By Katie Roth
Mike Fowler knows the power of dance, and he can tell the stories to prove it, from a surgeon who practices his Latin dance moves in the operating room to a couple who snuck onto a cruise ship dance floor after hours.
“I’ve had people tell me that I’ve saved their marriages,” the dance instructor states plainly. “Those stories… of saving marriages and people having more fun in their lives and just needing this to me are a thousand times more rewarding than someone going to a competition and winning first place.”
Mike’s joy comes from the people he instructs on the dance floor to relieve stress, to do something fun with their spouse, or to just try something new and active. His current clients at Magic City Ballroom in Cahaba Heights range from their 20s to 60s.
While group classes are fun, he says he enjoys being able to have more personal connections with his clients—and oftentimes future friends. Mike reassures his students with a patient tone that they are capable of learning how to dance. Observe a lesson, and you will see how he corrects even the minor arm movements and hand placements with a gentle spirit.
“Even if we mess up, he does a really good job of encouraging us that it’s okay. We’ll try again and do it (correctly),” says Shea Appell, a client taking wedding lessons with her fiancé Miller Allan.
While many younger couples like Shea and Miller usually don’t have the time to fit weekly ballroom dancing classes into their schedules after marriage, older couples—like the parents of a bride or groom—often stick with the lessons as a new hobby.
Steven and Kim Leaf are a perfect example. They began taking lessons a few months before their oldest daughter’s wedding back in 2017 and have been dancing with Mike ever since. “We have our 30th wedding anniversary this year, so this is kind of like our new thing,” Kim says. “It’s something we enjoy doing together.”
Steven and Kim wanted to be the couple who knew how to actually dance at weddings instead of just jumping around, and now they impress people with the samba, rumba, swing and more on the dance floor thanks to Mike and his patience.
From Jerseys to Dancing Shoes
Forty years ago Mike had no idea how many people’s lives he would impact through dance. He grew up in Indiana’s “basketball country,” as, you guessed it, a basketball player. Since elementary school, he dreamed of playing professionally in college, but when that didn’t work out, he decided to take some time to figure out if college was the right thing for him. It was during that time when Mike discovered his true passion: dancing.
In the summer of 1981, Mike’s friend invited him to Whispering Hills Night Club to watch a dance performance, and Mike was instantly intrigued. His friend soon moved down to Jacksonville, Florida, to start training as a ballroom dancing instructor for Fred Astaire Dance Studios and invited Mike to try it out as well. Excited by the idea of a free trip to Florida, he decided to give it a go. “I just fell in love with it. I thought, ‘Man, what a fun way to make a living,’” Mike recalls.
After eight weeks of training, he began teaching novice classes and accumulating his own clientele. That same year, Mike followed the company from Florida to Alabama, landing in Birmingham. “What’s Birmingham?” he asked his friend. “I didn’t (ask) where, I (asked) what. I had never heard of it,” Mike recalls today.
But Mike fell in love with the Magic City and couldn’t bring himself to leave. Soon he owned, managed and taught at three Fred Astaire franchise studios in Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Mobile. When his wife was pregnant with their first daughter, Francis, Mike felt he should try out a typical 9-to-5 job though and decided to sell the studios.
Trying out everything from selling insurance to flipping houses to working for a non-profit political organization, he just couldn’t find a job that he loved as much as being a dance instructor. After all, that’s what he had done for 20 years, and next to it every other job felt mundane.
It was obvious he missed it, so his wife, whom he met though ballroom dancing, encouraged him to open up an independent studio. She even came up with the name: Magic City Ballroom. That was in 2004, and the name—and the business—have stuck.
Bringing Ballroom to Cahaba Heights
After sharing a studio space with other organizations for a dozen years, now Mike has one of his own in his own backyard since he and his family call Cahaba Heights home. Today the Magic City Ballroom storefront behind the Starbucks is bringing the social dance scene plus a community space to the neighborhood.
When it’s not being used for lessons and dances, Mike rents out the space for parties, receptions, meetings, wine tastings, pop-ups, church services, you name it, and a Sip ‘N Art event with local artist Carrie Pittman, Zumba classes and wheelchair yoga classes with Villager Yoga are currently in planning stages.
For anyone who is hesitant to begin dancing, Mike encourages skeptics to just take the first step by walking in the door. After all, ballroom dances include over 12 different styles. Even his teenage daughters have found an entertaining hobby in ballroom dancing; Francis loves swing dancing, while Abby prefers a slow rumba and Latin dancing.
Mike admits that even he was clumsy at the beginning of his training and understands that it takes a lot of practice to become a decent dancer, but he knows that no matter what some of his clients have come in saying that everyone has a natural rhythm in their step, and there’s hope for nearly everyone to become a dancer.
“Unless you have a serious physical impairment, you can learn how to dance,” explains Mike. “I’ve never, ever, ever, ever had anybody who couldn’t learn how to dance.”
Get Your Dance On
Magic City Ballroom Dance Studio & Event Center
3118 Bellwood Drive, Vestavia Hills
- Private lessons (40 minutes each) for couples, singles or wedding dances
- Five-lesson wedding package
- Event space (1,250 square feet) available to rent