10/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Real Ballroom Dancing for Regular People

Anyone who hears I'm a ballroom dancer invariably says, "Oh, I'm dying to start ballroom dancing." And then they explain why they haven't, or why they gave it up after a couple of disappointing lessons. I feel bad; I want them to get into dancing. I'm not sure why. I guess I'm a ballroom proselytizer.

I just realized I needn't stand by helplessly; I have the answer for those who want to learn but haven't yet managed to find their way in. Actually, I have three answers and none of them involves auditioning in front of TV cameras or wearing skimpy gowns that sparkle.

I know, I know: it's hard for a novice to step into the ballroom studio -- those suave, glamorous, sexy, elegant pros in the studios and on TV these days can be so intimidating. If you saw the film Shall We Dance, the Japanese original, or even the remake with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, you'll recall that terrific, agonizing scene conveying the difficulty of taking the life-changing first step over the threshold.

Okay, here's how. Answer number one: ballroom boot-camp in the Catskills, New York. It's called Stardust Dance Weekends, and it's for beginners and accomplished dancers alike. Classes and workshops all day long, in many different function rooms, from Friday to Sunday. There's even dancing when you take a break to eat; the immense dining room has two dance floors. Calories in; calories out, in one space, at one time.

I went with a couple of girlfriends last March and we had such a blast among 500 other dancers for three days that we are going again this month. The "resort" hotel where this ballroom extravaganza is held is great fun, but I must warn you about the not-so-faint smell of mildew in the hallways, and the distinct whiff of bleach in your bed-linens (perhaps better than the alternative.) And then there's the food, so cheerfully served by a wonderful staff, but...every entrée tastes like cotton balls with a different flavor of gravy. You get the picture. You will not be going for the ambiance or the amenities, but for the dancing.

Oh, man, will you dance. Keen to learn Argentine tango? There's a class for that. Want to brush up your hustle? There's a whole separate ballroom for that and West Coast Swing. Dying to finally learn salsa and cha-cha? You'll be up until 2 a.m,, guarantee it, because the live band rocks, so to speak. You'll dance 7 hours a day if your feet can take it. You'll attend the Champagne-in-plastic stemware reception and formal dinner followed by a professional show. And you'll meet lots of really nice people from all over. The unspoken etiquette here is the reason you needn't be afraid to show up. Nobody stands by the wall for long in any of the ballrooms. Everyone invites others to dance, even unfamiliar newcomers. All of the above for around $350 to $450. I'm sure there are equivalents in other parts of the country. (Feel free to chime in here.)

If you prefer less of a boot-camp approach and a more upscale experience, there's Mohonk Mountain House's Ballroom Weekend, December 4-6th. (Full disclosure: I'll be attending to do a book signing.) Mohonk, a beautiful, romantic Victorian resort, designated a National Historic Landmark, and still family-owned, sprawls lakeside on a 2,200-acre forest property in New Paltz, New York, not far from Kerhonkson where Stardust's weekends happen. But what a world apart. Here, you'll spend a pretty penny (about three times the cost of Stardust) and you'll know why. The accommodations, the surroundings, the service, the food, the spa -- all quite amazing. During the ballroom weekend, you'll take classes by day, and attend a black-tie optional gala by evening. A great way to get into ballroom gently. A note to women who can't seem to drag their man to a dance studio -- he'd rather engage in a different kind of contact sport; the kind that involves cracking heads or ribs, and scoring -- Mohonk could be your answer because it offers so much else, activity-wise, not the least of which is its great outdoors with hiking trails, ice-skating rink and such.

Last, and most extravagant, for those who can take more than a weekend: the ballroom-themed cruise on Crystal Cruises' ship Serenity, one of the most luxurious afloat. Imagine sailing out of Lisbon November 12th, stopping in the Azores and Turks and Caicos, ending up in Miami on November 22, having danced all day and night instead of mainly just eating. If you're the cruise type, this is a way to take lessons and get in plenty of practice hours, considering those long cross-Atlantic days. There's an added benefit if the seas are rolling the ship while you're on the dance floor: it does wonders for your balance. After ten days of intensive ballroom training at sea, imagine coming ashore, walking up to the door of your local dance studio, and...waltzing right on in. Piece of cake.