Learning to dance like Fred Astaire

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Lou Brockman and his partner Heather Gehring will dance at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 17. (Photo courtesy of Lou Brockman)

Lou Brockman is one degree removed from Fred Astaire.

And now members of the Mineola community can be two degrees removed from the classic silver-screen star.

As a young adult, Brockman studied with Dagmar Jarvel, a renowned dancer who was trained by Astaire. Brockman is bringing his expertise to Long Island for the first time, teaching classes in Mineola and Deer Park.

Brockman’s silver-screen-style dancing is different from ballroom dancing many are familiar with, he said.

“It’s a more casual style of dance, but it’s a bit theatrical socially,” Brockman said. “It allows you to be theatrical without feeling … [garish].”

For Lynne Gambone, of Albertson, it’s the style of dance she said she had always been looking for.

She met Brockman a little over a year ago, she said. When she explained to a friend the style of dance she was craving she said her friend asked why she wasn’t dancing with Lou Brockman.

“My response was Lou who?” Gambone said.

After her first class she said she thought “this is how everybody wants to dance but we can’t find it so we settle.”

Lynne Gambone dances with Lou Brockman weekly. Brockman is teaching on Long Island for the first time at weekly classes in Mineola and Deer Park.
(Photo courtesy of Lynne Gambone)

Brockman’s Mineola class is at the Knights of Columbus every Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., followed by a three-hour public dance. The class costs $25, with the public dance included.

It’s not just the style of dancing that differs from typical dance classes, but how Brockman teaches, he said. The class is designed to develop the feel of the dancing, Brockman said.

It’s a more approachable class, Brockman said. Rather than focusing on specific steps in a sequence, he teaches elemental ideas – which is how he learned from Jarvel, and how she learned from Astaire, Brockman said.

“I like to teach how to dance, not just what to dance,” Brockman said. “I keep encouraging each of the partners to pay attention to each other and pay attention to the moment instead of just the position of the movement, which I think is the fun of every simple move you have to know.”

Instead of saying “you’re going to do a 16-foot placement in a row,” Brockman said, he’ll teach how to do an underarm spin, or how to walk across the floor.

Ballroom dancing in other classes or competitions, similar to what people are familiar with on “Dancing With the Stars,” is called dancesport, Brockman said. But unlike dancesport, Brockman’s silver-screen style aims to achieve the effortless, romantic style, rather than perfect posture or footing.

Brockman and Gambone both said there is nothing wrong with the more traditional, dancesport style. But those dances have European roots, and a history of being danced in more formal settings, Brockman said.

Silver-screen dancing is a style that Brockman said is distinctly American.

“That easy-going, relaxed feeling that you can do amazing things and not look like you’re trying to do amazing things,” Brockman said. “What I feel for this dance is the fact that you can be as intricate and involved in the music and the moment and yet not have to be so upright. You can have an American posture.”

But while the dancing may look effortless when performed, it takes a lot of practice to get there. Brockman said he has been dancing for 44 years. He started training when he was just a teenager – and not by his own choosing, he said.

Brockman said his mother opened a dance studio and told him to take some classes.

“I had always wanted to be an actor so when I got into dance I realized what I really wanted to do was put acting into the dancing,” Brockman said.

When he watches ballroom dancing, Brockman said, he feels as if he is watching silent film actors. The exaggerated facial expressions during a tango to show anger or passion, illustrate a story, he said.

But for Brockman, the very essence of dance should be romance, which is ingrained in the American style he teaches.

In addition to giving lessons, he has been dancing with his partner Heather Gehring for about 15 years. The two will perform at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 14 in a show that is a tribute to MGM musicals.

Brockman will also perform in a more local setting. On Jan. 17 he will dance at the community center at Clinton G. Martin Park in New Hyde Park.

For Brockman’s students, like Gambone, it is not just the style of dance that keeps drawing them back – it is Brockman himself.

“He’s just got this grateful attitude. He’s so grateful for the people appreciating his style and it inspires people to even do more,” Gambone said. “He values the people who are taking on this style and opening their minds to it in such a way that it creates even more enthusiasm.”

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