Oh, to Dance: Quite a Feat: Classes Tap to the Beat, from Mambo to Modern

By Barnes, Denise | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

Oh, to Dance: Quite a Feat: Classes Tap to the Beat, from Mambo to Modern


Barnes, Denise, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Hips will sway, knees will bend, and laughter will abound this evening as students rumba, mambo and cha-cha to the upbeat Latin sounds of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez inside the mirror-lined dance studio at Dance Place in Northeast's Brookland neighborhood.

There's something for everyone in the D.C. area, whether it's at Dance Place, Joe's Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier or the Knock on Wood Studio in Northwest.

No one has to dance to the same drummer at Dance Place, a unique and innovative space near Catholic University. The community cultural-arts center, co-founded in 1980 by director Carla Perlo, 44, is a performance house and a center for dance education for both children and adults and for community work.

"Every class has a very similar approach, which is to make people feel comfortable and inspired to move," the native Washingtonian says.

The hourlong "Simply Ballroom" class taught by Jim Byers, 28, a Latin-music historian and self-taught dancer, is designed to introduce beginners to social dancing with an emphasis on basic footwork, rhythm and the development of a good dance frame (how to hold your partner and to lead and follow effectively).

"As long as the student has the desire to learn, whether they take ballroom dancing, African dance, the [Katherine] Dunham technique or modern, it's an alternative to the Stairmaster," Mr. Byers says.

Since he says it's been about 30 years since Americans have engaged in touch dancing, Mr. Byers focuses on the art of leading and following and on teaching students how to retain tension in their arms so as to maintain a proper dance frame.

"Ballroom dancing has become increasingly popular," he says. "Age groups range from those in their early 20s - many of whom are college students - to older adults who simply want to take a refresher course. Catholic University, American University and George Washington University have now included it in their curriculum." Mr. Byers grew up in McLean and readily admits that Latin music and dance are his first loves. His "Simply Ballroom" classes focus on Latin dances. On any given Thursday evening, class size may vary from 12 to 22 students, and one doesn't have to have a partner when joining the eight-week class.

The easygoing instructor started collecting vintage Latin and Latin-jazz music when he was only 7 years old. Today, Mr. Byers has approximately 4,000 recordings. It's an appreciation he says he acquired from his parents, who had a small record collection when he was a youngster.

"Part of the process of Latin dance is understanding the music as well as the dance - they go hand in hand. The rumba, mambo and cha-cha are all African-based rhythms. The melodies are largely Spanish and European, but the rhythms are African," Mr. Byers says.

"I also want my students to understand the history of the music," he says while taking a short break after a mambo demonstration in the recently renovated studio. "Latin music is probably among the least understood of the popular music styles."

Each dance has its own personality: The mambo is intense and steamy; the rumba, first popular as a social dance in the United States in the 1930s, is slow and romantic; the cha-cha is playful and seductive and was introduced when the mambo was at its height in 1953-54, Mr. Byers explains.

Dance has become an integral part of Delores Bushong's life, but it wasn't always that way. For years, the high school teacher avoided situations in which she'd be asked to dance.

"I went to Minneapolis to visit a girlfriend, and we went out to a club," says Ms. Bushong, 49, of Northeast. "I was asked to dance by a member of the band. I explained to the gentleman that I couldn't dance, that I'd never been able to dance. But he insisted that he could lead me.

"After a minute, he realized that I didn't get it. …

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