"Did you guys forget who's leading and who's following?" John Pelto teases a pair of men who are stumbling through the box step. "I knew that was going to happen."
But who leads isn't as big an issue as you'd expect at Chicago Dance's Fred/Fred & Ginger/Ginger ballroom dance class, the first such class in Chicago to cater to gays and lesbians. In fact, the freedom to play either role is part of its appeal.
Pelto, a 39-year-old native of Schiller Park, likes to say he came out of the womb with his toes pointed, but he didn't get into ballroom dancing until a year and a half ago. In the mid-80s he spent four years on the road as a show dancer in Vegas, LA, and Puerto Rico; after that he made a living (using the surname Peltoma) as an artist and the owner of a store at Belmont and Halsted, and then as an actor, director, and choreographer.
Last August, after a brief stint teaching at Arthur Murray, he auditioned for Chicago Dance's owners, ballroom champs Tommye Giacchino and Gregory Day, who hired him to teach Latin and ballroom classes and to choreograph for the school's performance troupe. But whenever Pelto, who's gay, tried to cajole some of his friends into checking out one of his classes, they'd shrug it off.
"A lot of my friends had asked me if there was a class that they could go to where they could feel comfortable walking in with their significant other," he says, "and there wasn't." With the expansion of the Gay Games, which are headed here in 2006, to include competitive ballroom dancing (an event Pelto's helping to organize) and the growing potential for gay weddings, it seemed to him that other gays and lesbians might want classes where they could learn to waltz, cha-cha, and salsa. So he broached the subject with Giacchino and Day. They'd heard of gay ballroom classes in New York and San Francisco, but didn't know of any formal ones in Chicago, so they and Pelto decided to take matters into their own hands.
The first class took place May 5 at Chicago Dance's airy River North studio (there's another location in Irving Park). About 20 people showed up, drawn by an ad in the Windy City Times and bright yellow flyers depicting same-sex couples cutting a rug that the school had distributed around Andersonville. Among the students were an 83-year-old grandma, a straight woman taking advantage of her multiclass pass, and several sets of gay and lesbian couples.
Rather than separate the group of name-tagged novices by gender, as is routine in partnered classes, Pelto simply invites people to decide at the beginning of class whether they want to be "leads" or "follows," then lines them up facing each other across the hardwood floor.
The first class was devoted to the rumba, and after an hour of switching partners clockwise down the line, almost everyone had got a handle on the rotating box step with an open break and an underarm turn.
The following week it was the waltz, and switch-hitting was declared fine.
"Maybe someone wants to learn how to lead the tango but they're not interested in leading the foxtrot," says Pelto. "It can go either way."
The first sequence of Fred/Fred classes was so popular that a second, more advanced class has been added to the summer schedule. The next eight-week session begins July 7 at Chicago Dance, 415 W. Huron. The beginning class meets Wednesdays at 7 PM and the more advanced class follows at 8; tuition for each is $95. Call 312-337-9503.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.