What’s Good in Seattle, Sept. 2015: Dancing Into Yourself

Lois Castelli-Leff
Posted on September 17, 2015, 5:33 pm
22 mins

Dancing is conversation to music! When you dance, you express yourself. You hold your partner’s interest through the correct use of musical rhythm, just as in good conversation, you hold another’s interest through the use of the spoken word.

Arthur Murray

I grew up with parents who love music and who love to dance. My parents would play albums on our stereo turntable and when my sister, Carole, and I were little, we would take turns dancing with our father in the living room. While facing him, we would carefully place our feet on the toe portion of his shoes. They had to be in just the right position. We would join hands and with each step, his feet would lead ours while we glided around the room dancing to the song, “Daddy’s Little Girl.” We didn’t have to worry about a thing except to keep our feet planted on daddy’s toes and to hold on tight. He taught us our first steps, but Arthur Murray Dance Studios taught him.

Arthur Murray Dance Studios

Our father had always been interested in dance and took it upon himself at the age of 18 to enroll in the Arthur Murray dance studio. He studied the One Step, Cha Cha, Rumba, Mambo, Fox Trot, Waltz, Swing, Jitterbug and the Lindy. Conductor Paul Whiteman—AKA “King of Jazz,” “Rajah of Rhythm,” “Sultan of Swing”—wrote the introduction to Murray’s first book and the one that brought him fame. How to Become a Good Dancer. Mr. Whiteman states that he had observed at that time that passers-by were sneaking into, “a small inconspicuous doorway” on Fourty-fourth Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. “There was no name over it, no sign to indicate what it might be.”

Nearly every time I passed by I would see some man or woman hurry up to that mysterious little door, peer furtively round the street, and then duck inside so fast you’d have thought half the city’s police force was hot on the trail. Who were these jittery ladies and gentleman? Gangsters? Sneak thieves? Impossible! One man, in fact, I had recognized as one of our leading Wall Street brokers. Others had the dress and bearing of top-flight executives, society women, people of importance. My curiosity finally got the better of me. One friend of mine had even seen the Prince of Wales enter it when he was over here in 1924. I began to ask some questions.

What Paul Whiteman found out was that the door was the back entrance to Arthur Murray’s well-known dance studio. “Instead of going in the front entrance, as most did, they were stealing off to Arthur Murray’s like so many little boys sneaking behind the barn to smoke corn-silk cigarettes.”

In 1912, the Arthur Murray Dance Studios began with a man who became an “American symbol of entrepreneurial success and social dancing.” Following its motto, “If you can walk, then we can teach you how to dance,” its studios have brought dancing into the lives of countless people through classes, direct mail and books over the last century. Arthur Murray is the second oldest franchise organization in the USA, with international operations in Canada, Puerto Rico, Europe, The Middle East, Japan, Africa and Australia. The organization is a go-to for producers who need to train actors to dance in movies and commercials, and it also uses its resources to advocate for dancesport, including a push for the International Olympic Committee to include ballroom dancing as an Olympic event.

Murray began teaching with a simple basic dance called the, “One Step,” and then added different dances and variations to it. “A dancing knowledge of a variety of steps makes you a more attractive dancer.” Once a student knows the steps they can be free to be themselves while dancing, Mr. Murray’s advice to all dancers is that, “being yourself… gracefully, rhythmically, is the whole secret of good dancing.”

Dance is in Full Swing in Seattle

Seattle’s local dance community is huge, thanks in part to world class dance companies performing year-round and large communities devoted to tango, swing and other forms of social dancing. The Century Ballroom was founded in 1997 to provide a central venue for dance communities and teachers in Capitol Hill. It occupies the second floor of the 1908 Oddfellows building. It has two dance venues: the West Hall, a dance studio used for lessons, private events and theatrical performances; and the Grand Ballroom, where classes and dance sessions and larger events take place. Often the ballroom will occupy over 500 dancing hearts. It also has an attached restaurant, The Tin Table.

Owner Hallie Kuperman, a true visionary, founded Century Ballroom to present a bias-free environment where people of all skill levels (including newcomers) would be able to practice many forms of dance. Everything is built on a social aspect, from the classes, to group dance nights to the inviting ambiance of the restaurant. Kuperman and company sought to “create a place where people could dine and have a drink, and a place where people could come to dance. On a given night you might meet someone from Sweden, Belgium, Australia, or Indonesia.”

When I walked into the Century Ballroom to check it out, I first met one of their clients, who was upstairs sitting against the wall waiting for the dance class to begin. Mark Soth and his wife, Yvonne, decided to take dancing together over one year ago. He and his wife had children and they began coming here as a way to share a night out alone.

Soth says, “The cool thing about this place is that it’s a mixed group of people who are friendly and warm. People come here to build a connection with someone.”

He pointed me to The Tin Table to speak with its manager, Nathan Layman, who was standing behind the stately bar drying a glass with a bar cloth. My first question to him was whether they can make a good Stinger, my dad’s favorite drink. He smiled and gave me a knowing glance. “I have an Apple Brandy that makes a lovely stinger.” Nathan’s knowledge of alcoholic spirits and the histories behind classic cocktails enables him to match the classic to the guest. Here, in this hidden jewel, they seek to provide an extraordinary dining experience, meticulously focusing on every aspect: drinks, food and its presentation. The ambiance is elegant yet comfortable and unhurried and, “conducive for socializing for hours should you desire.” Executive Chef Frank Wielgosiek uses the most thoughtfully raised ingredients, and exhibits a true commitment to the local farmer, and whenever possible plans his menu around sustainably produced, locally sourced organic ingredients.

“Choosing to go out to dinner should feel like a celebration, and that’s what we do best!” says Kuperman. It’s a celebration of community and one’s own body, and the food is as nourishing as it is artful. After all: “Dance is good for you. It’s really just as simple as that. You will never have to go to the gym again. It keeps you fit…It keeps you young. In dance, you are leading or you are following and having to be in the moment at all times allows your brain to learn and grow.”

Indeed, scientific studies have shown that dancing helps to strengthen our brains and compassion, lose weight safely and lower stress. One such study was conducted by The Alfred Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The college developed a method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging to, “monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.” In the study, frequent dancing was listed as, “the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia.”

I first saw this study cited in article by Richard Powers, a writer and instructor at Stanford University’s Dance Division. Powers has been teaching historic and contemporary social dance for 40 years, leading workshops around the world, and has witnessed the positive healthful effects of dancing firsthand. For further information, please see this interesting article on the amazing benefits of dancing on the brain at socialdance.stanford.edu

Kuperman, too, is a witness to the positive changes that dance gives her teachers and attendees. While I visited Hallie’s studio, I had the pleasure of meeting dancer Liz Jinkins prior to her class and her exuberance was clearly evident.

“This place is a gem,” she said with a grin. “I moved to Seattle a year ago and last summer I was encouraged by a friend to try out the classes here. This is a place where on a Sunday, you can go to church in the morning, come have brunch, and then dance to wonderful music after. The instructors are over the top. They’re incredible, and they all have a great sense of humor. During class, my face hurts from smiling so much! When I am in that Grand Ballroom, I look around and I see the friends that I have made for life. Dancing is as close to flying, for me.”

The Century Ballroom offers quick drop-in lessons to teach the basic form so that their dancers will feel comfortable trying a variety of dances.

Dancing Between Generations

I’ll bookend this article with a little more of my own personal testimony to the power of dance, especially between the generations in my family. I know intimately why dance is so central to so many cultures, even our own, though for many it is a spontaneous form of personal expression, rather than part of a tradition. Both are important. You better appreciate one when you have the other. I share this to make several points: that we are never too old to start, and that once you have dance in you, it never leaves you either, and brings people together across generations.

I began my first dance class at the age of two-and-a-half. My sister was three-and-a-half. We can still remember our graceful teacher and how she allowed us to select among the myriad of beautifully colored silk scarves that were gently piled in the center of the dance floor. We would mimic the gracefulness of these scarves as we twirled them around the dance floor. When we aged out, we and our cousins were enrolled in a small neighborhood dance studio in Commack, New York, the Royale Dance Studio. Maybe it wasn’t the New York City Ballet Company, but the instructors, Miss Bobby and Mr. Reed, were highly regarded, skilled and professional and had the poise of royalty. We all studied with them for over 13 years. I loved the feeling of butterflies in my stomach prior to emerging on stage and the feeling of wanting to perform again the moment that the dance was over. It is an excitement that calls people to the stage and can give one confidence and poise off the stage.

I saw it in myself and in my daughter, Nina, who enrolled in dance at the age of two-and-a half, as I had. After eleven years, she decided to pursue sports exclusively. I was devastated at first. (I had always supported her endeavors in sports, but it never dawned on me that she would one day give up dancing, and having become the backstage mother who helped the dancers prepare their costumes and hair before recitals, her practice had become an important part of my life, too.) I had put my ballet, jazz, pointe and tap shoes away in college, due to a full schedule. When Nina stopped dancing and I reacted as I did, she asked why I didn’t still do it if I loved it so much.

Out of the mouths of babes: I immediately found an opportunity to reconnect with dance at The Magnolia Theater, a wonderful neighborhood children’s theater founded by Jeannie O’Meara. I taught there until she had to close the theatre to focus on tending to her father, who had suffered a stroke. Dance is both so personal and yet also communal. I dance at home or at the gym for exercise, but I miss her and teaching—even the ritual of getting ready, dressing up, putting on those pretty shoes.

I know all sides of it now, so I can say with certainty that if you have ever thought about learning to dance—do it. You will not regret it. It may come to shape your life and add to the lives of others. I have my parents to thank for leading me to it, but many will have to find it for themselves, and I hope they do.

The man who taught me those first steps, my father, suffered a fall last year, resulting in a traumatic brain injury, leading to an infection and other complications, culminating in an induced coma that lasted three days. The prognosis was as grim as it gets, and when he actually recovered, the doctors at St Charles dubbed him the “Miracle Man.”

Our entire extended family and friends celebrated this blessing that Easter at Nocello’s, a dine and dance restaurant. We all cheered as the live band played and we watched our father request the honor to dance with our mother. We will always cherish the look in their eyes and the smiles on their faces as they gingerly stepped onto the dance floor. One by one, each one of us joined in, encircling them for their protection. We all instinctively wanted to create a bubble around them… just in case! We held our breath the entire time. Their hands and hearts were joined and once again they lit up the dance floor!

I thought of this love and devotion again last month when some young relatives were married last month in Tuscany and surprised the guests with a classic waltz for their first dance. They were breathtaking and the entire crowd was engaged. It became a memory that will last a lifetime, and in that moment brought together all generations present in joy—tears of joy, even. Perhaps a family tradition was born.

Whatever your motivation may be, whatever your style, know that Seattle has many options for you, and you will thank yourself for adding a little dance to your life. We can all use a little extra spring in our step when springtime seems so far away and the nights are long.

The following schools have introductory classes, private lessons to get you started, or group lessons and want to encourage dancers of all levels to join in. Check out these local dance studios so that you too can put your dancing feet to the dance floor. In order to see the vast offering of classes at each school, please visit their websites listed below.

Arthur Murray

Phone: (206) 447- 2701 – washingtondancesport.com
There are six locations in Washington and a variety of classes are taught from the Tango to the Hustle.

Century Ballroom

Phone: (206) 324-7263 – centuryballroom.com
The Century Ballroom offers lessons in many dance forms ranging from Bachata, a sexy Latin dance, to East and West Coast Swing, to the slow and sensuous Kizomba, and the happy Lindy Hop. Classic dances like the Salsa, Tango, Waltz and Tap are featured. More modern dances like Hip Hop are also taught here.

Dance Fremont

Phone: (206) 633-0812 – dancefremont.com
A Seattle based dance school providing Classical Ballet and Modern Dance for Adults and Children.

Fremont Abbey

Phone: (206) 414-8325 – fremontabbey.org
This month they have a Tango Class each Wednesday night at 8:15 p.m.

Pacific Northwest Ballet

Phone (206) 441-2435 – pnbschool@pnb.org
Offering Classical Ballet, Modern, Pilates, and Pointe to Adults and Children.

Velocity Dance Center

Phone: (206) 325-8733 – velocitydancecenter.org
They offer everything from Hip Hop to Magan African Contemporary, to Beginning Odissi Classical Indian dance.

Happy Dancing!

Lois Castelli-Leff
Lois Castelli-Leff is a Long Island transplant, 28 years in Seattle. She has a degree in fashion merchandising from FIT and BA in textiles and merchandising from SUNY at Oneonta. Her work experience includes fashion sales and styling at Macy's NYC and Nordstrom. She held regional sales executive position at both Perry Ellis and Anne Klein and has an extensive background in showroom sales, trade shows and fashion show production. Her community service includes serving as an art docent through the Frye Art Museum and speech coach at Our Lady of Fatima, choreographer for the Magnolia Theatre, and is a member of the Katie McKay Circle. Lois founded her business, Senti, in 2010 producing glass crosses. She has three beautiful children and a dog, Baci.

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