By Natalie Jacobsen and Jessica Luck
From swing to salsa, ballroom to hip-hip, tango to tap, Charlottesville’s dance scene is alive and kicking. Over the last few decades as the groups have grown in popularity and size, the communities themselves have transformed: They’re safe spaces to not only master the steps of a dance, but to enjoy the company of others and become a part of something larger than yourself.
Two to tango
Dave Chesler paces the waxed floors, chandelier lights flicker overhead and vinyl scratches on the speakers. His feet count out beats methodically, breaking only when he springs into action to save a couple from a misstep. Laughter ruffles the curtains, and maintains the warmth in the dim room.
Chesler and his wife, Betsy, inherited the Charlottesville Tango dance club roughly a decade ago from founders Marcel Yutz and Gloria Rockhold.
“We used to carpool and drive to D.C. or Richmond solely to participate in milonga nights,” says Chesler. (Milonga, the name of the weekly dance party at Charlottesville Tango, is also a more relaxed version of the dance.) The mileage and gas money, along with growing local interest, prompted them to open up a studio dedicated to Argentine tango in The Glass Building on Second Street.
The students Chesler has attracted over the years speak softly, yet fervently, coaxing newcomers to learn not by observing, but by stepping onto the dance floor. Most students estimate it has taken a few years to be comfortable with the steps. Chesler says it takes months to be at ease with dance patterns, though even he is still striving for “mastery.”
“The temperament of society is to get immediate results in anything we set out to do. Tango, and especially Argentine tango—which we practice here—will never have immediate results,” says Marianne Kubik, a participant of more than five years. “It takes time.”
Kubik is an associate professor of movement at UVA, and though she has experience in both ballroom dancing and theater, she has no interest in being a tango instructor. “I want this all to be for me,” she says. “It is a truly social dance. We are all friends, and feel like family here.”
It shows: Halfway through the night, the group rallies around a student who is celebrating her birthday—they pause to watch her blow out candles on the chocolate raspberry fudge cake, and several take turns leading her in birthday dances.
There is a delicate, yet electric feeling to the group. Hushed conversations and chuckles intertwine with heels pivoting and skirts twirling. Any awkwardness participants had seems to have been checked with their coats at the door. Eye contact between two people is all that is needed for a partnership to form. The dancers make it look easy and fluid; followers move with their eyes closed, trusting leaders to direct them.
“Argentine tango is a dialogue. It is a conversation going on between two people. Often when you begin [the conversation], you will not know where it will go,” says Betsy Chesler.
That is evident when a set of three songs come to a close and intermission music cues everyone to change partners: No two dances are alike.
Marijke Durieux, a participant of more than three years, urges all learners to dance as both a follower and leader, “to get a better feel” for the layers of the dance. “Don’t be intimidated by the moves—think of it like a new way to walk.” She demonstrates the importance of balance in the upper body, and how to shift your weight between your feet, then how to correspond to your partner’s weight and shifts.
The Cheslers have frequented Argentina, studying the dance over the course of the last decade. They describe tango as “basically another way to walk,” and say specific steps don’t necessarily exist without years of pattern studying. Sliding steps turn into pivots that keep couples moving around the room in a sweeping circle.
“Argentine tango is not as rigid and structured as German or other European styles. We emphasize not following strict, traditional patterns,” says Chesler.
The Cheslers and other instructors and group leaders take turns hosting events, including sessions with visiting instructors from Argentina. About once a month, the whole group visits Richmond, where the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts hosts the popular Third Fridays: Tango After Work night. Dancers from Harrisonburg, Lynchburg and Staunton regularly visit Charlottesville for the weekly milonga—couples from Richmond make the weekly trip too. Entry to the milonga is a $10 donation, and it’s $5 for Tuesday night lessons. “The money is to cover rent,” says Chesler.
Lessons are paced differently, much slower. Teachers demonstrate how to read your partner’s direction and interpret body language. The Cheslers are patient, and guide their students in understanding new techniques; they’re relentlessly hands-on until they see a student’s feet grasp a movement. Transitioning and style are taught as well; then, it’s up to the students to make it their own.
Dr. Kamilla Esfahani, a resident physician at UVA, has a background in ballroom, but was attracted to tango a few months ago because of the energy and unpredictability of the dance. “I attended a few lessons, but the best way to learn is at these milonga; have some wine, put on your heels and get out there!”
She sees missteps as miscommunication, and laughs her way through any accidental crisscrossing. “As a partner, we communicate with our feet, not verbally. It’s important to listen to one another in order to make the dance flow.”
Betsy Chesler agrees. “Many followers close their eyes because a single distraction will break the connection, and both will lose their synchrony.”
It, indeed, does take two to tango.
Add some zest to your life
“Zabor—it mixes ‘sabor’ (‘to know’ in Spanish), ‘saber’ (flavor) and zest,” says Edwin Roa, lead instructor of the Charlottesville Salsa Club and founder of Zabor Dance. He and several locals, including Butch Bailey, started the group 17 years ago, and just celebrated their 1,000th gathering this December.
The Colombian native bought a space above the Second Street Gallery and called it The Dance Spot to “unify the dance community—without a label.” Dozens of classes teaching all forms of dance, such as belly dance, hip-hop and ballroom, are held there weekly. Although Roa is more invested in salsa, he flits among other dance communities to “stay in touch” and be supportive.
“Initially I hated the idea of teaching, but I saw a gap in social dances here in Charlottesville and created a fusion, a balance between lessons and just having fun,” says Roa.
He sees salsa as “invigorating” and “alive,” comparing it to other dances: “Many ballroom styles are like calligraphy, which can look beautiful, but have silly words written. Salsa is more like composition—it is rich, detailed, even though it may not look perfected.”
He likes the exposure that shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” have brought to general audiences, but also takes issue with the showmanship. “If everyone goes and choreographs and dances the same way, it’s boring. It should be about the movement and culture of the dance, not music and costumes.”
His lessons, which always accompany salsa nights an hour prior to the party, include a dash of such history, elaborating on the combination of jazz with Latin dance that created salsa, and basic movements to get the participants roused. He speaks vivaciously to about 30 grinning faces, the youngest of which is 8-year-old Liliana. He has seen his students grow up, and bring their children to his salsa nights over the years.
The lessons and party are now held at The Ante Room, after hopping from place to place around Charlottesville over the course of the last decade. They start out easy: with tapping, then walking side-to-side, to counting steps of four and dancing in a square shape. The music is upbeat, and Roa keeps the class interactive. He doesn’t strive for flawlessness with his students, but embraces the differing nuances of their steps and styles. “I want you to bring your own ingredients, and show me the flavor of your dance,” says Roa. He reminds everyone there is no such thing as a mistake.
Students learn how to direct their energy through their chest and shoulders, and channel direction with their hips, creating the iconic rocking motion that makes salsa recognizable. He teaches the ways to count, and what steps to fall back on if you feel overwhelmed.
Liliana volunteers to demonstrate moves throughout the class, as her father, Victor Mambuja, watches. “I like coming [because] it is fun,” she says. “I do gymnastics too, which is like dancing.” Mambuja says they have only been coming for a few weeks, but it was all her idea. “She looks forward to it every week. It has helped her improve her rhythm and balance.” She tugs on his hand, pulling him to the floor.
All ages are welcome at the salsa nights. “We strive to create a completely safe space,” says Roa. “If anyone feels discomfort, I encourage them to speak up.” Intolerant of misbehavior, he has—though rarely—shown troublemakers the door. He feels this is especially important after this summer. “People try to come here to forget their everyday problems. We want to empower everyone who joins us,” he says. Roa led a salsa event in front of the LOVE sculpture on the Downtown Mall shortly after August 12, to “bring levity” back to the community center.
“UVA does not offer formal partner classes, that’s why the local social groups like salsa are so important to the community,” says Roa. Nearly 50 regulars participate weekly, with larger events bringing in hundreds.
Butch Bailey mans the DJ computer and control panel while Roa teaches. He has been loyal to Roa, joining him every week. “Salsa is really good for you—it’s therapeutic. You can find a number of studies that believe this dance postpones [onsets of] dementia,” says Bailey. “The friendships I have seen made here are for a lifetime.”
The lesson wraps up, and the music dims, cuing the party. Rambunctious dancing across the floor begins almost immediately, with people spinning and holding hands. The walls vibrate from the music, and the floor shakes with every heart-pounding step. Leaders project momentum through their chests, and followers respond, as if questions are being posed and answers shared. Feet become seemingly obsolete as partners learn to properly read each other’s language with their upper bodies and hands.
Throughout the night the dancing never ceases—it’s well past midnight when the floor starts to thin. High spirits and energy are palpable, as is the sweat.
Simone Buckman, a UVA researcher and Charlottesville native, has been practicing for the last four years. “I used to try going in New York City, but their clubs are very elitist; so when I found Edwin I was elated—it is so liberating here. Look around and see how many nationalities, socio-economic statuses and ages are present. There are so few communities within Charlottesville that have such representation, that are so welcoming and inclusive,” says Buckman.
“Starting out seems scary at first,” she says, “but salsa is all about making yourself vulnerable before freeing yourself.”
Hop to it
About 20 smiling pairs twirl around the dance floor as the beginning notes of “For All We Know” by the Boilermaker Jazz Band fill the air. The smooth sound of the clarinet beckons dancers in and out of steps, with the leads setting the pace for their partners with arm and body movements. The windows around the main room at The Front Porch are already fogged over, and someone has propped the front door open to let in the cool night air. If you close your eyes and listen to the leather-soled shoes hitting the floor in time to the eight-count rhythm jazz music, it’s easy to imagine you’ve been transported to another place, another time. Perhaps 1935 and the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York—one of the first racially integrated ballrooms, and the birthplace of the swing dance known as the Lindy hop.
The Lindy hop, which started as an African-American improvisational dance that fused together dances before it such as jazz, tap and the Charleston, plays off the spontaneous nature of jazz music because couples don’t rehearse steps beforehand. It’s a true partner dance in which the lead and follow pay attention to each other’s movements and have a conversation with one another—and with the music. The solid eight-count rhythm of a song works as a base structure for both musicians and dancers: You know what to expect and you can play around within that framework.
The local Lindy hop dance scene was built up much in the same way the dance itself saw a resurgence on a worldwide scale. A popular dance in the late ’20s and up to the early ’40s, Lindy dance troupes such as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, started by Herbert “Whitey” White at the Savoy, toured extensively around the country and even appeared in films such as The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races. But the Lindy hop dropped out of mainstream culture during World War II, when many of its fans were drafted, and dance clubs segued into jazz clubs filled with the less movement-friendly sounds of bebop and cool jazz. Rock ’n’ roll exploded on the scene later, but in the 1980s, groups of dancers in New York, California, London and Sweden all sought out original Lindy hop dancers to come out of retirement and teach them how to do the exuberant dance they had only seen on film.
In 2009, a small group of Lindy hop enthusiasts in Charlottesville formed SwingCville to offer classes in a variety of vintage dances including the Lindy hop, Balboa and Charleston. The group’s member base is fairly transient, with many college-age students and recent grads. And the nonprofit is all volunteer-run: Everyone from the person who takes money at the door of the weekly or monthly dances to teachers to the club’s organizer do it because they love it.
SwingCville General Manager Jim McGuire initially tried swing dancing at his sister’s wedding, when one of her friends taught the wedding party some moves. McGuire, who admits he doesn’t have a great sense of rhythm, says he was terrible that first time on the dance floor. He tried ballroom a few years later but wasn’t a fan of the more prescribed structure with dramatic lines. In 2012, the Charlottesville native moved back to his hometown and three years later he got up the courage to try swing once more. He arrived about 15 minutes early—he’s often early—for the two-hour Lindy hop crash course SwingCville offers to teach beginners the basics, and he stared in disbelief as he watched people learn The Big Apple, a complex, choreographed jazz line dance. “Oh my god I don’t belong here,” he thought to himself. But he stayed for the lesson (which was much easier, he adds) and hasn’t stopped dancing since. He knew he was really into the Lindy hop when he started practicing on his own. While he made eggs for breakfast he’d do the basic rock step, triple step, triple step moves he learned in the weekly classes. Three weeks ago, after a workout at the downtown ACAC, he put in his earbuds, put on some jazz music and practiced dancing by himself on the rooftop of the building in 40-degree weather. He says whenever he learns a new step, like a kick ball change, he has to practice it “a million times” before he can use it during a dance.
“I wish people weren’t as scared—I know it’s intimidating,” McGuire says. “It’s so rare that we try things we’re not good at anymore. I wish I would see people try it more—there’s such joy in what we do.”
Katie Dillon is a lifelong dancer—she grew up doing ballet, tap, jazz and hip-hop. But she was still nervous for her first Cat’s Corner weekly dance with SwingCville three years ago because she’d never done a partner dance before. Dillon had moved in with her mom after college and was looking for a way to interact more with the Charlottesville community and to get back into one of her favorite hobbies. She says she fell in love with swing dance from the first class and has only missed a few sessions in the last couple of years.
“It was something about the atmosphere that clicked with me,” she says.
Dillon got more involved with the Lindy hop community and joined other local dancers as they journeyed around the region to take dance workshops and participate in large events like Lindy Focus—the mecca of workshops and late-night dancing to live bands that takes place the week of New Year’s Eve in Asheville, North Carolina. McGuire’s done the same, and he praises the open and friendly Lindy hop community—when traveling for work he’ll often look up people in the local scene and enjoy a night of dancing and an invitation to crash on their couch before heading back home.
Dillon recently started teaching Lindy hop classes, and says it has caused her to become even more passionate about the dance and to pay attention to what her body’s doing and how she’s connecting with the other person.
“[This community] has really changed my experience living in Charlottesville,” Dillon says. “I’m glad I found them because it’s a really open, friendly, supportive and encouraging community of people.”
At the Wednesday night dance lesson in mid-December at The Front Porch, teachers Jim Hughes and Sheila Herlihy have dancers walk in a circle around them to warm up before splitting them into groups of leads and follows to learn the basic back-and-forth rock step and quick-time triple step, and get tips on hand placement (leads should place their hands on the follow’s back, and the follow drapes her arm over the lead’s left shoulder; their right hands are clasped). After the leads and follows pair up, Herlihy counts down a 5…6…5, 6, 7, 8 so that the dancers can put their new knowledge into action. After the session, dancers high-five each other and the leads rotate in a clockwise direction. There are no set partners; after each lesson you try what you just learned with a new person.
When the group adds tuck turns in which the partners rotate away from each other in a spin during the triple steps and then come back together, Herlihy praises them. They successfully completed the two main rules in Lindy hop, she says: Don’t get hurt and have fun.
As the class winds down, more people begin to trickle into the room and line up on the walls on either side of the room or lean against the stairs waiting for the social dance to start. Once class is over, Brian Richards, one of the DJ coordinators for SwingCville, puts on the first selection for the evening from the Boilermaker Jazz Band, and the dance floor fills with people. First-timers dance with veterans and teachers dance with students, although no teaching is done during social dances, McGuire says. The focus is on being in the moment—and having fun.
“Lindy hop is playful. There’s an exuberance to it that I really identify with,” McGuire says. “As you watch people who are into different dances, they’re into it for different reasons, and a lot of it has to do with the way it makes you feel.”