A Night Ride With the Chicago Dance Studio Squad

In Illinois dance studios are regulated by the state Dance Studio Act, which can be enforced by the Attorney General. 

It’s 11:00 p.m. on a hot night in Chicago.  Most decent people are thinking of turning in, but for me it’s the beginning of the graveyard shift on the Chicago Dance Studio beat.  Until seven tomorrow morning I’ll be riding around, bein’ as inconspicuous as I can, trying to nab the perps who operated unbonded dance studios, signin’ up starry-eyed rubes from Keokuk, Iowa who sign promissory notes that can enter the stream of commerce as negotiable instruments, cuttin’ off all their defenses.  I’ve seen it happen, and believe me it ain’t a pretty sight.

I could be a lot more inconspicuous if I didn’t have a rookie Dance Studio Patrolman ridin’ with me tonight.  E.J. “Clell” Furnell, a kid who just graduated from Iowa State with a major in terpsichorean criminal justice.  I look at him, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and see–myself, thirty-five years ago, before I became jaded, cynical.  And paunchy, from a lack of the healthful exercise that social dancing provides.

“You have the right to one (1) free lesson in the tango, fox trot or waltz . . .”

“When are we gonna ‘nab’ some ‘perps,’” he says, slobbering at the mouth like the golden retriever my dingbat girlfriend kept in our apartment my senior year at the University of Chicago.  I tell ya, that animal set me on a downward spiral; every day studying depressing nihilistic philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, every night coming home to a stupid dog goin’ “feed me walk me pet me play with me.”  It made me lose my faith in humanity; how can that stupid animal be so happy, with so much misery all around it? I’d ask myself.

Schopenhauer, getting into “full-scowl” mode.

And so I dropped out and entered Dance Studio Patrolmen’s Academy.  I got my badge and then hit the mean streets of Chi-Town.  Pulaski, Kosciuszko, Shalikashvilli Drive.  Funny how they’re all named after Poles.

It wasn’t easy at first, let me tell you.  Staking out unlicensed dance studios, working undercover as a lonely guy who just wanted to learn the cha-cha–or is it the cha-cha-cha?  Some of my training is slipping my mind, I been on the force so long.

There’s a sucker born every minute.

I look over at Furnell and, against my embittered cynical best judgment, decide to teach him something instead of letting him learn the hard way, like I did; make a mistake, get yelled at, repeat.

“First thing you gotta do,” I says to him I says, “is take on a little bit of protective coloring.”  He’s dressed like something out of a 50’s cop show; standard-issue police blues, black lace shoes.

“What?” he asks, mystified.

“You really think you’re gonna be able to insinuate yourself into the arms of Madame La Vache Qui-Rit in that get up?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“You stick out like a taxi cab’s doors,” employing a phrase my big sister used to make fun of my ears many years ago.  “We gotta get you dressed in something swervy.”


“Yeah–like Lucretius.”

“Who’s Lucretius?”

“Power-hitting outfielder for the White Sox in the 70s.”

“No kidding!”

“Of course I’m kidding, you dingleberry.  That’s Richie Allen, who famously said ‘If a cow won’t eat it, I won’t play on it.’”


Richie Allen, Lucretius: Never seen in the same room together.

“Lucretius is the guy who postulated a random tendency for atoms to swerve, thus allowing for free will in a deterministic universe.”


“You already said that, rube.  Anyway, you walk into a dance studio you gotta be ready to swerve.”


“Any which way you wanna, but random is good,” I say as I pull to a stop outside Madame Giselle’s Dance Supply House.  “We’ll get you fixed up in here.”

I walk in and am greeted by the proprieteress with a big hug that leaves me with rouge and lipstick on my face, which she daubs off with cold cream.  “How are you dahling?” she says, sweet as could be.  She’d better be–she’s made a mint over the years keeping me in suave dance togs.

“What is it you weesh from me?” she asks breathlessly in her native Esperanto.

“Not for me sweetheart.  It’s for this Boy Scout over here.”

“Oof,” she says as looks Clell up and down.  “There is a Big & Dumb Men’s Store across the street–perhaps you should look there?”

I can tell from the pained look on Clell’s face that he’s hurt, but I’m not about to help him.  He’s the one who signed up for the dance studio beat–I didn’t make him.

“Go easy on him, wouldya?” I whisper to Giselle.  She nods, then bursts into a half-assed little Eurolaugh to show the hick she was only joking.

“Please–walk this way,” she says as she sashays down the racks of sleek, spangly-sequined dance costumes.

“If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need talcum powder,” he says, and I have to say, maybe the kids got that certain je ne sais quoi he’ll need to cut it.

Giselle holds up a series of possibilities and finally we settle on a sleek, sheer black satiny two-piecer that looks like it got caught in the revolving door at Victoria’s Secret when some shoplifter tried to sneak it out and it got stretched to man-size.

“Howzit feel?” I ask him.

He does a few turns and nods in approval.  “I think I’m ready.”  I can only groan inwardly–Madame Giselle has a “No Groaning–Strictly Enforced” sign in the changing room.  The kid doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  A bad state to be in.

Still, I figure it’s his funeral, so we head back out to the squad car and start to case Carmela’s Home of Happy Feet, the latest iteration of a bust-out studio that keeps getting shut down but re-opens under the name of another daughter of Louie de Phillipo, the capo di tutti capos of the Chicago ballroom dance scam scene.

“You see that doll over at the metal desk?” I ask him as we pull up to the curb and look through the plate-glass window.

“I don’t see a doll, just a very good-looking young woman who’s . . .”

“I’m using tough-guy slang, you nougat bar,” I snap at him.  “That young woman is a doll–got it?”

“Fine,” he says.  “You don’t have to get testy.”

“Oh yes I do,” I say.  “I’m the jaded senior cop who understands that he has to be tough with a tyro like you.  Now listen up and listen good.  You’re gonna go in there, eyes bright and coat shiny, and you’re gonna tell her you’re interested in dance lessons.  What’s the most economical plan they got?”

Thomas Carlyle:  “Economics is making me verrry . . . sleepy.”

“But . . . isn’t economics the dismal science?”

“That’s what Carlyle said, but who gives a flyin’ fuck at a rollin’ donut.  You’re gonna act naive–it shouldn’t be too hard–and she’s gonna try and ‘upsell’ you to a lifetime membership, or for payments over a term of longer than one (1) year.  When she does that, you give me the high sign.”

“What’s the high sign?”

“You flap one hand under your chin, so you look like Oliver J. Dragon on Kukla, Fran & Ollie.”

Ollie and Fran, on Scots Presbyterian Day.

He didn’t know the show, so I showed him how to wag his hand under his chin to approximate a dragon’s lower jaw.  It took awhile–makes you wonder what they’re teaching kids in college these days.

Anyway, I wished him good luck and he took off.  I saw Carmela flutter her eyelashes at him–I hadn’t counted on outright coquetry as a tool of the criminal underworld–as he sat down at the table.  They palavered back and forth, then she pulled a contract out of a desk drawer–like it was something special and she was doin’ him a favor.  He leaned in like he was farsighted or something, then he rolled his head to the right like a whale, then wig-wagged his hand under his chin–the sign!

I was inside the studio in two, maybe three shakes of a lamb’s tail and I had the collar on the beauteous front woman.  “You have the right to wear fruit on your head and remain silent,” I said, reading her the Carmen Miranda warning.

“Tell me something I don’t know, copper.”  She was a tough cookie for a kid who probably had to learn the Loco-Motion from a history book.

“This contract for dance studio services violates 815 ILCS 610/6 and 7.  You gonna dummy up or . . . is there anybody else higher on the chain of command you’d like to tell us about?”

It isn’t easy asking a girl to turn in her father, but I’m not after small fry–I want to catch the big fish, get that mayoral commendation from Rahm Emanuel, the only big city mayor in America with ballet training–and retire to the Indiana Dunes.

And you thought I was kidding . . .

We were standing there, staring each other down, when my inner light went out and I felt myself falling, the taste of warm, salty blood in my mouth.  I hit the floor and looked up to see Furnell, standing over me with his sap in his hand.

“You’ll never make it in the tough, gritty world of dance studio law enforcement if you’re going to fall in love with everything in a women’s asymetric ballroom skirt,” I growled through a gap in my teeth.

“Who said anything about love?” Furnell asked, genuinely mystified.  “She’s offering me a great deal on the Latin Hustle.”


Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”

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