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Shall we dance?

Ballroom dance classes draw attention

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POSTED: September 6, 2010 12:01 p.m.
Photo by Seraine Page/

Instructor Jamie Cooke coaches Tina Kriens and the rest of the class on a new single-time swing routine. Cooke's classes, which are an hour long, are hosted at Poole's Deli on South Main Street.

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On Tuesday nights, Jamie Cooke likes to put his dancing shoes on and help those who fear they have two left feet on the dance floor.
Cooke, a third-grade teacher at Frank Long Elementary School, has been an on-and-off dance instructor for the past 21 years.
“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do when I grew up,” said Cooke, who taught at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Miami for nearly three years, then spent 12 years as a dance instructor in Jacksonville.
Cooke’s dance career has bounced him around from Miami to Jacksonville, from the Sunshine State to Coastal Georgia.
Now in Hinesville, he leads eight-week ballroom dancing courses in a pale yellow banquet room in the back of Poole’s Deli.
Poole’s owner, Susan McCorkle, allows Cooke to use the space in exchange for free dance lessons.
“We’re really casual here,” McCorkle said.
For the past five years, Cooke has split his sessions between the YMCA and the eatery, recruiting some of the same couples to both locations.
One evening a week — the group decided Tuesdays work best —Poole’s wooden tables are scooted to the edges of the room to make space for couples to sashay their way across the worn tile floor.
When 7 p.m. rolls around, the couples line up — gentlemen on one side, ladies sporting shiny high heels on the other.
Cooke walks to the center of the two lines and commands attention.
Last week, the instructor’s gaze settled on participant Jim Pearson, who shuffled nervously. Although Pearson admits he and his wife Lisa have missed a few sessions, Cooke recently supervised the couple’s 120th dance lesson.
“You gotta get your dance feet back on!” Cooke reminds Pearson with the enthusiasm of a motivational speaker.
Dressed in jeans and a blue polo shirt, Cooke faces mostly middle-aged men and instructs them to follow his lead. At each lesson, he goes through the steps, slowly and surely, to make sure everyone understands his moves.
Cooke finishes with the men, who continue to shuffle and mumble instructions to themselves as the instructor turns to give the women a quick demo.
Cooke summons McCorkle, his default dance partner after five years of lessons, and asks her to stand with him in the center of the room and review last week’s moves.
They stand together and smile, as old friends do, and move in unison. Silence settles over the students as the two glide, with purpose and precision, over the floor.
Cooke calls out each move: “Pivot, turn, cha cha cha.”
After a minute of twirling, they stop and Cooke announces it’s time to practice with partners.
Pairs of partners stand close and uneasy laughter fills the room as couples bump into one another, make mistakes and mess up the steps.
Cooke darts around the room, squeezing between gliding men and women to check form and footwork.
He smiles to confirm a job well done, or intervenes when couples become too flustered to continue the dance routine.
After about five practice rounds, Cooke marches over to the black boom box and turns on the music.
The room buzzes with excitement as the couples start to whirl, round and round.
“Pivot. Turn. Cha cha cha,” Cooke instructs. “Switch!” he yells over the blaring horns and drums.
The women’s heels clatter on the tile floor and loafers shuffle as students ease into the cha cha with new partners.
Cooke strides around the room, interrupting dancers to adjust their movements and stances.
As 8 p.m. approaches, the participants’ enthusiasm is unwavering.
“Jamie is an excellent teacher,” Lisa Pearson said after the lesson. “It’s been something I’ve always wanted to do.”
The Pearsons signed up for lessons so they could dance at their son’s wedding in 2006, and haven’t looked back since.
“I like that she likes it,” said Jim Pearson, who seemed to have found his dancing feet by the end of the night.
As for Cooke, he said he loves to spend time with people from all walks of life. He has rehabilitated stroke victims, saved marriages and worked with deaf clients, he said.
“If you gain their confidence in the first lesson, they will come back,” the instructor said. “It’s really a cool thing.”
Cooke’s theory about dancing is simple, “Basically, if you can walk, you can dance.”
 

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