Honors students crowd the ballroom dance floor

By Emily Duke
April 29, 2014

They say it takes two to tango.

But there are certainly more than just two Schreyer Honors College students doing the tango, cha-cha, jive, waltz and other routines in ballroom dance classes that Penn State has to offer.

When Schreyer Scholars jump to eLion, the one course many of them are scrambling to register for is KINES 017, or Ballroom Dance. As one of Penn State’s most popular health electives, the classes are usually filled with seniors and scholars lucky enough to snag a spot.

“If you’re not a senior, you’re almost certainly a Scholar,” said Marvin Johnson, a senior scholar who is a teaching assistant (TA) for ballroom classes.

Johnson started off taking the intro class during the spring of his freshman year, and fell in love with dancing.

“I knew that I always wanted to take it because it was something interesting that I could really learn,” Johnson said.

Since then, he has taken the two advanced-level courses multiple times and has competed at universities all over the East Coast.

“I love that it’s a sport for a lifetime,” said Johnson, who will be graduating in May with a degree from the College of the Liberal Arts. “It’s not an extreme sport or something that will take a toll on your body. It’s something that I will have with me for the rest of my life.”

It’s also something that Johnson plans to tap into when he enters his next stage of life later this year. Johnson is engaged to fellow Penn Stater Abby Layer, who is currently a student in his ballroom class.

“She’d love to do a waltz or an elegant dance at our wedding in June, but I’m not sure what moves we’ll be able to pull off with the nature of her dress. I can’t know what the dress looks like yet. She did say that I was her favorite person to dance with though, and that meant a lot to me,” Johnson said with a laugh.

For fellow Scholar Elisabet Bjanes, a senior in the College of Agricultural Sciences, ballroom was something she stumbled upon.

“I was never a dancer. Never,” said Bjanes, who also competes and helps as a TA for the class. “Freshman year my friend dragged me to a lesson with the Ballroom Dance Club on a Friday night, and I absolutely loved it. It was so much fun.”

As a TA, Bjanes has to make sure that she keeps her skills current. Each beginner class has 20 males and 20 females, but she fills in for either role as a dance partner when there are absences. She demonstrates different steps, grades the midterm -- which is entirely performance-based -- and helps students improve their skills.

One thing that Bjanes enjoys about dancing at the advanced level is the semiformal held twice a semester in Alumni Hall. The event acts as a ball for dancing with other sections of the class and it allows TAs and those in the advanced courses to showcase more skilled level dances.

“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to show off what you can do,” Bjanes said. “Ballroom dance used to be a big part of our society, but it’s not really incorporated anymore so it’s fun to try out these dances.”

For those who may be apprehensive, have no fear.

“I would say that very few who take the class have any previous dance experience,” Bjanes said.

Instructor Seth Martin explained that everyone will have dances that come easier to them and others that may be more challenging.

“We start out with a really easy dance that everyone can get the hang of,” Martin said.

Johnson agrees.

“I think a lot of people look at ballroom and think that they could never do that, or they can barely dance as it is, but the instructors do an amazing job of teaching you," Johnson said. "Most of the TAs just started dancing in college and so many of them have reached extreme levels of competition in just their short time here. What better chance are you going to have to do this than in college?” 

Speaking of chances, sophomore Scholar Brandon Leshchinskiy, who is enrolled in the College of Engineering, thought the course stood out from other health electives because of its unique social aspect.

“At first, I wanted to take a class that just had more girls in it—unlike my engineering ones,” Leshchinskiy joked. “But in all seriousness, it’s been a great chance to interact with new people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Although currently enrolled in the intro level course, Leshchinskiy plans to take the Advanced I course in the fall to learn even more types of ballroom dance -- and maybe make some new friends along the way.


  • KINES 017 Ballroom Dance class dancing

    For students enrolled in Ballroom Dance, partners stay close together during class.

    IMAGE: Emily Duke
  • KINES 017 Ballroom Dance dancers await cue

    Student dancers wait with their partners for the cue to promenade during a ballroom dance class.

    IMAGE: Emily Duke
  • KINES 017 Ballroom Dance class practicing

    Partners focus on mastering each move as precisely as possible for their grade in the course. 

    IMAGE: Emily Duke
  • KINES 017 Ballroom Dance class gym

    Students spread out throughout the gym to practice and observe new dance skills.

    IMAGE: Emily Duke
  • KINES 017 Ballroom Dance instructor

    Ballroom instructor Martha Anderson leads the class on a new move. 

    IMAGE: Emily Duke
  • KINES 017 Ballroom Dance partners

    Cindy Chang, a junior in the Schreyer Honors College, moves across the dance floor with her partner during a ballroom dance class.

    IMAGE: Emily Duke
  • KINES 017 Ballroom Dance couple

    Susan Nahvi, a freshman in the Schreyer Honors College, and her partner are happy with the way they are performing a ballroom dance step during class.

    IMAGE: Emily Duke
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Last Updated April 29, 2014