Dancing and Dragons: A Dance Workshop’s Beginning and Journey

Follow Dancing and Dragons

Meet Alex Jacobs of Dancing and Dragons, a company that holds dance workshops at conventions, universities and more. Dancing and Dragons makes dance accessible and exciting for fans from all walks of life. Dancing and Dragons has inspired countless individuals to discover the joy of dance in a welcoming and inclusive environment. Join us as we explore the fascinating journey of how a love for dance and geek culture blossomed into a thriving community.

Geek Post: Can you tell us about the origins of Dancing and Dragons and how it all began?

Alex: While there have always been dance parties at Gen Con, the first official Gen Con dance was in 2006. It was a bit of a sleeper hit – at least until the ceiling started to leak and the ballroom had to be evacuated – and so in 2007 Gen Con made the dance a featured event. This was back when we were still communicating mostly by forums rather than Facebook, and there were a lot of posts along the lines of, “This sounds like a blast, but I don’t know how to dance.”  I had just made a career switch to become a full-time dance teacher and took it on myself to run a “Learn to Dance for the Gen Con Dance,” workshop. To my surprise we got a lot of people who just wanted to take a dance workshop irrespective of the dance party.

Geek Post: What inspired you to combine the worlds of dance and geek culture?

Alex: Like a lot of people in our community I didn’t have a good relationship with physical activity growing up. Anything with athletics, and certainly dance, was something that I just didn’t see as accessible to myself. I even tried some dance classes in high school to no avail. In college, however, my school’s science fiction club had a huge overlap with the school’s ballroom dance club. My partner asked me to take the school’s ballroom elective with them so we could go dancing with our friends. The club would go on to host a Fairy Tale themed ball each year and other dance events. It turns out there are a lot of people in the geek community – me among them – who are dance curious but were under the impression that dancing was a talent that you were either born with or not, rather than a skill that can be developed. Once we realize you can take classes something lights up in us. We’re great at classes!  Learning to love dance was a revelatory experience for me and I wanted to share that with other people in our community.

Geek Post: How do you choose the styles of dance to teach at Gen Con and other events?

Alex: I want to give people an iconic experience. No matter how easy or challenging the class is for someone, I want them to come away having felt what it is to dance a waltz, a tango, or a swing. I’m certified in twenty-five different dance styles and know another dozen or so beyond those, and I’ve taught most of them at some point or another at Gen Con.  I always try and teach the classic ballroom dances and swing, as they tend to be very popular since people can recognize them just from the name.  In addition, I usually teach salsa for the same reason. Beyond that I try and teach a few obscure or specialty dances each year just because I enjoy them. Last year it was the ragtime animal dances (The turkey trot! The grizzly bear! The duck waddle!), just because it makes people go, “Huh?” when they see it in the catalog. The year before it was Peabody, which I often describe as the “lost style of American ballroom dance.”  You don’t have to know anything about Peabody or ballroom dance for that to be an intriguing description. This year I’m teaching country two-step and polka as my specialty dances.

Interview Continues Below

Geek Post: Can you share some success stories or memorable moments from past Gen Con events? How do you measure the success of your classes and programs?

Alex: The best moments for me are when someone comes back next year and says, “I never thought I could dance but I had so much fun I went home and signed up for classes at my local studio.”  I had one girl who was inspired to join her university team and the next year was a newcomer finalist at the collegiate national championships. A successful class for me is one where people don’t want to leave because they’re having so much fun dancing with each other.

Geek Post: How do you create a welcoming and inclusive environment for dancers of all skill levels?

Alex: We establish expectations and communication methods early. I teach one “experienced beginner” class each year, but otherwise every class is explicitly oriented towards complete newcomers who have never danced before. Rather than ask people about their experience I tell them that I have no expectations of previous experience and that while experienced people will get a good review of the basics, we’re not working from their perspective.  Then I put that philosophy into practice; our first few minutes of class are spent on walking and weight change exercises that establish movement principles that all we have to do is combine. People like to say, “If you can walk, you can dance,” which is true, but just because you can do the former doesn’t mean you know how to do the latter; I use the class to bridge that gap.

We also do a lot to establish comfortable norms within the class. Consent is a big part of my dance philosophy, and we teach it in class in the form of etiquette, getting permission from our dance partners and making it clear that everyone can say “No.”  We use gender neutral language – “leader” and follower” rather than “man” and “lady” – and demonstrate in mixed roles. We encourage partner rotation as a method of skill development and community building, but we never force anyone to or shame anyone who doesn’t. A lot of our students are coming to our classes having had very unpleasant, often traumatic experiences at high school dances (myself among them); it’s important that our class be a safe space, not simply as a throwaway term but a genuine place where they feel safe to be vulnerable as they step outside their comfort zone.

Geek Post: What challenges have you faced in introducing dance to the geek community, and how have you overcome them?

Alex: Many of our community members come from a “gifted child” background; they’re used to learning things quickly and easily.  It’s great when that happens, but when it doesn’t it becomes an ego trap. Unfortunately, the only way to learn something challenging is to make mistakes. One of my favorite dance teachers, a gentleman named Tybalt Ulrich, once said, “Every great dancer you see had to go through ‘stupid’ to get to ‘cool.’ ”  But none of us like to feel stupid, and even less so in front of our peers and partners.

We do our best to ease people through this by making the material as simple as possible, but also by giving people permission to make mistakes and, most importantly, getting them to give themselves permission to make mistakes. I’ll make a joke like, “Apologize to your partner in advance,” which always gets a few laughs, but it also lowers the bar for whatever they’re about to try.  We establish clear metrics of success so that while a new step may not be perfect – and how can it be in someone’s first class? – students can see the progress. The goal of these first classes is not just to learn the dance so much as to learn that they can learn to dance.

Interview Continues Below

Geek Post: Can you share some tips for attendees who are new to dance and interested in joining your classes?

Alex: Treat it like summer camp rather than school! It’s a class but you’re learning something fun.  We are all geeks, we love learning. Your job is not to impress the teacher or your partner, it’s to try something new. To that end, give yourself permission to make mistakes, but when it happens try again. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing (you don’t need dance shoes but please, no flip flops and sandals are a bit risky). I also highly recommend rotating partners; even if you only want to dance with one person, you’ll have an easier time learning with lots of different people.  Finally, please do your best to be on time, or even a few minutes early. Gen Con keeps us on a tight schedule, and we do use our time as efficiently as possible, but that means if you come in late, you’re playing catchup, never a good idea when learning something new for the first time.

Geek Post:  Can you tell us about any collaborations or partnerships you’ve formed with other organizations or events?

Alex: In addition to the ballroom classes, we have Dr. Rowena Winkler who teaches Broadway dance classes. In the past we’ve had teachers teaching poi, dance-adjacent skills such as ballroom hair and makeup, and non-dance classes such as meditation and martial arts. We partnered for a while with other SPA presenters such as Peggy Elliot who teaches some of the crafting classes at Gen Con, and David Tringali who teaches martial arts. We separated from them as the partnerships were starting to turn into a management company and I didn’t want to go down the path of monetizing these relationships, but we remain on excellent terms. I highly recommend checking out their classes.

I can also recommend the belly dance classes by Different Drummer Belly Dance; my wife and I met in one of their classes back in 2007.

Interview Continues Below

Geek Post: When you are not teaching dance and going to cons, what other geek interests do you pursue?

Alex: I don’t play as many TTRPGs as I used to due to the difficulty of getting the same group of friends together on a regular basis, but my wife and I are avid board gamers. We have a regular Arkham Horror LCG group, and we play a lot of co-op games. I was also very active in Fantasy Flight’s Legend of the Five Rings card game from 2017 to 2020 (I even wrote an article about ballroom dancing and the l5r card game https://imperialadvisor.com/2018/10/01/how-ballroom-dancing-made-me-a-better-l5r-player/ ), and I’m still active in the Emerald Legacy fan continuation where I’m part of the writing team, mostly writing the Dragon fictions ( https://emeraldlegacy.org/lore/story/ ).


Geek Post: What advice would you give to aspiring dancers looking to combine their passion for dance with their love for geek culture?

Alex: Performances can be a lot of fun! My wife and I have done a few cosplays where we did a dance performance as part of our presentation. And it goes the other way too; one of my friends and I recently did a performance inspired by Disney’s Cruella.

Beyond that, as you get into dance, you will find it opens a lot of doors. Most anime conventions have a formal ball. Many universities have a ballroom team (MIT’s is one of the powerhouse teams on the competition circuit). It’s hard to get geeks on the dance floor, but once people in our community realize dance is a skill they can develop, you can’t get us to leave!

Interview Continues Below

Thank you Alex for indulging us with a fantastic interview about Dancing and Dragons.

As we look ahead, it’s clear that Dancing and Dragons will continue to inspire and motivate, reminding us all that with a little courage and a lot of heart, anything is possible. Whether you’re a seasoned dancer or someone curious about taking that first step onto the dance floor, Alex’s journey offers invaluable insights and encouragement for anyone looking to explore the world of dance.  Make sure to keep an eye out for events with Dancing and Dragons at Gen Con and follow along on Facebook to keep up with other appearances and events, you too can be a dancing geek!

Follow Dancing and Dragons