Twenty-five years ago, James West got his first taste of ballroom dancing and it has been his love and his life since then.
Fresh out of the Air Force, living in Germany, West had accompanied his partner, a chef, to a party he was catering at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. A dance instructor pulled West onto the dance floor and it was the beginning of a long love affair between West and the art of ballroom dancing.
This past May, West marked his 25th anniversary in the Arthur Murray organization, time he has spent as an instructor, judge, studio manager and supervisor, and now as the owner of the Arthur Murray School of Dance in Southampton. That’s 25 years spent teaching a startling variety of people, from all kinds of occupations, backgrounds and ages. His students range in age from seven to 80 years old. What they all have in common is a desire to dance, which West has shared ever since that first dance.
West didn’t start out with a vision of a life in dance. Growing up in Boston, the oldest of three kids, he recalls liking school, particularly science. “I was a real whiz kid,” West laughs. He was planning a career in medicine, but that goal was pushed aside in high school when West discovered languages. His new goal was securing a job as a translator at the United Nations. “I even got the application and started to fill it out,” he said.
By the time he set off for college, West was set on a double major in French and Russian, with a minor in secondary education. “I figured I could fall back on teaching languages in high school,” West remarked, but once again, his plans took an unexpected turn. “Sophomoritis set in,” West admits, and he decided to join the military.
In the Air Force, West landed an assignment in “electronics and over-satellite encryption.” It was his job to maintain the equipment and to decode and encode “all the secrets,” a perfect opportunity for West to utilize his linguistic skills. Once again, West had a new career in his sights. After his time in the military, he decided to remain in Europe, settling in Germany, but the difficulty of an American citizen working for the German government in over-satellite encryption left West with his plans up in the air.
While West debated about his next move, he went with his then partner to an Arthur Murray Studio party and that first dance reminded him of the old Arthur Murray TV show, which his mom had loved watching in reruns. She taught West how to dance. Clearly, mom had done a great job, because the studio quickly offered to train West as an instructor.
For the next 11 years, West taught ballroom dancing at various Arthur Murray studios in Germany and danced at local clubs after studio hours. When concert promoters needed dancers for shows, they would ask the local club owners for recommendations, and that was how West – former future doctor, U.N translator, high school language teacher, over-satellite encryption specialist – found himself stepping out onto the stage with the likes of Grace Jones and Eartha Kitt.
He remembers both of those experiences vividly: “Grace Jones…that was so wild! She is wilder than you would imagine! Twelve-inch stilettos! She is a tiny little thing, but she comes across so big!” He smiles remembering Eartha Kitt: “She was so gorgeous on stage, a true diva in every sense of the word.”
Before leaving Europe, West continued his education, both in dance and other areas. He got a masters in social work. He studied ballroom dancing with some of the greats in Blackpool, including a coaching session with Donny Burns. For those who don’t know the big names in ballroom, this is the equivalent of getting Babe Ruth to give you batting tips. When West returned to the U.S., he had yet another goal – to own his own Arthur Murray Dance Studio. After supervising and managing Arthur Murray Studios in the Boston area, in Nassau County and in Manhattan, West finally got the chance to buy the franchise in Southampton.
“I hadn’t been out here before,” West says, but it didn’t take long for him to know that he wanted his Southampton studio to be “what the Hamptons deserves…a jewel of a studio.” His overall impression of the East End is that “it’s a lot more normal than you’d think!”
After 25 years in the business, West is still mad hot for ballroom. What about ballroom dancing does it for him?
“I think it enriches my life and the people I work with. It’s something that anyone can do and excel in.” West has even seen students transcend physical disabilities. “I taught a 16-year-old girl who was both blind and deaf. She wanted to learn how to waltz – it was amazing to me how she could feel the music – she did really well!”
Of course, some of us suffer from the disability of having two left feet. Is anyone ever totally hopeless? “Only in their own mind,” West says. “It’s all a matter of having a little confidence.”
He’s got a few words for all the dance-phobic guys out there: “If they only knew, they would be the first ones on the floor! This is the last place where men can be totally in control and tell their partner what to do! And their partner wants them to!”
Throughout his life in ballroom, West has seen how “learning to dance changes people’s lives.” They lose weight, gain confidence, form friendships. Some students use their dancing as stress relief from demanding jobs, or therapy for difficult times. Some just want to learn a few steps and enjoy socializing with other students. Some want to ditch their frumpy office image, swath themselves in fringe and crystals and hit the competition circuit.
What’s next on West’s to-do list? The perpetual student, he is “working on my next level of Dance – there’s Fellow Examiner, then Doctor Examiner – then you’re Len Goodman,” he explains, citing the head judge on “Dancing With The Stars.”
When asked which is his favorite dance, West is hard pressed: “Hustle is the first official dance I learned, but I don’t think there’s any dance I don’t like.” It is definitely an addictive hobby, and one that seems like a good fit for the Hamptons, where the art of socializing has been honed to the highest degree.
“If any place should have the most rocking parties in the world, the Hamptons is it!” West laughs. [/expand]