Discovering The World of Dance and Arthur Murray.

by RONA MANN

Jessica Megargle was really never a typical teenager.

She attended high school at a private institution in Southington, nearly an hour and a half commute each day from her home in Prospect.  While her friends were dreaming of college, careers, and marriage, Megargle had an entirely different career path in mind.

“Believe it or not I had wanted to be a missionary in Alaska,” she said with a smile.  Somewhere along the way all that changed because somewhere along the way came Megargle’s grandmother with a wonderful idea; and when she did, that idea and everything it brought with it changed Jessica’s whole life.

“Every Friday Grandma would pick me up at school and take us both to a dance studio.  We would have a lesson and our own party every week, having such a good time that we danced until our feet hurt before returning home,” laughs Megargle recalling her early days of getting hooked on dance. “My grandmother somehow knew I was going to like it.  She says when she saw my eyes absolutely light up that first day that this was it, and dancing was for me.  She was right.”

Grandma apparently knew best because after two years of their weekly lesson and party Jessica had decided to teach dance, not only insuring her future career, but bringing a good deal of fun and social interaction to a whole lot of people in the process.  It wasn’t long before the missionary who became a dancer and then a teacher became a business owner, acquiring the Niantic franchise of the famed Arthur Murray Dance Centers in 2008.

For those old enough to remember, Arthur Murray was a rather dignified man with a dour expression and a penchant for ballroom dancing that defined an era.  Together with his wife and partner Kathryn, Murray brought the world of dance to millions of people, first by selling footsteps you could place on the floor and follow, and then with a nationally broadcast television show that ran in the early ’50s. Although he appeared stuffy and formal, as he danced, the dour expression would gradually wane, replaced with a smile that grew wider and wider as he twirled effortlessly around the floor.

“Arthur wanted to teach the world to dance,” Jessica says, “He started in 1912.  What many people never knew was that he himself was never a great dancer.  He just loved the social aspect of dancing and began by getting those mail order footsteps and teaching himself.”  When he became proficient enough he gave private lessons. “He just knew the basics, but that’s what he taught.  He always believed you didn’t have to do a bunch of fancy steps to dance and have fun.”

And that’s exactly how Jessica Megargle and the Arthur Murray Dance Center in Niantic operates.  The studio is warm and welcoming, filled with just “ordinary people” who like to dance, not with professional dancers.  While other studios have large displays of trophies won in professional competition, Jessica’s studio does not.  “We do have some dancers who seriously compete,” but they are a very small number of the people you’ll find here.”

What you will find are empty nesters looking for a new activity they can do together.  And you’ll find couples who want to look good dancing that “first dance” at their wedding.  There are also a host of singles who want the fun of the activity with the added opportunity of meeting new people.  “Dancing is really all about relationships,” says Jessica. “We teach them to dance, but they also learn the social aspect of it which is wonderful.”

That social aspect and connection has even led to the formation of a Friday afternoon dance class for autistic kids.  “I think we may be the only one in the state doing this,” Megargle says.  “Autistic kids respond well to patterns and repetitiveness, and that’s what dancing is.”

While Megargle readily admits that the popularity of shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” has brought a heightened awareness and renewed interest in dance, she just as readily admits that sometimes they can intimidate people who think they have to dance on that level to be any good.

“We teach classic ballroom dancing here plus swing, fox trot, salsa, the hustle, and cha- cha, all of which are wildly popular and fit with today’s music. Sometimes people come in just to learn one dance for an event, but wind up staying on because they are having so much fun.  They connect.”

A huge component of the Arthur Murray Niantic Ballroom is fundraising.  Jessica works with organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the American Heart Association, Stand Up to Cancer and more, creating fun programs around dancing that have raised large amounts of money for the non-profits.  “With the help of my instructors who have donated their time giving lessons, plus the organization’s efforts to sell program ads and tickets we have, for example, raised over $60,000 for MADD in the last few years.”

A local first selectman who organized a fundraiser for the American Heat Association wound up “falling in love with the tango.  It’s now his passion, and we’ve even taken a trip to Argentina as a group.  What’s better than doing the tango right there?” asks Jessica, her eyes dancing at the very thought.

It never gets stale at Arthur Murray in Niantic.  There’s always an event from

dance-a-thons to theme parties to Dancing Through the Decades, highlighting dances from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and more.  This year Jessica is planning a Dancing Around the World, showcasing specialty dances from different countries; and for those who never danced at their own wedding – or never did it right- a Second Chance Wedding Dance Showcase will highlight June’s activities.

“We have no set formula or package here.  Everything is tailored to what our clients want.  We can give them choreography, teach a certain dance step, even arrange a flash mob!” Megargle laughs.  “People have different needs, although for us social dancing will always be at the top of the pyramid.”

Jessica loves to recount the story of a couple who were married 25 years.  “They decided to come to Arthur Murray and take up dancing.  What they found was although they had always held hands, loved each other, and had gone places together and done things together, they had never really looked in one another’s eyes.  Dancing gave them that face to face connection; it was a beautiful thing to watch.”

The teenager whose life evolved from wanting to be a missionary to one that now revolves around dance waxes philosophically.  “In a way I’m still doing missionary work.  I’m working with many people who are divorced, widowed, without partners, and lacking confidence.  I help give them back the confidence that’s within them.  I get them dancing and interacting with others.  And in the process we’re all having so much fun.”

That would indeed make Arthur Murray smile.

Walk in and dance out at Arthur Murray Dance Center, 287 Main Street, Niantic

(860) 739-3991    www.nianticballroom.com

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