Swing School

Kristen Russo

Kent State student gives dance lessons in his spare time

Ben Altemus, sophomore history major and swing dance instructor, shows a swing dance step to Rita Bulkoski,junior at Ravenna high school during a weekly swing dance lesson.


Credit: DKS Editors

Eleven people stand silent and attentive, watching the man at the front of the room and waiting for his cue. His black shoes shuffle against the linoleum as he approaches a table next to the wall, presses a button and the music begins.

The group has just been instructed in the basic steps of swing dance. During the next five weeks, these members of the Kent and Ravenna communities will be transformed into dancers. For now, they are putting what they’ve learned into practice, moving clumsily to the big band sounds of trumpets and saxophones.

The instructor, Ben Altemus, is a sophomore history major at Kent State. From 6:45 to 8 p.m. every Wednesday until March 5, he will turn the Tower Lodge in Ravenna into a makeshift dance studio.

Altemus has danced swing for about two years, but he knows enough to teach the class. He’s been teaching swing at the Kent State Student Recreation and Wellness Center since the fall semester. He also helps dance instructor Beverly Petersen-Fitts demonstrate for her one-credit hour Studio Swing class in the Gym Annex.

Altemus first became interested in swing when a friend showed off some moves at a dance during his senior year of high school. He began classes at Kent State in fall 2005 and signed up for Petersen-Fitts’ class the next semester.

Altemus is a full-time student. He doesn’t have much time for a side job and, as with many students, money can sometimes get tight.

“I figured, ‘Well, I like dancing. I could get paid for this,'” he says.

Because Altemus is teaching without a partner, his eyes scan the mix of people casually clad in hoodies and T-shirts as he chooses a member of the class to help him demonstrate.

Her name is Jennifer Herman. She’s a 2004 Kent State recreation therapy graduate who lives in Shalersville. As she and Altemus step forward and backward, she kicks her legs out and to the sides giving her steps a graceful flair.

This is the reason Altemus chose her as his temporary partner.

“I try and pick out someone who I think is doing really well and I try to use them as the example person,” Altemus says. “It makes it easier for me to demonstrate the steps.”

Community swing dance lessons with Ben Altemus •Where: Studio 2, Kent State Student Recreation and Wellness Center

•When: Thursdays from 7:30 p.m. – 8:45 p.m. until March 1. Session II begins March 9

•Cost: $22, students; $28, members; $44, nonmembers

When he isn’t dancing with Herman, Altemus walks around the room checking on the couples and making sure they understand the moves. He dances beside the couples as they watch and try to mimic his movements with their awkward steps.

“This is the most difficult part of it – matching the steps with the beat of the music,” he says.

He continues observing, his hands tucked into the pockets of his black dress pants.

The wood panel walls of the room are mirrorless so the dancers can’t observe themselves as they would in a traditional dance studio. They rely on Altemus for that.

One couple seems to be having some difficulty with the steps, and Altemus makes his way over to help them out.

“Arm goes up,” he says as he takes the woman’s hands and begins dancing to the music. “And one, two, three, four, five, six. All right.”

He watches them for a moment, and then he moves on, smiling as he approaches another couple.

As the first song ends, Altemus stops the music and begins building on the basic steps everyone has just learned by adding another – a simple spin.

“The crucial part – you are always doing the basic step,” he says.

He demonstrates the new step again and turns the music back on. The sound of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” fills the room once again as the class imitates Altemus’s move.

In his class at the Kent State Student Recreation and Wellness center, the dancers have moved on to more advanced steps. They tangle their arms together by crossing and uncrossing them over and under, creating tunnels they twist their way out of as they rock and turn. Their feet never stop moving to the beat.

Altemus shows the class a new move with the help of his partner, Kimberly Sarvis, senior exercise physiology major. Sarvis jumps onto Altemus’s knee. She hops off, lands on her feet and twirls under his arm. The two weave their way in and out of loops they create with their linked arms in a move they call “the pretzel.”

The class imitates the move, catching on quickly. They practice the jump and continue repeating the basic steps as Christina Aguilera belts out “Candyman” and The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies sing “Zoot Suit Riot.”

Altemus and Sarvis linger in the center of the room, observing as the couples dance.

In a few weeks, the class at the Tower Lodge will be learning the same moves, but for now, Rita Bulkoski, Ravenna High School junior and post-secondary student at Kent State, practices the basic steps with her dance partner, Kent resident Eli Simpson.

Rita’s mother, Lori Bulkoski, watches from her chair. A broken leg has stopped her from joining in, but she says she and her husband dance swing on occasion, and that’s how Rita became interested in learning.

Rita was paired with Simpson after they both showed up without a partner. As Altemus makes his way over to them, he takes Simpson’s spot for a minute to demonstrate and help the two of them with the steps.

The class continues to practice the moves they’ve learned. By the end of the hour, their movements have become a little less clumsy. They are getting used to the basic steps of swing, preparing themselves for the more complicated steps of their next lesson.

Contact features correspondent Kristen Russo at [email protected].