtrot, schottische and butterfly. Some of the teachers are now playing for the dance sessions. Student teacher Kelsey Adams mastered the drums to become a vital part of the program. She is so enthusiastic that she says she will teach dance wherever she goes.

The excitement has spread to neighbouring towns. Williamson now has classes (or sessions being run by local dancers and musicians) at Swan Lake, Manitou, Baldur, Bruxelles, and Holland. Even adults are asking to get in on the action so classes were held for them over the winter. Community dances now have three generations on the floor, ranging in age from five to folks in their 70s and 80s. In April, they held a dance marathon with students dancing in all five schools for half an hour before noon.

Henry Martens, a longtime dance musician from Baldur whose band has played for some of the dances is impressed by the contagious enthusiasm.

“Dance has three things going for it: the social aspect, music therapy and exercise,” he said.

Williamson, who gives freely of his time and resources, is modest about this accomplishment, calling it a “team effort.” But even he is impressed by the “tidal wave” of interest.

Dance has given many students a much more enthusiastic attitude overall, said Newton.

Dancing “gives kids an opportunity to experience new challenges and learn new skills, as well as gaining confidence as they work in a different way with their peers,” says Newton.

The requests continue to roll in, as does the positive feedback from students, parents and other teachers.

Williamson’s enthusiasm is contagious. He was asked recently to give dance lessons in Deloraine and he has added three new schools in his area for this year. As well, he’s planning to have a street dance in an area community sometime in the spring.

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