the art of social dancing is not dead

Sarah Siebert, Project Manager at LAND Studio, believes that people are "wired to move." Whether you're the first person up on the dance floor or someone has to pull your hand, most of us would admit that it feels good to dance -- it's a way to express yourself, move and groove and burn calories.

Siebert recently helped organize "Step Out, Cleveland ... Shake Off the Rust!," an event held at the Global Center for Health Innovation this past November. Presented by LAND Studio and Cleveland Public Library as part of the Lockwood Thompson Dialogues, the event had Northeast Ohioans participating in 10 workshops that covered topics that included African dance and yoga. After a full day of discussion panels, it culminated in a nighttime community dance party.   

“While some communities use dance to find their voice, others, whether out of fear or social pressure, have stopped moving," says Siebert of the one-time event. "Our hope through this event was to have pushed the needle a bit, empowering both ‘dancers’ and ‘non-dancers’ to claim some authority on the dance floor -- not only as expression or art, but because dancing is fun."

According to a National Endowment for the Arts 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, about half of the nation's adults created, performed, or shared art of various types. Social dancing, the study found, was the most popular form of art-making or art-sharing; nearly one in three adults (32 percent) danced at weddings, clubs or other social settings. The study also found that young adults and Hispanic Americans are the most avid dancers.

Dance is a social art form where you can meet people. It's also a great form of exercise because once you're in a groove, you forget that you’re getting a workout, which can be important during Cleveland's hibernation-inducing winters.
Here are four local venues helping you reclaim your right to the dance floor.
<span class="content-image-text">Belinda's Night Club</span>Belinda's Night Club
Salsa the night away at Belinda's Nightclub

With only word-of-mouth advertising, Belinda's Nightclub has been packing its 6,000 square foot dance floor since 1992. The former Irish-American Club now serves up home-style Spanish finger foods such as pastelitos, empanadas and pinchos in its kitchen and has salsa, merengue, bachata, reggaeton and other Latin dances in an open, old-school dance hall atmosphere.

“Everybody knows each other. And if they don’t, they are very friendly,” says 71-year old owner William Perez, a native of Puerto Rico. Many of the clientele are of Hispanic origin and live on the near west side and, according to Perez, went to school together or see each other in the Spanish grocery stores.

“But it's a real mix," he adds. "Even people from the east side come. We had 15-20 Americans here last weekend."

Perez encourages everyone to come to Belinda’s. “If you don’t know how to salsa, I tell people, ‘just watch and you’ll pick up the steps. It’s not difficult.'"

Live bands and Latin dancing happen every Saturday night for the affordable entrance fee of $3 for women and $5 for men at 9613 Madison Avenue.
<span class="content-image-text">Grupo Unidade Capoeira</span>Grupo Unidade Capoeira
Learn the roda at Grupo Unidade Capoeira

Necessity really was the mother of invention for Steven DeAllen "Dentista" Young. The 38-year-old founded Grupo Unidade Capoeira in 2005. “I couldn’t find much representation for black martial arts,” he says. "The closest masters were in their 90s or in Detroit. There was nothing in Cleveland.”

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that uses different elements of dance, music and acrobatics and began as a way for escaped and unarmed slaves to defend themselves. Today it has evolved into a complex, social dance and is even referred to as a game. In the dance or roda (the Portuguese word for “wheel) participants “play” Capoeira, which Young describes as a game of near-misses in which participants move to music and employ different physical tactics in an attempt to hit each other but also avoid getting hit.

“It’s like a microcosm of the world," he says. "What you take in is what you have and how you deal with it is how you probably deal with life." Young recommends Capoeira for anyone who wants to “ feel better, be part of a community, learn about yourself, exercise and see yourself in different light."

Grupo Unidade Capoeira hosts a monthly open roda the last Sunday of each month at at The Young Martial Science Center at 3565 Fulton Road in Cleveland.
<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Exotic Dance</span>Cleveland Exotic Dance
Try pole dancing at Cleveland Exotic Dance

Pole Dancing is a great way to stay fit, tone up and lose weight. It’s also a way to explore your sensuality through dance. When former Cleveland-area exotic dancer Roxi DellaDonna took a sabbatical from performing, friends suggested she teach classes. She began by offering classes for a few bachelorette parties and soon she was writing curriculum and looking for studio space.

“Everybody comes to try pole fitness and falls in love with it for different reasons,” DellaDonna says. Her average student is 25-35 and female, but she has younger and older students, the oldest being in her mid-60s. Men are checking out pole fitness, too. Recently, she held a first-ever Pole for Men workshop and attracted seven curious fellows, a few of whom have continued with classes after the workshop ended.

“Pole doesn’t have to be sexy,” DellaDonna says. She explains that a pole is a vertical apparatus to explore movement. “It has an automatic negative association with strippers, but if you look at yoga, gymnastics or figure skating, those people are making the same body shapes we create on the pole."

Every two months Cleveland Exotic Dance hosts a Pole Jam that is open to the public. You don’t need to have taken classes to participate.   

Get your contra on with North Coast Contra

Contra dancing is not to be confused with the Virginia Reel, that complex, partnered, geometrical dance pattern you were forced to learn in the elementary school gym. But contra (or country) dancing did in fact grow out of those English folk dances that came over to the states on the Mayflower.

The origin of the dance’s name isn’t clear. Some think “contra” is a version of “country” or from the French word “contre” which refers to the opposing lines of couples who face each other on the dance floor. Think of contra dancing as that big social dance that happens in every Jane Austen movie.

The contra scene is kind of under the radar in Cleveland but it has a large following. “I like to call contra dancing one of America’s best kept secrets,”  says teacher Carole Wallencheck. “We’ve been contra dancing in the U.S. since before the revolution. Thomas Jefferson used to play his fiddle at dances."

More than two centuries later, Americans are still contra dancing. A typical event lasts just under 3 hours with a walk-through or lesson beforehand and a 15 minute break in the middle. It’s an easy dance to learn. Because participants walk through each pattern before the music begins, and then a caller prompts each of the next moves, folks catch on quickly. “You’re essentially walking a repeated pattern on the floor it gets into your bones,” Wallencheck says.

Even if you’re not sure you want to try contra dancing, you can check a dance out, even without a partner, and enjoy the live music, which is mainly Appalachian or Celtic. And at $7-10, they're also a real bargain. But be prepared to dance!

“If you come,” Wallencheck says “ it’s likely someone will ask you to dance.” This is no club scene. People of all ages attend these alcohol and cigarette-free, family-friendly dances. Wallencheck tells the story of meeting up with a partner from long ago when she was at a dance in Pittsburgh: “A couple of years ago a young man asked me to dance and he said he used to live in Cleveland and that he remembered dancing with me when he was about 11."

In Contra, everyone dances with everyone.  “You'll see same gender couples, and a 70-year old dancing with a 13-year old. It’s about having fun and connecting with people in a 10-minute dance," Wallencheck says. She's been teaching contra for 25 years and isn’t tired of it yet. “I still love it. I’ve made really good friends."

Contra is also evolving. People are still writing new dance patterns. “It’s not like we’re dancing old dances. It’s a vibrant and evolving art form,” she says.  Even the musicians are writing new songs. “Contra is a vital, living art form."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Christine McBurney
Christine McBurney

About the Author: Christine McBurney

Christine McBurney is an educator,  writer, theater artist, and Co-Artistic Director of Mamai Theatre Company. Her writing has appeared in The Plain Dealer, Belt Magazine, Northern Ohio Live, CWRU Magazine, and other publications. She lives in Cleveland Heights.