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Blue Collar Ballroom at Inspire Dance Centre. (Photo credit: Madison Fender)

In a cozy top-floor studio at Inspire Dance Centre in the Feather Hill Complex in Southold, amid the space’s rustic exposed wooden beams adorned with strings of twinkling fairy lights, Alexandra Binder’s students sway to the beat of cha-cha. They aren’t gussied up in glittery “Dancing with the Stars” costumes or vintage Fred Astaire tuxes; they’re dressed in everyday attire, like hoodies and baseball caps, but as students of Binder’s dance-is-for-all classes at Blue Collar Ballroom, they’re ready for anything. 

“My joke is that I specialize in men and/or partners who think they can’t dance or think they don’t want to dance,” Binder says. “If I can get my dad dancing, I can get everybody dancing.” 

Scroll through Blue Collar Ballroom’s Instagram (@bluecollarballroom), and you’ll start to get the gist: You’ll find the dance devotee instructing while sporting jeans, a flannel and a pair of stilettos. Her approach is refreshingly relaxed — no dress code necessary. And if she has her way, she’ll have the entire North Fork sambaing, waltzing and two-stepping, no matter what they wear or where they are.

Dreaming of dazzle

Binder, ready to teach. “If I can get my dad dancing, I can get everybody dancing.” (Photo credit: Madison Fender)

As a young girl, Binder was captivated by the allure of ballroom dancing. Sitting in her grandmother’s living room in Shelter Island, she’d gaze at the TV screen, mesmerized by the coupled-up dancers as they twirled gracefully in their shimmering costumes. 

“Between the beautiful dresses and dancing with a partner, I don’t know, the whole thing … it just fascinated me,” she says. 

 Today, she is an accomplished ballroom and Latin dancer and certified instructor. Focusing on more than just the glitz and glamor that once drew her in, she is motivated by a profound passion for the art of ballroom dancing itself — and a commitment to make this passion inclusive to all. 

Last March, Binder founded Blue Collar Ballroom, a solo venture that shatters the stereotypes surrounding ballroom dancing. With this new business, she offers private and group dance lessons across the East End of Long Island, fostering a welcoming environment where, she says, “steel toe meets heel-toe.”

“I think sometimes when people think of ballroom dancing, they think of suit-and-tie or super fancy dinner parties,” she explains. “I’m trying to make it understandable for people who might not normally branch out and try it. It’s not as fancy as people think … it’s not for hoity-toity people or just for the rich. It’s for everybody.” 

Discovering dance

Despite her early fascination with ballroom dancing, Binder never imagined becoming a dancer herself. “I never really got into ballet or tap as a kid,” she says. “That didn’t necessarily appeal to me.” 

It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that the idea of ballroom dancing emerged as both a serious interest and an outlet. She’d been grieving the loss of her grandfather and uncle, while juggling the work and social pressures of high school. “I was not in a good place,” Binder admits. “I was stressed out about school and losing two people [with]in a couple of months. It was a weird time.” 

When a school psychologist suggested that she try a new hobby to cope, ballroom dancing was the first activity that crossed her mind. 

“It literally came out of nowhere, from the depths of my childhood,” Binder says. Initially, she considered the idea to be far-fetched; Growing up on Shelter Island, she had never come across anyone who had ballroom danced before. “I thought, ‘this is gonna fail, there’s nothing out here.’ ” 

Binder’s mother, Kathy, was committed to supporting her daughter and went on a hunt to find a class that would fill the bill. She discovered East End Ballroom, a dance studio in downtown Riverhead. Binder, her mother and her aunt Janalyn — who, too, was searching for an outlet after the loss of her husband — started dance lessons as a trio. 

“It was totally a new experience, and I absolutely loved it,” she says. The new dancer quickly progressed through every dance style offered at the studio. She appreciated the distinctive personalities of each, from smooth traditional ballroom dances like the Viennese waltz and the quickstep to the rhythmic Latin movements of the salsa and the rumba. 

“It’s that feeling of moving — two people moving as one. It’s an incredible feeling,” she explains. “Honestly, ballroom dancing gave me back my drive, gave me goals and, for a lack of a better way of saying it, a reason to live.”

Rumba on the road

By the following year, Binder found herself participating in a range of performances, from showcases at East Wind in Wading River to competitions in Windsor Locks, Conn. Her mother, who had hung up her dancing shoes by then, continued to be the family’s ultimate supporter and designated roadie, handling everything from competition logistics to hair and makeup. 

Beyond competing and attending lessons, Binder actively incorporated dance into her life throughout high school and college, serving as the assistant musical director for the United States Tournament of Dance, for which she assisted with music at performing arts competitions across the Northeast. She also informally taught ballroom and Latin dancing, instructing newly engaged couples who needed a little first-dance acumen, and hosting community events, primarily through word-of-mouth referrals. 

By age 20, Binder became formally certified to teach dance, trekking to Manhattan on the weekends to take intensive dance courses at Paul Pellicoro’s DanceSport. As time went on, however, she found herself at a crossroads. East End Ballroom in Riverhead was shuttered. While she continued to dance, it became harder and harder for her to find a ballroom dancing community on the North Fork. 

“I didn’t want to live in a city, which is where you could probably make more of a living dancing or being a teacher,” she explained. “Out here, it’s kind of hard to sustain yourself, so it kind of became more of a hobby.” 

Ballroom dancing for all 

Like a missing dance partner, Binder felt the absence of dance in her life. Blue Collar Ballroom was born, and for the first time in her career, Binder is actively promoting her lessons to create a new community space for ballroom dancing — a space she feels is lacking on the East End. 

Coming from a blue-collar background herself, her branding of the new business is a way to inspire people from all walks of life to give coupled dancing a try. 

“My classes are pretty casual,” she says. “We’re normal people, and I’m going to show you that it’s very simple.” 

With no dedicated space of her own, Binder often rents the studio at Inspire Dance Centre for private and group classes. Other times, she utilizes the Shelter Island rec center and even accommodates students by offering lessons at their preferred locations. From first wedding dances to weekly lessons, she teaches a wide range of ballroom and Latin dances to suit her students’ needs including the waltz, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, tango, quickstep, cha-cha, rumba, merengue, salsa, samba, swing, hustle and even some country line dancing. 

“Alex brings a new style of dance that we’ve never offered before,” says Meagan Grattan, owner of Inspire Dance Centre in Southold, which typically caters to dancers aged 2 to 18. She and her husband, Derek, a charter boat captain, have been taking classes with Binder when their schedules allow it. “She’s amazing to work with, very organized and makes her class fun for all. From advanced students to beginners, everyone feels welcome.”

Bea Swanson, a dancer in the group classes, can attest that Binder’s classes are beginner-approved. Looking for a shared hobby with her husband, Steve, she began lessons with her partner last spring. 

Trading sequins for flannel shirts and jeans doesn’t mean student couple Steven and Bea Swanson can’t bust a ballroom move with the best of ‘em. (Photo credit: Madison Fender)

“This was something that neither of us had tried, so we were kind of intrigued. We really had some doubts that we were going to be able to learn dancing — especially my husband, who thinks he has two left feet,” Swanson says. “Alex really knows how to teach … she really was able to unravel all these complicated steps and really start with the very beginning.” 

Throughout her classes, Binder takes a hands-on approach, stepping in as the students’ partners and illustrating the steps. As couples navigate their way across the floor, she offers guidance, setting the pace and directing them. From the rumba to the hustle, her goal is to impart practical knowledge that students can use in various social settings like bars, vineyards or any place with a dance floor.

“It’s all just about the beat,” she explains. “You’ll hear songs wherever you go, and you’ll be able to do one of these dances there.” 

It also makes for a pretty great date night. Besides the obvious physical and mental benefits of ballroom dancing, there are relational advantages too. 

“You’re working towards a goal together, now you’re a team, and you have to figure this out,” Binder says. “It’s reconnecting with your person in a different way.” 

“I love carving out time for my husband and I to be together doing an activity that we love,” says student Kristen Oliveri. A seasoned ballroom dancer, she and her husband have taken group and private lessons with Binder. “We always say that no matter what has happened in a day, you always feel happier after a dance class. And then we usually sneak off for a martini at Michaelangelo’s before going home to the kids.”

Since starting Blue Collar Ballroom, Binder has connected with her new students, inviting them to dance with her at local vineyards. Looking ahead, she plans to organize open social dance nights on Shelter Island, fostering mingling among dance enthusiasts, experienced or not, in the area. 

“It becomes a little community, which is what I had at the Riverhead studio. We all used to go out to the wineries together and dance to the different live music. I’m trying to kind of build that community back up again,” she says. “When I’m sharing my dance is when I’m happiest … I’ve definitely helped to kind of give myself that purpose again.”