Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dance School's Steps Are Strictly Ballroom

Thirty couples from ages 9 to 50 line up in two rows, women standing gracefully in skirts and medium-heeled shoes and men shifting from foot to foot, while a short man in his 50s booms instructions in a loud baritone.

"Stare directly in your partner's eyes, make him go red!" he orders. "Rumba is a dance of love!"

Moving toward each other, the couples swing into the "dance of love," gaining confidence as they swirl around the spacious room to the pounding Latin rhythms.

Valery Tsapko-Sapko's ballroom dancing school at the Militsia House of Culture is booming. More than 30 couples who attended the final lesson of a course last Sunday have danced through the six months learning five European ballroom dances -- the fox trot, quickstep, tango and two types of waltzes -- and Latin American dances, including the samba, rumba, cha-cha and jive.

During the lessons, the men and women rehearse their steps separately, then try the movements together without the music. Finally, Tsapko-Sapko turns on the music and the students dance together, stumbling a bit all the while. At each lesson, he teaches at least four dances, adjusting the program to suit the audience's mood and skill level.

"Imagine that you are a toreador teasing a bull," Tsapko-Sapko urges when explaining to men how to dance the sultry Latin American pasodoble. "No, imagine you are the toreador and the bull and the same time. Your arms are not noodles. Push your partner. Feel that she is a living being."

The beginners' courses, one of which will start Sunday, usually attract more than 100 novices. Many finish the course and then take it again to perfect what they've learned, said Tsapko-Sapko. Over the 15 years of the school's existence, about 20 of Tsapko-Sapko's students have become semi-professional dancers, quitting their jobs to teach ballroom dancing themselves.

The majority of the clientele are students and professionals, with an even mix of men and women.

"Skills of graceful movement help a lot in life," Tsapko-Sapko said. "I remember the times when I felt naked on the stage, and now no audience is a problem for me. Dancing is great exercise and an incredible emotional release. But a lot of people come here to make friends."

Most young people like to dance the hustle, since it's easy to learn and useful at parties, Tsapko-Sapko said. The rock 'n' roll, waltz and rumba dances are the three most popular dances for couples, while people who come to the classes without a partner love the sirtaki, a dance performed in a circle.

Tsapko-Sapko's energy and enthusiasm, cultivated from his years of acting in amateur theaters, are infectious for the crowd of novice movers and shakers.

"This is my inspiration," said Tatyana Loginova, a scientist and mother of two grown sons, both of whom have become devoted ballroom dancers. "I come here with all my troubles and sorrows, and it helps me cheer myself up for the whole week, despite the fact that the Butyrskaya Prison is next door."

Ballroom dancing classes for beginners are Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Militsia House of Culture at 45/3 Novoslobodskaya Ulitsa. Admission is 15,000 rubles ($2.63) per lesson. Classes are taught in Russian. Tel. 978-8046.