Step by step

Benjamin McHenry

Photo By Robin epley

Most 11-year-olds’ dance experience is limited to awkwardly learning the Electric Slide in gym class, or standing against the wall of the auditorium during the Spring Fling. Not so for Bay Area native Benjamin McHenry, who at 11 started taking West Coast Swing dance lessons with his older sister. By 16, he had won a title at America’s most prestigious competition, the U.S. Open Swing Dance Championship. Now 20 and a two-time U.S. Open winner—in 2006 he took home a juniors trophy and in 2008 an All-Star win—McHenry recently moved to Chico and is teaching West Coast classes at Studio One and the Chico Grange. West Coast Swing is California’s state dance and has become extremely popular all over the country in the past few years. McHenry recently took some time from his busy schedule to sit down and discuss the ins and outs of the life of a professional dancer.

Why did you start dancing?

I initially got started because a mutual friend of my sister’s was into it, and my sister was into East Coast Swing at the time. The friend brought her out to a West Coast dance because he wanted to “show her the light,” and she fell in love with it. About two months later, she brought out the whole family, and I was the only one that stuck.

What is West Coast Swing?

West Coast Swing is a form of swing dancing that was invented in the 1940s but has evolved with the music and the times as they change, so now we actually dance to more contemporary music: hip-hop, blues—actually, just about anything with 4/4 timing.

You won the U.S. Open twice. What was that like?

It was cool. [Laughs.] It was a smaller division in 2006. I was an All-Star dancer, and so was my partner, and it was a Strictly [division], where we could choose our partner, but we couldn’t choose the song, so it was made up on the spot. In 2008, I won the Advanced All Stars Jack and Jill. It was pretty sweet.

What’s an All-Star dancer?

It’s a level of dancing. There’s a point system where you start out as a novice.

What are your classes in Chico like?

I have three different classes that I teach. My Tuesdays and Thursdays are just basic advanced classes. They’re just based off of more advanced patterns, and some concepts here and there. My Monday night classes are for all levels that are more focused on techniques and concepts that can improve everyone’s dancing, no matter what level.