by Paul Sterman
The Oakland Tribune
As a young woman growing up in Brooklyn, Diane Jarmolow’s life seemed to be all mapped out for her.
“I was supposed to be a math teacher, like all the good Jewish girls from New York City were supposed to be,” she says with a smile.
But Jarmolow moved to San Francisco and her life took a joyful detour.
When she was 27, she ventured out one night to a now-defunct dance club at Taylor and Lombard streets. It was called “Dance Your Ass Off.”
And that’s exactly what she’s been doing ever since.
Jarmolow, who now lives in Oakland, became the “ultimate disco queen” boogying [sic] at clubs every night of the week and, later, teaching disco-dancing lessons. This was back in the “Saturday Night Fever” era, when disco was dominating the landscape.
Eventually, Jarmolow discovered the pleasures of ballroom dancing, an activity she had previously thought of as too “stuffy.” She grew to love partner dances like the foxtrot, the tango, the quickstep and the Viennese waltz.
Jarmolow competed as a professional ballroom dancer, taught dance for many years, ran the San Francisco School of Ballroom Dancing from 1986 to 1991 and then founded the popular Metronome Ballroom in San Francisco.
The Metronome, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary last month, offers 50 group classes a week, everything from swing to ballroom to Latin. Dance parties are also held every weekend. (For more information about Metronome programs, call (415) 252-9000.)
These days Jarmolow spends most of her time with business and administrative duties at the Metronome. But she still teaches a couple of days a week, training people to become dance teachers.
Jarmolow was in action on a recent evening, showing several new moves to her teachers-in-training class. There are 12 students — representing a wide age range — and they continually rotate partners, working on the steps that the teacher shows them.
Jarmolow gracefully demonstrates the cross-body lead and then the Cuban motion — a specific type of hip action used in Latin dancing.
Patient and friendly, the 51-year-old teacher offers plenty of tips and encouragement as the pairs practice their techniques. Often Jarmolow steps in to take one of the student’s hands in her own and demonstrate her point by dancing with him or her.
“She’s very upbeat and she really cares about her students learning well,” says Jerry Halligan, a Fremont real-estate broker in the class who hopes to become a dance instructor for a cruise ship. “I’m learning a tremendous amount — and I’m having fun doing it.”
How would you describe the epiphany you had that one night at the old Dance Your Ass Off club in San Francisco?
I saw a couple doing partner dancing, and what I remember is the moment that I saw this couple dancing, fireworks went off in my head, and I just knew from that moment on this is what I was destined to do. It was a very big switch for me.
Did you feel a lot of pressure when you performed in ballroom dancing competitions?
It gets pretty tense. People put a lot of energy into it. You practice really hard — most professional competitors practice two or three or two to four hours a day, and the costumes are incredibly expensive, with beautiful, feathered, sequined gowns that people wear, which are around $3,000. And the men’s tail suits are close to that as well. It means a lot to people to do their very, very best.
And it all comes down to a minute and a half of performance — 90 seconds per dance. So all that practice is reduced to what shows up in those 90 seconds. In that sense, there’s a lot of pressure.
Do you have to have natural talent to dance well, or can anyone learn to dance if they practice enough?
If you can walk, you can dance… There’s a famous Fred Astaire quote: He would say ‘Most people think dancers are born. All the dancers I know have been trained.’ And I really like that. People can learn this — absolutely they can learn it. You just have to do what you have to do to learn things — which is show up, put a little attention on it, and spend a little money. But it’s definitely something everybody can do.
What do you enjoy about teaching dance and owning a place like the Metronome?
My favorite thing, when I really think about why I enjoy doing what I do, is that when I look out at a party (where people are dancing), I see people get that kind of look in their face — kind of giddy and happy, kind of like a 7-year-old. Dancing really frees people of their cares and their woes and their everyday concerns, and it’s just wonderful to provide that kind of opportunity for people. Not to mention that (dancing) is wonderful exercise, people meet people through dancing, it’s social, you express yourself through dancing, and it’s a very creative process.
How do you feel about the Metronome celebrating 10 years of existence?
Doing business in the Bay Area is not an easy thing to do, and certainly we’ve had lots of hurdles, but I feel very proud of what we’ve accomplished. We have 50 employees, and one of the things we do is train people to be dance teachers.
And that’s something that gives me lots of personal satisfaction, knowing I can take people and help them change their careers, so that people don’t have to, at the end of their lives, say, “You know, I did this job which I didn’t like all these years, and I wished I could have danced.”