Dorian Deaver beams at the ten couples standing nervously on the dance floor at the Eberbach Cultural Arts Building in Burns Park. It’s common, he reassures them, “for the ladies to be more enthusiastic than the gentlemen, who genuinely don’t want to look bad.” By the end of the lesson, he promises, they will be gracefully “dancing out of the room.”
With that encouragement, Deaver and his assistant and girlfriend, Jennifer Wade, begin his popular Rec & Ed wedding dance class. He’s taught dance since the 1970s, but this one grew out of his other life as a DJ–at one point in the 1980s, Deaver figures, he played music for half of all wedding receptions in Ann Arbor. Too many couples, he recalls, were “doing the junior high buckle-polishing circle”–he mimics a hapless groom, arms awkwardly wrapped around an invisible partner. His “Dorian bridal dance class” has since helped hundreds of brides and grooms (plus many parents) swirl with grace and confidence on their special day.
He tells of one couple–both engineers working on their master’s degrees–who secretly learned the tango before their wedding. “Friends and relatives knew them as analytical, ones and zeros people. When they broke out in a tango at the bridal dance, everyone was surprised.”
Deaver’s dance students range from seven to seventy-seven. Some of the older women take private lessons with him every week, dancing in his home studio on Ann Arbor’s west side. “They feel young. They exercise themselves physically. They exercise their brains too,” he says. “It’s a joy for me to meet with them.”
He’s also helped a few men use dance as a therapeutic tool after strokes–he says the movement helps them regain balance and reconnect with their partners. He hopes to expand his therapeutic dance work in the future by getting his name out to doctors and rehab clinics.
Deaver grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated from Pioneer in 1975, part of a talented gymnastics team that won at state competitions. He and his two younger sisters all went on to compete for the U-M.
He taught his first class, in line dancing, for South Lyon continuing education while still in high school. He expanded his range when, as a U-M freshman, he was automatically enrolled in a ballroom dance class taught by his gymnastics coach. He quickly learned to waltz. At bars and clubs, he also picked up the hustle and other contemporary dance moves. After John Travolta’s role in Saturday Night Fever in 1977 turned the country on to disco, he found himself teaching a popular “Stayin’ Alive” class at the YMCA.
After he graduated in 1980 with a BA in education, he coached gymnastics at Pioneer (and later Huron High) and taught physical education at the Rudolf Steiner School. His DJ work helped pay the bills, though some potential clients were reluctant to hire him, he recalls, because “they thought I could only play music for African Americans.” He’s played music for the U-M’s anesthesiology and emergency medicine departments’ parties for years and for a long time was the DJ for New Year’s Eve parties at Weber’s Inn.
He met Wade at one of his Y classes about seventeen years ago, and a year and a half later they started dating. They share three “date nights” a week. As competitive dancers, they have won many pro-amateur trophies. (Deaver himself continues to take lessons from professional dance coaches.)
His favorite dance step is a slow fox-trot–“a beautiful, beautiful dance,” he says. “Dances used to be more artful and beautiful … elegant. Now they’re more athletic, more acrobatic,” he says, noting that ballroom dance will be added as a spectator sport in the 2012 Olympics.
While the TV show Dancing With the Stars hasn’t brought him more business, he says it has made it easier to explain what he does: “These days I can say, ‘I teach all the Dancing with the Stars dances,’ and most people will understand what I mean.”
Six of the ten couples at tonight’s class are to be married within a few months; one couple wants to dance gracefully at their daughter’s wedding, and another wants to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary in style. The remaining two couples just like gliding across the floor. Facing a mirrored wall, they follow Deaver’s cheerful instructions, which he demonstrates with the curly-haired Wade. “You want flexible legs–swing from the hips!” he calls out. Graceful and long-limbed, wearing khakis and a black turtleneck, he weaves in and out of the lines of couples, offering encouragement and suggestions. Eventually, music is put on–“Save the Last Dance for Me,” sung by Harry Connick Jr.–and the movements grow more complicated. “If you need help, raise your hand,” he says–and several hands shoot up.
Jennifer Onslow and fiance Adam Chase are soaking up the lesson. “We both agreed we wanted to dance at the wedding,” says Chase. “We both agreed we didn’t know how.” Deaver, he says, “explains it in an easy-to-understand way.” Another couple, Louise and Jim Lowe, are impressed that Deaver remembers them from when their kids took lessons from him at the Y more than twenty-five years ago.
Deaver says dance lessons help people add meaning and balance to their lives. Learning wedding dances in particular seems to reduce the couple’s stress and increases their appreciation of each other. “I help them realize they can dance. I help them bring the beauty out.”
Then he adds: “They can be the life of their own party.”