Dance instructor Terry Gregory has the kind of professional credentials that impress even ballroom aficionados -- he is a former U.S. Latin dance champion and was once ranked seventh in the world at an international competition in Tokyo.
His Feather and Three studio in Arlington also had the kind of atmosphere that made mere hobbyists feel comfortable, as if they were stopping in for a twirl at a neighborhood fixture. For 35 years, they came to Gregory's studio in pairs or alone to learn the foxtrot, waltz, tango and more.
But several years ago, the shopping center where the studio was located was redeveloped. A Harris Teeter grocery store moved in, then a Starbucks. Gregory said his monthly rent and other costs rose dramatically, and he couldn't keep up. He closed his doors at the end of September.
That has left regulars such as Darlene Wooley practicing routines on the kitchen floor of her Alexandria home and desperately waiting for Gregory to find a new place to teach.
"I wouldn't say I wouldn't go to another teacher, but he is the best teacher for what I want," said Wooley, a Prince William County high school art teacher who had been dancing with Gregory for 12 years.
Ballroom dancers are a committed bunch, many visiting an instructor or participating in organized dances several times a week at studios that dot the Washington region. Students can win medals and certificates and take part in competitions. The dance world culture is now taking a turn on the big screen in the movie "Shall We Dance?" which features Richard Gere as a Chicago lawyer who stops by a studio -- much like Gregory's -- to meet a pretty young instructor but becomes entranced by the intricate steps of the dancing.
In the real world, keeping a neighborhood studio like Gregory's afloat is always a struggle, said Dennis Schroeder, who has owned the Dance Factory, also in Arlington, for 28 years.
"The ways of the ballroom dance studio, it's almost like the drive-in movie theater," he said. "The space is just worth so much per square foot, and the studios are closing."
Space is a premium in studio ballroom dancing, which involves large groups of dancers swirling, stepping and spinning across the floor. The Feather and Three studio was 4,500 square feet, including a 3,000-square-foot dance floor, Gregory said. Its storefront entrance was small, but a winding staircase led down to a sweeping, 100-foot-long ballroom lined with mirrors on both sides.
Gregory won't give his age ("My students have been trying to find out for years, and I won't tell them") but concedes that he is older than 60. He got into dancing in the 1960s, when he saw a class being taught at a New York YMCA where he was playing basketball. From there, he got serious, getting credentials to teach and competing overseas.
He opened the Arlington space in 1969 after closing a similar studio in Adams Morgan -- too many drunks passed out on the doorstep, he said. Closing has hit him hard, and he has spent the past two weeks planning his bankruptcy filing, he said.
"I have met so many nice people in this," said Gregory, who is single. "To see them enjoy learning and dancing, you can see it happening, and it makes you feel good."
His teaching style has made believers of the self-professed rhythmically challenged, said defense contractor Jim Pebley of Arlington. Pebley gave his wife dance lessons at Feather and Three five years ago as a gift, and the couple have been going ever since.
"I thought I was impervious to dance instruction, and this guy actually taught me to dance," said Pebley, a former Navy pilot and flight instructor.
Gregory said he is hoping to rent space in a community center so he can offer lessons to some of his longtime clients.
"He has students who are regulars, who are loyal to him," Wooley said. "We're behind him 100 percent."