Published Sunday, December 30, 2007

Got a minute ... with Robert & Fran Ackley

By Lindsay Lancaster
Times-News Staff Writer

Can you tell me how you met?

Fran: We met at the Opportunity House on the ballroom dance floor eight years ago.

Robert: And someone set us up on a blind date, so it wasn’t just happen-stance that we went there and we saw each other there. A friend called us up that Wednesday night and asked if we wanted to meet someone if we were going to the dance that Friday, and we both agreed, yes.

How did you get started dancing?

Fran: I started dancing probably when I was two years old. In fact, my mother told me that I could dance before I could walk, so that was even earlier than two years old. But my first husband and I did a lot of dancing, and we did choreographed ballroom. And afterwards, I met Robert. My first husband had died, and I was a widow for about five years and met Robert, we got together and after that first night at Opportunity House, that was it.

Robert: Now, I began dancing ... when I was in the Air Force in Alburquerque, N.M., several of the fellows that were in our barracks, went downtown to Fred Astaire, Arthur Murray Studio and took some lessons — they were expensive — they’d come back and teach about eight or 10 of us, then we’d go out dancing the whole week long. ... I’m in my early 20s now, and I see this ad in the paper saying “Learn How to Dance and Teach Ballroom Dancing.” So I go to the Fred Astair Dance Studio in Hackensack, N.J., and this guy said, ‘OK, I’ll be teaching at these times for the next couple of weeks.’ And then after about a couple, two or three weeks, he said, ‘OK, I’ve got several students for you.’ I was going, ‘well I just barely learned these steps and I’ve got to teach them.’ So I would come two hours earlier and I would practice in front of the mirrors, and practice those steps over, and over, and over again, until I felt I was pretty sure of myself, and then I would teach them.

Robert, I understand that you have training at Juilliard?

Robert: I was taking ballet lessons. I lived in the (Greenwich) Village (New York City). I had three children — small, under three years old, and I decided, well, you know, I can’t wait for my big break, I need money. So I decided to work for the post office at nighttime and then study at this dance studio in the Village — Robert Joffrey — then I heard about Juilliard School of Dance, and I applied for a scholarship, and I had to do a performance for them, for which, luckily I had a private dance teacher in New Jersey that I knew and she taught me free. And that got me in on a scholarship, and so I studied not only ballet but modern dance. And then I was taking jazz lessons and working at nighttime, with the three kids, and it got to be too much.

What do you like about dancing?

Robert: The love of the music, the touch of your partner, even though we are just holding, not seductively, or anything else. Or just that you’re able to drift along to this music with someone else.

Fran: The enjoyment of being together doing the same thing. It’s wonderful exercise. You don’t even have to think about the fact that you’re exercising.

Robert: 300 calories an hour. Socialization with people. I guess what is a big driving force, or should be for many people, is that ballroom dancing, along with a few other activities, puts off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Fran: Ballroom dancing is number one on the list — it’s been shown that it’s the best way to prevent Alzheimer’s, of all the activities. The other two that are at the top are bridge and crossword puzzles.

Robert: And if you do all three, you’re phenomenal. But a big thing with the dancing and Alzheimer’s is the fact that you’re taking lessons and you’re learning new steps.

A lot of people would probably love to try it, but they don’t think that they can pick up the steps. What would you suggest to them?

Robert: Well, I would find some good dance teachers and take a group lesson with those dance teachers. My take on that would be to begin with Foxtrot. That teaches you the lead, the following, the body positioning, how to watch out for other people on the dance floor, et cetera. And teaches you to listen to the beat and listen to the music. ... Practice, practice practice, you’ve got to practice. You can’t just go take a lesson and then come back the next week, and not practice in between.

Fran: An important thing that we try to stress is that people, while they’re learning the steps, that they learn the appropriate posture and the hold, and everything at the same time, that they don’t just learn a lot of steps first and then try to learn the techniques later, but they learn them at the same time.

What is your favorite kind of dance?

Both: Tango (in unison).

Why is that?

Fran: Because it’s the dance of love.

Robert: But you’re not supposed to show it, you’re aloof from one another. But your bodies are speaking to one another. And I don’t know, there’s just something so wonderful. The Tango has such a unique beat to it. ... It’s a dance that stands out by itself.

From the episodes of “Dancing with the Stars” that you’ve seen, did you ever had a favorite dancer?

Fran: Well I liked, what was his name, Mario.

Robert: Oh, “dimples,” yeah. I enjoyed him, he was an excellent dancer. I liked Emmit Smith.