Random Notes from the Balboa Experiment

[The Balboa Experiment, a week-long camp hosted by David Rehm and Nick Williams, is held in April in a remote North Carolina beach house and requires a lot more thought than I have put into this “random note” essay. I may write at greater length about it someday. If you were interested in the Experiment, you should probably know the deadline for applications is the end of the month.]

“I don’t want to go to a place where Nick and David teach you how to dance like Nick and David for two weeks.”

This was one of the first comments I heard when the Balboa Experiment was first announced. I can attest that, after attending it the first year, and being a part of its staff the second, the Balboa Experiment is about spending two weeks learning how to dance Balboa like yourself.

The idea is this: get a group of advanced students in the same house for a week, give them a dance floor and a little guidance, but otherwise let them run wild. The trick is just to keep them from breaking things. In this instance, the staff is sometimes teachers, but more often coaches or advisers.

The result is that students get out of it what they put into it; and an overwhelming amount of the people at the camp put all of their hearts into it. Balboa itself is reaching some interesting places, and the Experiment is a place to see a lot of those exciting changes all in one room. It is, to say the least, inspirational.

There’s also great friends, Rockband, chocolate, cheese, and port.


The giant beach house, which is commonly used for weddings or the types of family reunions where they have special t-shirts made, happens to be owned by the former wife of Robert “Gus McCrae–Tom Corlione–Col.Kilgore–Apostle” Duvall. She, like Duvall, loves tango, and was thrilled to know the house was being used for a dancing event, unlike some beach house owners, who would ask what we broke to get a giant dance floor up three flights of stairs.

The house has several single bedrooms, but most of the bed spaces are in bunk rooms. The rooms are pretty much hotel or bed and breakfast quality. (It’s part of the plan for the Experiment, to offer a house experience to the camping alternative of most other week long camps.) As people arrived for the week, we were ignorant that (1) one of the group had severe arachnophobia and (2) their room’s closet was crawling with spiders.

Cut to ten minutes later, myself and Nick Williams, wearing hoodies and brooms, creating sheer carnage by occasionally freaking out and repeatedly whacking a broom against something people five feet away couldn’t see. There were no survivors.

David came by and commented on how a maintenance complaint at the Experiment got two international swing dance instructors to come and happily beat the living crap out of a closet. There was pride in his voice.


Susana Sanchez is a native Spaniard who has lived in Toulouse, France for many years. A great Balboa dancer who also does Tango, she stayed with us in DC during the first year of The Experiment. (Around half of those attending the first were from other countries).

Was there anything she could bring us from France, by the way? well, since you asked. Susana came through customs with six different French sausages and goat cheeses. Not surprisingly, the dogs could probably smell her before she got off the plane. She had to give up the sausages, but was able to keep the cheese. A few months later I pulled the last of it out of the fridge, wondering if it was supposed to look and taste like that. It wasn’t–but compared to how it smelled before, it sure fooled me.

A growing trend at the Experiment is the foods. Participants busted out fancy cheeses and chocolates a few nights a week, and wines and ports over dinner. The international students have started to bring foods from their countries. For instance, I now have an addiction to Tim Tams, “Australia’s favorite cookie.” I’m still iffy on Vegemite, though.


At the beginning of the Experiment, David (who founded the event) mentions to the group that the morning and afternoon sessions –unnamed and unmarked on the schedule–are meant to be “organic.”

But, he warns, organic doesn’t mean “just see what happens.” He explains: an organically grown tomato, for instance, actually requires a lot of energy to grow–even more than a non-organic tomato. Pesticides and growth hormones make growing inorganic food easier; an organic growth takes a lot of care, a lot of attention, a lot of hard work.

One or two of the sessions may have a pretty set, class-like structure, but most begin with a simple idea, and the equivalent of “now, go play with your new toy and see what you can do with it.”

The Experiment house has a glass elevator in it, which we quickly realized was a creative outlet for those of us on the staff who apparently don’t have enough creative outlets in our lives, despite having four hundred artistic hobbies among us.

It would be eleven o’clock at night, and suddenly, silently, a dark elevator would rise to the floor. It’s lights would suddenly come on, and there would suddenly be a frantic, no-holds-barred ping-pong game going on in the tiny room, or a concert by Jeremy Otth and myself, or two beautiful and highly respected Balboa followers engorging themselves on cake. I refuse to discuss some of the other antics that took place, mainly because I was involved with them and have a mother to think about. I will only explain that we were trying to appeal to European sensibilities.


Down the road from the Experiment beach house is the burnt out shell of another. Driving the students into the Experiment, we joke that that’s the first year’s Experiment house, and we’ve got a few ideas on how this year won’t end in fiery death.

At the local grocery store, right across the street from the Beach Shop being eaten by a giant plaster shark, there is a police notification asking if anyone has any information about an arson fire. The beach-side community apparently has a dark side. It makes me think of summer movies about beach-side communities with a dark side, and then I imagine a giant shark that haunts the nearby waters and occasionally torches beach houses.


You advanced and master dancers out there have probably never been on a dance floor with no one but your peers. I highly recommend it; at first, you might be surprised at how intimidated you feel, how your self-confidence stumbles. After a few nights of this, however, you will suddenly realize how inspiring every dancer you see is, how great every partner in the room is, and how it lifts you up to new heights as a dancer.

I’d like to think that, somewhere, aside from the Cat’s Corner at the Savoy, there was a time when the greatest dancers of an area got together to hold private dance nights where no one else could watch, just to feel how inspiring it is.

Midway through the week, most dancers are not themselves; they are, after all, working on all the stuff they’ve been exploring in the sessions all week. Indeed, it might take months before they reach their new plateau, which is part of the plan: to give students the real *hard* stuff to work on, the essence of the dance, the stuff that takes a lot of time and love.


During the first week of the 2010 Experiment, chef Abi Leggette busted out a little desert she referred to as “Gooey cake.” It was the beautiful love child of a brownie and a cake. It had it’s mother’s looks, and it’s father’s sense of determination. When you ate gooey cake, you stayed gooey, often for several hours.

An incredible hit among everyone, she soon rose to new levels by serving it again, this time with ice cream, this time with peanut butter, this time with toffee melted on the glistening stomachs of Greek deities of your choice.

Sorry about that, I was just reminiscing.


Living in a beach house for a week with twenty four other people, you can’t help but think at some point you should be filmed for on an overly dramatic MTV reality show. The sort where they take a clip of someone saying “If you take that last piece of gooey cake, Susan, I will kick your ass!” and turn it into a split second clip of you simply saying “Susan, I will kick your ass!” with emo music in the background.

Otherwise, the mood is less than dramatic. People are almost always either talking, trying to figure out a move, or trying to figure out how to play a practical joke on someone else. (My own practical joke of the week: Over the last few years, I’ve been collecting the little plastic scoops from my workout powder tubs. For this years experiment, I put them in as many random, odd places as possible in Nick’s luggage the night before he flew out. I have a vision in my head of him, days later, putting his foot into a dance shoe only to realize he missed one.

This was a callback to an earlier practical joke I played on him, where we were all in a hotel room, playing around with dancing. It was the end of the event, and someone had some tortillas in a bag they had used for food but had not eaten. Throughout the night, I calmly put tortillas in different parts of his luggage, including one folded up in his wallet.

The next day, in the London airport, he opened his wallet to pay for something, and found the tortilla there. It just so happens that it’s very hard to find trashcans in teh London airport, because of bomb scares.)


In talking about the Experiment, I have at some point overheard a few people’s concerns about elitism. (These concerns, which I heard more of a few years ago, are, I think, more reflective of the scene as a whole than the Experiment in particular. Many workshops have invite masters classes, or auditions for masters classes. In this sense, the Experiment is simply a week-long audition class.)

Anyone can apply to the Experiment via an online application. (Next year, the event is three separate weeks.) In fact, applications, even by beginner students, help give the organizers an idea about demand for this sort of event. The application doesn’t ask what you’ve won, but what your goals are, what you feel your strengths and weaknesses are. (This year, it allows you to put a video link in.)

It’s more or less like applying for a job, school, or a summer academic program. Like many of those, it takes very few students, in order to find the perfect size for a group of people to work with each other, get to know each other, provide a self-reviving energy, and fit into a beach house.

I know for a fact every single application is considered, and acceptance includes many factors, the biggest of all being what the person can offer the overall group dynamic. Talent won’t just make it alone–you’ve got to be creative, hard working, inspiring.

Unfortunately, many of those who are not chosen to participate feel it–especially when they see Facebook photos of a magic beach house where dancers update their status daily about how great it is and include hot tub pictures. It’s the negative, but unavoidable, aspect of elite groups–those not a part of it, who want to be, feel like an outsider. Though, I guess it’s not completely negative, as some who are rejected have decided to step up their game, work harder, set goals for their dancing.

And don’t think the Experiment isn’t trying to reach out to more students–so far, they have added a week every year, attempting to grow organically, so that it can have a place for every worthy student who applies. And, there might not be an Experiment for much longer. It might soon get a name change, now that the Experiment has proven a success.*


Alright, I’m interested in knowing what debates you’ve heard about the experiment, or your own questions. I can’t promise I can answer them, but I’d love to know what people are thinking.

*–After his first year, Javier Johnson declared “We will always be known as the control group.”

4 responses to “Random Notes from the Balboa Experiment”

  1. Thanks for the wonderful write up about the Experiment. Really conveys both the fervor with which we dedicated ourselves and all the fun times. One concern I have heard about the Experiment is that “I like balboa but won’t I get overloaded with a week of it.” This is a concern for any week long event. However, I think you are less likely to get overloaded at the Experiment. You are not given alot of moves, rather you are engaged, participating and contributing for most of the class sessions. I believe this pumped everyone up even more such that we would work on stuff ’til the wee hours of the morning. Plus there is lots of time to relax and hang with friends. On the last night of our week most of us were sitting in the hot tub ’til the sun came up hoping to prolong the end. Saying goodbye was not easy.

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