By Mary Eisenhart
Maybe “Dancing With the Stars” swept you away. Maybe there’s a wedding coming up and the prospect of that first dance has you flummoxed. Or maybe you’re looking for a novel way to meet new people. Whatever your situation, there’s no reason to fret about your footwork—the East Bay offers a thriving partner-dance scene with events for everyone from total beginners to would-be dance contestants.
You could, of course, stick with tradition and sign up for dance classes at your neighborhood Arthur Murray Dance Studio, adult school, or YMCA—all still flourishing sources of instruction in the fine art of cutting a rug. But in recent years, dance opportunities have expanded beyond these tried-and-true institutions, as aficionados have launched a raft of studios, clubs, and classes in beautiful historic venues and creative new locations.
On just about any night at the Beaux Arts Oakland Veterans Memorial Building, you’ll find several different dance classes under the auspices of the Lake Merritt Dance Center—folk, ballroom, swing, salsa, and more, often free of charge. The gorgeous, historic ballrooms, some with ornately carved ceilings, intricately painted details, and views of Lake Merritt and the city lights, add to the charm.
The hilltop Claremont Hotel in Berkeley hosted both tango and salsa lesson series and a three-day tango extravaganza last fall. Downtown Oakland restaurant Faz recently launched a dance series, with a lesson component, in the eatery’s glassed-in atrium. On a recent evening, they brought in popular swing band Stompy Jones, drawing a crowd—many dressed in period costume—from all over the Bay Area. “It was a scene pulled from the pages of 1940s Vogue,” says the restaurant’s Mark Ferreira.
And these days, most partner-dance events include a preliminary lesson, so even if you have no previous experience, you can quickly pick up new skills. At Berkeley’s Ashkenaz, for example, “All of our Cajun, zydeco, swing, Balkan (Eastern European folk dance), and salsa shows include a dance lesson beforehand, typically 30 minutes on weekdays and 60 minutes on Friday-Saturday,” says publicity and outreach director Joe Balestreri. (Additional Ashkenaz perks: live music, regular classes in genres from Afro-Cuban to zumba, and what Balestreri calls “the best dance floor in the Bay Area.”)
Spice is nice
There’s a lovely view of Lake Merritt out the ballroom window, but nobody’s looking. The class focuses on instructors Ted Rocha and Dorothy Tsang, who maintain an air of upbeat encouragement as they guide about a dozen couples—some of whom have arrived as pairs, some on their own—through the basics of salsa dance. As the students practice their moves, Rocha calls a halt every few minutes and everyone changes partners, Rocha dancing with each woman in turn and Tsang with the men. Newbies all, the crowd is a bit awkward and hesitant at first, but by the end of the hour the infectious good vibes, catchy music, and simple, fluid moves take over.
With a huge salsa-dancing scene in San Francisco and a few venues in the East Bay, students of all ages and ethnicities are flocking to learn this Latin club dance. Many of them find their way to Salsa with Juan, founded by Guatemala-born Juan Gil. Gil chooses his instructors not just for their dancing skills but also for their affinity for sharing them. And the first class is always free, so you’re not obligated to commit before you catch the salsa craze.
If you like the vibe, you’ll have plenty of time to refine your skills and pick up new ones at the school’s Friday Night Socials, held on fourth Fridays at the Lake Merritt Dance Center (come early for lessons if you’re so inclined). Or sign up for a Carnaval Salsa Cruise of the eastern Caribbean (the next one sails Jan. 20) and enjoy seven days of all salsa, all the time, led by Gil and other top-notch instructors from around the country.
Swing dancing may be almost a century old, but its multigenerational appeal endures. And there’s no shortage of teachers ready to introduce you to the local scene through East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, and other permutations of the style.
One such enthusiast is James McBryan of Oakland, who works as a Web developer. In his teens, McBryan was intrigued by the movie Swing Kids, but was truly bitten by the bug when he arrived on the Cal campus and saw a lively couple lindy-hopping to music from a boom box. “I want to do that,” he recalls thinking. Before long, he’d joined other swing-loving students to learn, teach, and eventually help launch classes as part of the academic curriculum.
Post-college, McBryan went on to co-found the Berkeley Dancers’ Den, which convenes most Wednesday nights in the ballroom of the Berkeley City Club for lessons and dancing, and brings in a band once a month. It’s an enthusiastic, all-ages crowd, engaged in the energetic lindy-hop style that McBryan describes as “swinging out all the time.”
For more sedate swing, check out the Balboa style, developed in the ballrooms of Southern California in the big-band era. A specialty of 200 Grand, which holds classes at Lake Merritt Dance Center, the Balboa is smoother and less kinetic than lindy-hopping; it involves fancy footwork and more closeness with your partner.
Located in the former practice studio of the Oakland Ballet, in a historic redbrick building near Oakland’s Jack London Square, Linden Street Studio makes a mission out of sharing the joys of social dancing. From beginners to serious competitors looking to add to the collection of dance-tournament trophies that line the studio’s wall, all are welcome. Free group classes provide in-depth instruction in ballroom styles from foxtrot to tango on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and offer plenty of opportunity to refine your skills with a variety of partners. No partner? No problem, as there are hosts (both male and female) to dance with.
Every summer, Linden Street hosts a 14-week series of Friday-night events in Jack London Square, with hundreds of people turning out for free lessons (a different style each week) and dancing under the stars.
“Our studio is known for its out-of-the-box approach to doing business,” says office manager Jan Fong. “Every lesson plan is custom-made for you—we don’t try to push you into an expensive program that you only want to learn one part of. We offer free group classes and dance hosts to dance with the guests.” The studio also offers such conveniences as a changing room, showers, and a student lounge.
Joined at the hip
The sexiest and most dramatic of all social dances, tango is a cinch to identify—the locked gazes and close-pressed bodies of the partners seem to sizzle with erotic energy. Developed in the lower castes of Argentinean society in the 1800s, the genre has long since lost its “slum” associations—but not its seductive allure. To get started in the booming local scene—today, some consider the Bay Area second only to Buenos Aires as the tango capital of the world—you need to know just one word: milonga, meaning tango event.
Pull an all-nighter at The Beat (Berkeley Performing Arts); the diverse Ninth Street dance studio offers an all-night milonga every fourth Saturday. For old-fashioned Argentinean tango taught by not-so-old-fashioned Argentinean dancer and choreographer Marcelo Solis, try Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires at Berkeley’s Garden Gate Creativity Center on Claremont Avenue. Over at Tango Magdalena on Oakland’s Grand Avenue, you can dance to live music from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every Friday night. And enthusiasts everywhere keep close tabs on tango opportunities at tangomango.org, where a detailed online calendar lists milongas in every city of the nation, including those in the East Bay.
Born in the bayou in a setting of Creole family gatherings and community socials, zydeco music is known for its distinctive instruments—notably the accordion and a washboard relative called a rub-board, usually played with spoons—and its irresistible brew of R&B and French influences. Whether waltzing dreamily to “Jolie Blonde” or showing off intricate steps to livelier tunes, it’s just about impossible not to dance to this music.
“We have fun just watching people dance,” says Dennis Calloway, bass player for perennial local favorite Motordude Zydeco. “If they’re not dancing we’re not happy.”
Locally, the two top venues for aspiring zydeco dancers are Ashkenaz (the club hosts at least one zydeco-oriented dance a month), and the Eagles Hall in Alameda, where Dana DeSimone has been organizing near-weekly Friday-night zydeco dances for over a decade. In both venues, the first hour or so is devoted to the lesson, the rest of the evening to fun.
“It’s not a stuck-up scene,” says DeSimone. “People are there to hear a band and dance—it’s simple.” Most of the time the band is local—maybe Motordude, maybe the up-and-coming Richmond accordionist Andre Thierry. Every couple of months a Louisiana band comes to town. Lately DeSimone has taken to mixing it up a bit—over the last year, Thierry has shared the bill with swing bands Stompy Jones and Mitch Woods and his Rocket 88s.
Lead or follow
Zoe Balfour was moved to launch her Trip the Light Fantastic school of same-sex dancing some 15 years ago largely because, she says, LGBT couples didn’t always find existing dance venues hospitable. Today her students range from beginning social dancers to serious devotees honing their skills for such competitions as the April Follies Same-Sex Dancesport Classic, held yearly at Oakland’s Just Dance Ballroom. In addition to evening classes at the Lake Merritt Dance Center, Balfour also hosts Sunday afternoon Dancing with the Queers classes, each month focused on a different style.
“While designed initially for the queer community, these classes are open to any sexual orientation that is fine with women leading and men following,” says Balfour. “Lots of women and men want to learn to partner dance and to explore the roles of lead and follow in a fun and supportive environment. Your personality or gender preference, rather than your sex, can decide your role.”
And, Balfour says, learning both sets of moves can be a great way not only of improving your skills, but improving your communication with your dance partner. “A dance is a three-minute opportunity to really listen to another person,” she says.
Mary Eisenhart is a writer, editor, and online community manager who lives in Oakland with her dogs and fondly remembers the days when Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band came to town.
200 Grand, Lake Merritt Dance Center, 200 Grand Ave., Oakland; 200grand.com.
Albany Y Folk Dance Group, Albany YMCA, 921 Kains Ave., Albany, (925) 376-0727; bayfolk.com/albany.html.
Allegro Ballroom, 5855 Christie Ave., Emeryville, (510) 655-2888; allegroballroom.net.
Arthur Murray Dance Studios, 22445 Foothill Blvd., Hayward, (510) 537-8706; 1947 Second St., Livermore, (925) 456-5556; 1536 Newell Ave., Walnut Creek, (925) 301-4123; arthurmurraylive.com.
Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 525-5054; ashkenaz.com.
The Beat (Berkeley Performing Arts), 2560 Ninth St., #119, Berkeley, (510) 843-2328; theberkeleyperformingarts.org.
Berkeley Adult School Dance Classes, 1701 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 644-6130; bas.berkeley.net/dance.html.
Berkeley Dancers’ Den, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley; berkeleydancersden.com.
East Bay Waltz, 1970 Chestnut St., Berkeley; eastbaywaltz.com.
East Bay Salsa Meetup; meetup.com/eastbaysalsa.
Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires, Garden Gate Creativity Center, 2911 Claremont Ave., Berkeley, (415) 412-1866; escuelatangoba.com/marcelosolis.
Faz Oakland, 1111 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 272-1111; fazrestaurants.com/faz-oakland.
Hot Salsa Nights, Fireside Lounge, 1453 Webster St., Alameda, (510) 864-1244; salsabythebay.com/hot-salsa-nights-fireside-lounge.
Just Dance Ballroom, 2500 Embarcadero, Oakland, (510) 436-9888; justdanceballroom.com.
Lake Merritt Dance Center, 200 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 504-2176; lakemerrittdancecenter.org.
Linden Street Dance, 130 Linden St., Oakland, (510) 444-3404; lindendance.com.
Montero’s, 1106 Solano Ave., Albany, (510) 524-1270; clubmonteros.com.
Salsa with Juan, (510) 593-3676; salsawithjuan.com.
Ivan Shvarts, Emeryville Senior Center, 4321 Salem St., Emeryville, (415) 760-9374; tangocuriosity.org.
Studio 1924, 1924 Franklin St., Oakland, (510) 832-1712; studio1924.com.
Tango Magdalena Dance and Art Studio, 580 Grand Ave., Ste. #305, Oakland, (510) 390-2886; tangomagdalena.com.
Trip the Light Fantastic, (510) 430-8820; tripthelightfantastic.org.
Zydeco at Eagles Hall Alameda, 2305 Alameda Ave., Alameda, (415) 285-6285; sfzydeco.com/Eagles/content-eagles.htm.
Don’t try this at home: Dance student Hugh Chapman busts a move with instructor Vanessa Montoya at Oakland’s Linden Street Dance. Photo by Eric Teter, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paired for passion: Jean-Pierre Sighé, owner of Tango Magdalena in Oakland, and Bianca Bleshing demo the sizzling partner dance. “Live Oak Tango” by Margaretta Mitchell is part of her photographic series, Nature Body Time. See more of her work at margarettamitchell.com.
Resources of the article can also be found as links in the digital edition.