Years ago, I was named "best dancer" among my fellow high school graduates. True story. It’s also true that I was in a class of 150 students and the yearbook staffer who chose our superlative yearbook categories was a close friend.
I’d never experienced an actual dance class until I went to ODC Dance Commons for Rhythm & Motion, which is more of a general workout for people who love to move around than it is instructional. Rhythm & Motion covers a variety of genres – jazz, hip hop, Bollywood, African, disco, you name it. Rule #1 is "shake your booty." Rule #2 is "have fun."
As a Pilates instructor at Core Pilates on 17th in the Mission, I am surrounded by dancers, and I felt I was missing out on some finer points of movement. I barely knew what a plié was. So I decided to take advantage of the 200 classes per week offered at ODC's beautiful, airy Mission space, and to try a variety of styles over six days. Despite a few bruises to my body and ego, I lived to tell the tale.
Dudley Flores is a Rhythm & Motion master trainer. He’s the kind of teacher students feel an immediate personal connection with. The morning of his class, though, I was feeling lazy and considered skipping – until I logged on Facebook and saw a frightening photo of Dudley's beaten-up face. He’d recently been assaulted while walking home alone. Thankfully, two kind passersby scared off the assailants. According to his Facebook profile, he had performed soon after the incident, so I assumed he would also be teaching. If he could make it, I could get off my lazy ass and go too.
When I got to class, I couldn’t have guessed that Dudley had been attacked days before. His energy level was incredibly high. The class progressed from basic stretches to a few warm-up routines to some seriously grooving and cardio-intensive combinations, while the soundtrack cycled from Janet Jackson to Prince to jazz and Bollywood tunes. I left the class elated and ready for the day.
I enjoy Brazilian movements, so I was psyched to try out instruction devoted to this style. I found a spot in Paco Gomes’ Brazilian Modern class, feeling somewhat confident about my abilities – confidence that was completely unfounded as it turned out. Paco, our dreadlocked Brazilian instructor, shouted orders for positions that were mysterious to me and he demonstrated the movements just once before having us try them. I struggled to follow the person in front of me and became increasingly insecure as Paco, who was equally handsome and frightening, barked instructions and insults our way.
Then came the performance. We were to break into groups to demonstrate the combinations we’d learned. Most of us were newbies, and we looked at each other pathetically – Paco wouldn't tell us how to split up or how to navigate the static versus traveling combinations. "Organize yourselves!" he shouted.
We followed the lead of a few regulars and managed to correctly complete the expected moves. Only one person got kicked in the face.
When we instinctively applauded each other afterward, Paco said he didn't understand why we were doing that. I felt pretty demoralized until our instructor finally showed us his softer side. He pointed to a little knot in the hardwood floor that appeared to be a koala bear, an image he said he looks at when he’s sad. He had us touch it with an index finger (left hand!). The class was stressful, but at least we left smiling.
I was afraid of the word "advanced" in the Advanced Beginning Contemporary class but was comforted by "beginning." There was just one guy among the ladies filing into the room the day I went. “I'll stand near him,” I thought. “He'll make me look good.”
A piano player accompanied us, which was lovely. He occasionally added a synthesizer, though, which was a distraction my brain couldn't process while trying to perform advanced beginning contemporary dance moves.
The class began in the first position, which I had learned from the Brazilian class (and remembered vaguely from Pilates) was heels together, toes apart. At this point I was also familiar with some other basic terms instructor Todd Eckert was using, so I could follow him, if always a moment behind. The dude in front of me, however, was right on cue. Alas, that underhanded plan to make myself look good didn't pan out.
And although I was less than a stellar student, Todd's good nature and appropriately timed jokes kept me going through the most uncoordinated hour and a half of my life.
When I imagined Brazilian dance, Raffaella Falchi’s samba class was what I had in mind. It was a Friday evening and the room was packed. A band was setting up, and we were energized by the idea of live accompaniment.
Raffaella led us by signaling the music to commence and getting her samba on. We formed ten rows and followed her across the floor to the beat of the drums. My fellow dancers were having a blast, regardless of whether they were mastering the moves. If I couldn't see Raffaella, the petite powerhouse student in front of me became a wonderfully energetic guide.
Multiple sizes, shapes, and ages were represented here. I spotted a man in his 70s dancing amongst rows of gangly Midwestern-looking girls and hairy-chested dudes in Adidas shorts.
The musicians whooped as we shook and sashayed across the floor. Everyone seemed genuinely sad for the class to end; I know I was. As I left, a young woman thanked me –she’d been following my moves in the samba line. I was pleased to have somehow repaid the instruction I’d been given.
"Heavy in your feet, heavy in your knees, heavy in your ass." That's one of the first instructions Micaya gave us in her beginning hip-hop classes. She's been teaching for more than 20 years and it's clear she's an accomplished pro. She got us started with pounding music and a warm-up of basic knee bends and stretches, sit-ups, and push-ups.
There were no floaty, ballet-like movements in Micaya's class. It was all about stomping and shaking your booty – hard. Micaya broke down the moves so we felt somewhat accomplished by the performance part of the class, but not so much that it was boring (at least for this beginner). Her star students were lined up in the front to help instruct, so we never felt lost. During the final 20 minutes, Micaya divided her very full class into three groups, and we got to strut our stuff as the rest of the students cheered.
When I discovered that ODC offered an ’80s class, it occurred to me that the decade is to kids nowadays what the ’60s were to me as a teenager – eons ago! As were my high school years, alas.
I was too curious about how my youth would be represented in this class to miss it. Would we wear one white glove and do the moonwalk? Or bounce around in neon like Cyndi Lauper?
When I arrived, only ten students had shown up. What can you do? It was late on a Sunday and this was a new class. Despite the low attendance, our instructor Namita Kapoor kept the energy high by cracking jokes.
I was thrilled and embarrassed when we danced to a song by my favorite high school heartthrob. His spiked hair and pouty lips were super-dreamy to my teenage, rural Pennsylvanian self. Ah, Corey Hart, who wore his sunglasses at night. We pranced across the floor, miming wearing sunglasses when it wasn't necessary for eye protection. Pure fun. (Look for this class to reappear on the fall schedule).
My week at ODC definitely gave me the dance bug. Maybe I'll even don some silver hot pants next year and join Raffaella's Carnaval crew, or participate in Micaya's Mission in the Mix, a show she promises anyone who signs up the opportunity to perform. If only the class of 1986 could see me now.
This summer is a great time to try out ODC. Its Blue Plate Special, available through September, offers one global dance class per week for half off – just $6 each. Consider it a recession-friendly trip around the world.