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So Let's Dance

Dance Moves

Students learn to dance to the sounds of music in local classes

Students practice their moves during an Argentine tango class session in Los Gatos.

Students practice their moves during an Argentine tango class session in Los Gatos. Aparna Mahesh (left) dances with Albert Beltran Jr. as Ninva Bitmansour and Ray Dwyer practice in the background.

On a recent evening, men and women slowly strolled into a brightly lit room. They came from all walks of life--students, psychologists, stay-at-home moms--but they were transformed into dancers. Some took off their street shoes, tucked them in a corner of the room and put something more comfortable on their feet. Others loosened their limbs.

Someone turned up the music. As soon as the violins began playing, the men and women paired up and held out their arms to embrace. On cue, their hands and feet moved intricately in concert. They didn't need words, but they were communicating nonetheless.

They were speaking the language of dance.

For Barbara Valdez, there was no place she would have rather been. On this evening, she was taking a weekly Argentine tango class at the community room at Los Gatos High School.

"I just want to dance with someone who makes it feel magical," she said. 

Each week, amateur dancers stretch, twirl, bend and shimmy their hearts out, converging at dozens of dance classes held in Los Gatos and Saratoga. The Los Gatos-Saratoga Community Education and Recreation Department offers African dance, country and western line dance, tap and more. Apparently, it's never too late to take up beginning dance classes. Even if novices don't know the difference between salsa and samba or rumba and a rhombus, dance instructors say there is room for even the most challenged beginner.

Dance instructor Sue Flanagan (second from left) shows student Barbara Valdez some tango moves as fellow class members look on.

Dance instructor Sue Flanagan (second from left) shows student Barbara Valdez some tango moves as fellow class members look on.

"I can teach anybody," said Yvonne Carr, a belly dancing teacher who for 38 years has been helping her students--mostly women--get over their shyness about the dance form. Once she's on the dance floor, Carr drops her given name and goes by her stage persona, Farouche, an Arabic word that means "wild but gentle one."

At the Los Gatos Recreation Center, Farouche watched as six of her students performed with finger cymbals, veils and swords. The women danced in brightly colored costumes adorned with sequins. However, their hips swayed not to the dulcet tones of Middle Eastern music but to a modern, synthesized tune. Besides dancing to traditional music, Farouche also choreographs traditional belly dancing moves to contemporary music.

"Everything they do, I create from scratch," she said.

This particular group of students has performed at hospitals and charity balls, and on this night they demonstrated their skills. They have an uncanny ability to move body parts independently of each other, such as isolating the ribcage so that it is the only region shaking. Other times, they move different parts of the body together in combinations that would seem impossible to the untrained dancer. They showed how they shake their hips, in a move called the shimmy, while walking.

"It takes almost a year to shimmy and walk and look normal," Farouche said.

Judie Kauffman of Los Gatos has been with Farouche for 20 years and was first drawn to belly dancing because of its exotic look. Belly dancing gets a bad rap, but the reputation that it has as a suggestive activity is unfounded, she said.

"There's nothing risque about it," she said. "This is Los Gatos, California, where there's not anything shady."

In another class at the community room at Los Gatos High School, students were mastering the steps of salsa rueda under the tutelage of dance instructor Samy Makar. Salsa rueda dancers stand in a circle and rapidly exchange partners. Makar called out the steps, and dancers responded, succeeding some of the time. They'd get their arms twisted and knotted and found themselves standing in awkward positions. After some instruction, they freed themselves and tried one more time.

A man gave his hips a slight sway as he moved around the circle, and a woman closed her eyes as she raised her arms above her head, as if she were losing herself in the moment.

"Suena," Makar called out, and the members of the circle simultaneously put their feet down forcibly.

"Suena means stomp. You stomp on [the fifth beat]," he said. "It usually helps to synchronize and get back on the rhythm."

It's the aspect of changing partners that appeals to Makar's students.

"This type of dance is more fun," said Chian Phon Lin of Saratoga.

Two years ago, Lin discovered salsa rueda when he visited a salsa night club in Beijing. He got hooked and now uses dancing as a supplement to his running regimen.

"Part of the reason I do this is exercise," said Lin, a trim 57-year-old. "It's almost like cross-training. Dancing is more fun than running. I still want to be in good shape when I'm 80."

Perhaps its the lyrical nature of dance music or maybe it's the ability to feel light on one's feet, but many local dance enthusiasts say they dance to temporarily forget about their daily problems. A ballroom dance session in Saratoga found two local elected officials waltzing and swinging the night away. David Baxter, mayor of Monte Sereno, and his wife, Linda, look to their weekly dance class as an opportunity to spend time together.

"It's date night," he said.

Meanwhile, Michael Gipe, who heads the Saratoga Union School District board, straightened his back and held up his chin as he tangoed with his wife across the dance floor. For added effect, he hummed along with the music.

Their intention was to learn the fundamental rhythms and the right posture, "but we don't practice," Gipe said.

A couple who does practice is Lynn and Tin Tu of Saratoga, Gipe pointed out, as they whirled by him. The Tus have been taking dance lessons every Wednesday evening for just two years, but they moved around the dance floor with assurance and grace.

"We try hard to remember the footwork," Tin said.

They said they began dancing now that their children are getting more independent. As the background music in class went from a slow waltz to a fast foxtrot, they moved accordingly. Lynn said it takes not just fancy footwork but teamwork to be a good dance couple.

"If I remember the steps and he forgets, I get frustrated because I want him to lead," she said.

Dan Fischer and his fiancée, Jennifer Webber, both of Campbell, were inspired to try a ballroom dancing class in part because of the television show Dancing with the Stars. They were not alone. Their instructor Christine Belanger said that it's not coincidence that more students have been signing up since the show came on. The show has demonstrated that ballroom dancing is not just for the AARP set, Belanger said.

"It's been a blessing for ballroom dancing," she said.

Dance styles originate in specific cultures, but influences from immigrants bring styles to different parts of the world, making them popular with a new group of people. Dance can transcend words.

Nonverbal communication between dancers is what Sue Flanagan stressed in her Argentine tango class in Los Gatos. In Argentine tango, which is different from ballroom tango, there is no choreographed steps for students to follow.

"One of the differences about Argentine tango is the unique ability of two strangers to dance and improvise," Flanagan said. "The leader improvises, and the follower interprets what the leader conveys with his body."

Working under the watchful eye of instructor Sue Flanagan (left), dancers Alone Gorer and Alex Baxter practice their tango steps.

Working under the watchful eye of instructor Sue Flanagan (left), dancers Alone Gorer and Alex Baxter practice their tango steps.

The key in following is to pay attention to how the leader's chest and shoulders turn, said Elizabeth Baxter of Monte Sereno.

"You have to be in tune with the other person," she said.

She and her brother Alex enrolled in Flanagan's class, figuring it would be a different and interesting activity for the summer. The fact that they know each other so well was an advantage, but they also got to know what it's like to dance with different partners.

"In class, everybody dances with everybody, and you get a lot of practice dancing with a lot of abilities and styles," said Baxter, a junior at St. Francis High School.

Argentine tango was a new experience for Baxter, but Aparna Mahesh discovered it in a tango dance hall in Vienna five years ago and fell in love.

"Somebody asked me for a dance," said the Los Gatos resident. "He led and I followed. I made tons of mistakes, but I just followed the way he was dancing. I thought it was such a beautiful dance."

She arrived a bit early to her Argentine tango lesson one evening. As she waited for class to start, she danced by herself. She put up her arms around an imaginary partner and worked on her footwork.

"It's an outlet for me when I dance," she said. "You don't think about issues or problems. You enjoy the moment and the recorded music. It's a liberation of the mind."

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