*The summary below is for the history up to the early 1990s. We are currently soliciting input from those familiar with the MITBDC history in the 1990s and 2000s.*
Ballroom dancing at MIT began in the spring of 1974 when the MIT/Wellesley Ballroom Dancing Club was founded by a group of enthusiastic MIT and Wellesley college students. During the January Independent Activities Period (IAP) of that year, MIT had offered an introductory ballroom dance class taught by Harry Brauser, a folk dancer from the Mandala group. At the conclusion of the IAP, Harry began organizing a trip to the Roseland Ballroom in New York City, which was to be sponsored by Breck Shampoo to help them film a television commercial in the ballroom. The students started practicing, but, unfortunately, the trip never materialized and Harry left MIT. By then, however, the students were hooked on ballroom dancing and continued the club on their own.
The first president of the club was Jeff Alexander, while Trudi Berlin, a Wellesley student, was the vice-president and organized the club’s Wellesley activities. Jeff, along with Pete Travis, were fundamental in getting the club organized. The other officers were Carl Sharon, treasurer, Suzy Peckitt, secretary, and Pajpal Arulpragasam, ASA representative. The club was always run by students, but had frequent help from members of the MIT community and other dancers. After Harry left, MIT hired Ron Gursky to teach the physical education ballroom dance classes. Ron is a popular and influential ballroom dance teacher and mentored the club through the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
During the first year, the club held monthly social dances attended by about ten couples and one formal dance. The club members took all of the ballroom dance physical education classes they could. The club was small and very active; except for Sharon King and Jung Choi, its MIT leaders belonged to one fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon – Jeff, Pete, and Carl were brothers there – which led to many spontaneous activities. The members would go to a freestyle party at Wellesley, find their Wellesley ballroom dance friends they knew from the January course, go find an empty room, remove the carpet, and begin ballroom dancing. Everyone had a great time.
By the fall of 1974, the club became more official and participated in MIT’s Activities Midway, an orientation event for incoming freshmen. Club members also recruited through MIT’s ballroom dance physical education classes. When they learned that a new student, Doug King, had learned ballroom dancing from high school, the officers immediately recruited him to the club and he even joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Doug later became club president in 1978. The club was featured in the press several times in the early years, including Wall Street Journal and the Tech (MIT’s student paper) articles in 1974.
The Club’s official dances were held both at MIT and Wellesley, but mostly at Wellesley in Davis Hall. The first formal ball took place at Wellesley in Spring 1975: afterwards, the students went to Cape Cod to watch the sunrise. In addition, the members organized outings to area ballrooms such as Moseley’s in Dedham. Coming back from one of the outings, the students, wearing proper ballroom dance clothes, decided to do a two-car Chinese fire drill while stopped at a red light on the Jamaicaway. They didn’t notice that a police car was standing next to them, but, fortunately, the officers were really amused and let them go.
Workshops were introduced during the Fall of 1974. The first few were held at Sigma Phi Epsilon but later moved to the Sala de Puerto Rico in the MIT’s Student Center when attendance boomed. Weekly Sunday afternoon classes were taught by Doug King and Lee Davis (a Wellesley student whose mother was a professional teacher); later, classes were taught by other club members. Ron Gursky taught advanced classes on Thursday nights at Wellesley. The initial workshops were spontaneous – a schedule was not even published until the Fall of 1975.
The club expanded greatly over the 1975-1976 and 1976-1977 years, and by the end of 1976 about a hundred people attended the Sunday afternoon workshops. The workshops lasted for three hours, 2 to 5 PM, and had a free format – a short class, some general dancing, review, perhaps a demonstration, more lessons, etc. These workshops had only one level, but if someone already knew the material, the club leaders would take him or her aside and teach more complex steps.
The rapid growth forced a formalization of the club’s activities under the leadership of Sharon Pastoriza, president 1976-1977, and Kelly Gamble, president 1978-1979. The club transitioned from a fraternity-based organization to a school-based one. All members participated in club meetings during the workshops, and minutes were recorded for the first time. The club’s membership cards offered discounts at club functions as well as at Wonderland Ballroom. The club advertised in The Tech, offering house calls to teach ballroom dancing, or, if the need arose, offering even to teach dancing by phone! The club and LSC (MIT’s movie group) arranged to show Fred Astaire movies coordinated with the club’s dances and workshops.
The club was critically short on resources, and Carl Sharon, president 1975-1976, often used his personal stereo for the club’s activities. Nevertheless, club members were full of enthusiasm and surmounted any obstacles that got in their way. Doug King managed to get a cordless microphone, which was badly needed due to the large workshop attendance. The club got a faculty sponsor, Doc. Edgerton, the famous inventor of the strobe light. Marge Meyer, a former professional dance teacher, was an administrative assistant in material science at MIT and also helped the club and taught technique classes. All teachers and members gathered for a huge dinner in the basement of Ashdown House at MIT in Spring 1978. The club even sponsored a softball team!
The prevailing attitude in the club gradually changed over the 1970’s. Initially the main purpose had been to introduce and spread the love of dancing to all; club members were interested primarily in socializing and learning steps. Jeff, Trudi, and Shawn Smith enthusiastically welcomed new members. However, by the late 1970’s the club members became more interested in competitions. The workshops were divided into beginner and advanced groups, taught at the same time. Although the club was still growing, members placed a much greater focus on practicing with a dance partner than on socializing. Club members were coached by Ron Gursky, Marge Meyer, and Don Mason.
Sharon Pastoriza organized the first formation team, trying to challenge the more advanced dancers, perform exhibitions, and increase cohesiveness. Ron Gursky provided the choreography in Fall 1977 – a foxtrot done to the song Nola. Doug King and Sharon Pastoriza directed the six-couple team consisting of Haroon Alvi, Scott Brundage, Jung Choi, Doug King, Carl Sharon, Shawn Smith, Barbara Cancro, Kelly Gamble, Nancy Hartle, Lynn Mortimer, Terri Weston, and Daphne Wilcox. As preparation, all of the men were required to take a ballet class during January 1978 in order to improve their technique.
The formation team won the Boston Bicentennial Cup Competition in 1978. At that time Sharon hoped that the team would become an exhibition group, performing for faculty and civic groups. However, the competition bug had bitten many and the dream of community exhibitions was never realized. Nevertheless, some team members put their dancing experience to good use later in their careers.
The club cosponsored a flamenco dance exhibition with Club Latino in 1978. Unfortunately, they could not sell enough tickets and MIT had to support some of the cost. The club did one more formation team in the early 1980’s, organized by Ron Gursky, after which competition activity was again left to individuals.
The club became MIT Ballroom Dancing Club in 1978, when the Wellesley branch disbanded due to graduation of key members. A looser Wellesley connection continued through the years; several Wellesley students attend the club’s activities every year, and the club sometimes organized dances at Wellesley when there was interest.
The club’s format evolved to the current mix of parties and three levels of Sunday workshops over the mid-1980’s, driven by the leadership of Brian Oki, Shahrukh Merchant, and Liz Albert. The responsibilities of running the club were distributed over ten officers instead of the previous four or five. In 1992-1993, the club’s attendance increased up to 300 registered members to make the club one of the largest ballroom dance organization in New England and a strong promoter of ballroom dancing among local residents from all works of life.
The popular IAP workshops were attended by up to 250 people eager to learn to dance. The club ran two parties per semester, with one live band party per year. Also, once in a while the club organized events that bore little resemblance to ballroom dancing, such as an outing to an all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet at Hotel Meridian in Boston.
The newer MIT Ballroom Dance Team was revived in 1991 by Liz Albert after nearly a decade of no organized group competitive events in the club. The team became an independent subsidiary of the club. In addition to competing in regional competitions, the team offered classes and organized formation exhibitions, such as Viennese Waltz exhibitions in 1991 and 1993 and an eight-couple tango formation exhibition in 1992 that was performed in Boston’s outdoor Hatch Shell and Wonderland Ballroom. The Team also organized a successful all-weekend workshop, mixed competition, and party in October 1992 that offered classes taught by professional Cristina Cryan from Rhode Island to the community.
Although the vast majority of the thousands of the club’s former and present members and students only dance socially, a few have gone on to some impressive achievements in ballroom dance. Jeff Alexander spent two years at the club, graduated from MIT with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1978, and then studied ballet for seven years. He then got married, had three children, and in 1990started competing in ballroom dance together with his wife Janelle, coached by Suzanne Hamby. The Alexanders became the United States champions at the Standard pre-championship level and moved to England in the summer of 1993 to learn dancing from English coaches.
One of the most famous former MIT club members is Dan Radler, an MIT student who started dancing with Suzanne Hamby, a Brown student, in the club during the late 1970’s. Dan and Suzanne abandoned their former careers and become professional ballroom dance teachers. As amateurs they were ranked first in the country in Standard dancing and third in Latin. As professionals they were ranked third in the United States, undefeated New England professional champions since 1984, and placed in the final six in the Ohio Star Ball shown on PBS for six years in a row, as of 1993. Dan and Suzanne currently teach the suburban Boston area and Dan often taught classes at the club.
Many other former club members continued dancing as a serious hobby or a profession. Shawn Smith, an MIT student in the late 1970’s, became the New England amateur Latin champion with his partner Emily. Haroon Alvi dances with a jazz company in Texas, while Lynn Mortimer taught dancing and did professional demonstrations on a cruise ship. Club members Mark Sheldon and Yanina Kisler won the New England amateur Standard championship twice before Yanina stopped dancing; Mark became an MIT graduate student in computer science. Even Chris Brengel, founder of the three-year-old Harvard/Radcliffe Ballroom Dance Club, started dancing at the MIT club.
Harry Brauser moved to the San Francisco area and taught folk dancing there during the mid-1980’s. Ron Gursky still teaches ballroom dance in the Boston area, running his own studio. Carl Sharon is the Lutheran campus minister at Yale University. Doug King and Sharon Pastoriza married each other and now live in Berkeley California.
This summary was prepared by Waldemar Haowat, 1992–3 president, based on interviews with Jeff Alexander, Carl Sharon, Doug and Sharon King, Scott Brundage, and personal contacts with the club’s members.