SO, YOU THINK you can dance? If not, Andre Cleofe may be the man to see.

Cleofe, 33, dances for a living. He never expected to — who does? — but his family was always footloose; older folks twirled children at gatherings, and Cleofe’s father once practiced by dancing with a towel tied to a doorknob.

After emigrating from the Philippines, Cleofe did economic research, then worked at American Express in the pay-by-phone division — talking with customers who didn’t understand their statement or had overspent their limit — first as a call taker and then as a supervisor.

He was almost ready to become head of the supervisors when burnout struck. On a leave of absence, he visited relatives. As always, a little dancing ensued. This time, someone suggested that he look into Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studios.

It was May 2003. He called the Silver Spring location (there are six in the Washington area) and walked in curiously. Staffers in a meeting looked back just as curiously: Cleofe was wearing a suit.

Teaching there was one option; a new customer-service gig was another. But then Cleofe realized he’d have to start at the bottom again. The next week he signed on for a different sort of customer service: teaching people to dance.

Franchise owners look for aptitude, not expertise, says Silver Spring owner Linda Theiss. Would-be instructors often have a theater or performance background, and a patient, caring personality is important.

There are three phases of training Arthur Murray instructors: learning the steps of each dance, learning the steps from the other gender’s perspective (all instructors must be able to lead and to follow), and learning to convey them with encouragement and polish.

All this usually takes six to eight weeks, Theiss says, the first of which is a trial period. Student instructors are unpaid and train from about 1 to 4:30 p.m. or 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Most find training more strenuous than they’d thought.

They may also be surprised that it’s free. “It’s worth thousands,” Theiss says. “The agreement is that they’ll teach for us for at least a year. Most instructors go way beyond that.” Some have been with her eight years.

Once Cleofe’s class of four had mastered everything from salsa to waltz to merengue, they stepped into a month of shadowing an experienced instructor before giving their first private lessons solo.

Most instructors teach full time. “It’s too much fun to do it part time,” Cleofe says. Because evening work is required, he hasn’t followed the TV dance-show craze. He does have to explain to clients that less than an hour a week will not make them look like those glitzy couples who’ve been practicing all day for months.

Cleofe, who did practice all day for months, became an instructor of instructors in two-thirds of a year — a much faster rise than to a similar position at American Express. There he handled up to 120 clients a day; by contrast, dance instructors can form bonds with their students. But Arthur Murray rules against favoritism forbid fraternization, even when engaged couples want to invite their instructor to the wedding.

The courtly Cleofe sees himself at Arthur Murray “at least five or six years into the future.” He cuts a rug up to eight hours a day but also runs and works out. “Students say, ‘You’re crazy,’ but doing just one thing for exercise could mean injuries,” he says. For fun, instructors often — wait for it — go out dancing. “You can get more creative without the syllabus,” he explains.

Downsides include blisters, especially early on; frustration when a client just doesn’t get it; and friction within a couple when one does and one doesn’t get it. And salaries aren’t high: At the Silver Spring studio, instructors make $22,000 their first year, $30,000 within two years and about $50,000 with several years and top skills.

But these are outweighed by upsides: seeing clients grow confident and skilled, and seeing students’ partners come to enjoy it as much as they do. One regular student, he recalls, “lost weight, feels better and is now passionate about dancing.”

So is Cleofe. As Theiss says, “You get to listen to beautiful music. It’s great exercise, physically and mentally. And people want to be here! How many jobs do you know like that? We’re enhancing people’s lives.”

Written for Express by contributor Ellen Ryan
Photos by Regan Kireilis for Express