SWAY The Night AWAY : Bandleader Stays Upbeat About Dancing

What worries Ventura’s Johnny Olins?

Oh, affairs in the Middle East worry him. So does the state of labor unions. And so does the small number of young adults interested in ballroom dancing.

As a bandleader, this last worry is to be expected. If people don’t dance, Olins doesn’t work.

“Without the young people, we’re losing the lifeblood of ballroom dancing. We’re losing it by attrition,” he said. “Some of them say they feel awkward, but ballroom dance is easy. It’s step one. Step two. It’s like putting your rifle together. Eventually you don’t think about it, you just go.” (Olins spent some time in the military, by the way.)


But as concerned as he is, Olins is encouraged by ballroom dancing’s rise in popularity over the last decade or so and he says that as long as people need to socialize, they will need to dance together.

There may be no better evidence of the strong heartbeat of ballroom dance than the number of people who come out to fox trot, waltz and swing every time Olins and his four-man band perform.

The group is one of several local bands--including the Mello Tones, the Social Climbers, the Melody Makers and the 19-piece Societe--which keep busy working for local groups, private parties and the 50-plus clubs in Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Reseda, which get turnouts of more than 100.

The 65-year-old Olins picked up a cornet at age 9 and has never been far from a horn since. Growing up in Chicago, he played with the likes of Lawrence Welk and Les Brown and, after moving to California, taught junior high school music for 25 years. His years of experience and mistakes, he said, have taught him what it takes to be a good bandleader.

“You are the authority. If you’re not, what the hell, let’s put a record on,” he said. “The dancers are expecting that you’re going to provide them with typical good dance music.”

“I have to know how difficult it is for a man to lead a woman on the floor if she’s not really qualified to be there,” he said. “I’ve got to watch the crowd. I’ve got to look out there and see if someone is stumbling. I admire women who follow some of these guys who are klutzes.”

Those klutzes can be a musician’s pitfall.

“A lot of times I turn to the drummer and say, ‘Don’t watch the guy with the funny shirt. He’s out of step,’ ” said Olins.

Certain waltzes, he said, depend on certain tempos and the band is expected to maintain a consistent rhythm. If he doesn’t “then they’re tripping and falling.”

And that wouldn’t be a good example for those impressionable youth.