Health and Fitness: Boom in Palomar Ballroom Dance Lessons

With a slight shudder and a soft ‘ring’, the vintage elevator opens onto the mezzanine floor of the Palomar Inn in downtown Santa Cruz. It’s like a tale of two cities – on the right, a shabby, stained, torn, gray carpet leads to even more shabby numbered houses. To the left, lush potted palms and gold-leaf mirrors line the plush burgundy carpet leading to a well-crafted black reception desk and the elegance and opulence of the Palomar Ballroom.

Ornate blue and gold Art Deco carvings frame the heavy, antique wooden doors of the main ballroom, leading to the mirrored, brightly lit 1,800-square-foot space that has become the center of the Santa Cruz County dance scene.

Dancing in the luxurious yet ornate ballroom dates back to the swinging 1930s—when boogieing to big live bands and even bigger music was America’s most popular social pastime. When founder Steve Hughes and the Palomar Ballroom Dance Company took over the space in 1997, it was rough and slightly weathered, but full of history and potential.

After major repairs and renovations, residential new Palomar Ballroom opened its doors and became the most prominent local dance venue we see today, offering highly acclaimed private and group instruction in both international and American ballroom and Latin dance both recreationally and competitively.

Dressed in a well-tailored and form-fitting black ensemble and excellent posture, Jeremy Pilling floats into a comfortable plush leather chair in the ballroom’s spacious foyer. His appearance is youthful and boyish – there is no way this guy is 47.

Pilling, the current owner and head instructor at Palomar, has been teaching and performing at the ballroom for more than 23 years and has danced her entire life in the community. He can do it everything on the dance floor, but he specializes in American Smooth, American Rhythm and International Latin.

Pilling may be a technically minded master of the dance floor, but he says that “dancing is fun.” The calm but poised head instructor invites me into the bright, echoing and glittering confines of Palomar’s main ballroom to get a feel for the place and watch him in action teaching a group salsa class. When I hear “Lord Make the Rainbow” begin to pulsate through the high-end sound system, I i know this will be fun.

Blinking and flashing yellow lights hang over the large, shiny wooden main dance floor. At the center of the action hangs a large ornate, well-lit metal chandelier nestled among lines of ancient, painted and patterned wooden beams.

Pilling’s students—eight women and nine men in all—enter the bright, professional, and historic space semi-quietly, respectfully, and prepare themselves on red and gold chairs lined up on the floor and facing a fully mirrored wall. Removing boots and jackets. Put on dancing shoes.

Pilling has owned and been one of the head dance instructors at Palomar Ballroom since 2000. But he, his successful company and the local dance scene barely survived the pandemic.

“We were closed for most of it,” he says. “When you dance, you are one step away from someone and you are breathing in their face. But we made it through; we are still here. Many people were excited to come back and get back to dancing. We all missed him.”

Business is now booming and most of Palomar Ballroom’s group classes and private lessons are either full or nearly full.

As they bounce or move around the cozy, carpeted mezzanine halls of the ballroom, most of the dancers wear a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye – to match their edgy, sometimes extravagant outfits and low-key demeanor. Most look healthy, blissfully happy and pretty damn healthy.

“Dance is exercise, but you don’t think of it that way. It’s not like jumping on a treadmill,” Pilling explains. “If you dance a lot, you will definitely burn a lot of calories. It is a cardiovascular workout and you get your muscular endurance and coordination. But it helps keep you sharp mentally also; you are constantly using your brain to learn and remember patterns and things.

Some visitors and those who are semi-new to the dance world ask instructors like Pilling how long it will take yes get well at dances. How long before they can confidently say a cha-cha, walk or swing in public in a nightclub?

Pilling admits that, like anything, “it’s all about repetition.” Performing one of the 17 dance styles depends on how quickly one learns and assimilates the information. It does take some dedication.

“We get everybody,” he says. “People from 16 to 80 years old. Anyone can learn to dance. Some people just learn and pick it up faster than others.”

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