L.A. moves to a multicultural rhythm when it puts on its dancing shoes by Jane Jelenko / photographs by Sarah Kehoe
I am a dance lover. As a child, I was a serious dance student, but I peaked at seven. Now I dance for the sheer fun of it. It’s a way to get back to a more joyful state.
Babies laugh with their whole bodies. Every limb jiggles with unbridled happiness. Eventually, that joyful expression diminishes, first confining laughter to just the face, then covering the mouth, as though they might offend.
To me, dance—whether onstage or on TV—is eminently entertaining, and considering the success of Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, millions agree.
Make no mistake, Los Angeles is an amazing dance town. The Music Center and UCLA’s Royce Hall, among other venues, let you experience the artistry of the greatest dancers and choreographers in the world. And someday, we might boast of our own resident dance company as we do our beloved opera and philharmonic.
Still, dance here is so much more than a spectator event. We are a city on the move, and in every corner, Angelenos bounce to an ethnic beat. Dance mirrors our celebrated diversity; it’s literally in our blood. Each ethnic community has a vibrant dance culture that acts as a bonding mechanism and an outlet for artistic expression.
Children and adults alike participate in the art form, whether consciously or not, experiencing the pleasure of moving to rhythms embedded in cultural memory.
But L.A. isn’t merely a sea of ethnic islands. Dance forms ranging from Irish stepping to Brazilian capoeira provide bridges across communities, as we Angelenos step out of our comfort zones and move to music from other cultures.
When asked about dance, L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who takes weekly Latin classes with her 17-year-old daughter at the Dance Doctor in Santa Monica, summed it up: “The environment gives you permission to be whatever you want to be—it allows you to create a fantasy.”
Argentine Tango at 3rd Street Dance
“If ballroom tango can be compared to a ‘seasoned relationship’ that has withstood a test of time—sharp, clean and precise—then Argentine tango is a ‘sizzling love affair,’ passionate, unpredictable and insatiable,” says instructor Vladimir Estrin. The initial series of eight classes teaches posture, step patterns, leading and following skills and music interpretation. Private lessons are also available. $14 per class. www.3rdstreetdance.com, 310-275-4683
Asteria Greek Dance at Pacific Arts Center
Socrates and Plato hailed dance as the physical expression of life’s peaks and valleys, so why can’t you? Celebrate the symbolism to cure, fall in love and overcome tragedy with Jerry Savin and his Greek troupe. Young adults to senior citizens will learn the intricacies of line dancing that re-creates traditional Aegean village life. $10 per class. www.pacificartscenter.com, 310-481-9966
Capoeira at Studio A Dance
A centuries-old technique developed in Brazil during the days of the slave trade, capoeira blends dance, music and marshal arts in a resilient, limit-testing flow. “Capoeira is like a game of physical chess,” says Studio A student Jeff Howell. “As you progress, the traps and movements get more intricate.” Wear loose-fitting clothes, bring water and expect to sweat. There’s also a kids’ program to help little ones five and up let off some steam. $15 per class (first one free). www.studioadance.com, 323-661-8311
Dance at the Music Center
Rumba, samba, shimmy and shake to more than 50 types of ethnic dance, ranging from Congolese to Javanese at the center’s two multicultural dance events. Downtown Dance, on Friday nights through September, offers live music and lessons for all skill levels, while Taste of Dance is a one-day extravaganza on September 20. Downtown, free; Taste, $1 per lesson. www.musiccenter.org, 213-972-3660
For more than 30 years, this has been the place to learn the ways of the coquettish and passionately historical Mexican folk dance. “It’s all in L.A.; you don’t need to go any further than one neighborhood to another,” says artistic director Gema Sandoval. The school works in conjunction with LAUSD to teach Mexican dance programs that culminate in seasonal recitals. Free. www.danzafloricantousa.com, 626-796-2403
Jung Im Lee Korean Dance Academy
What better way to learn about Korean heritage than in one of the largest Korean dance studios in Southern California? Jung Im Lee welcomes students from the age of four and aims to improve the Korean community and provide regional awareness to non-Koreans. In addition to traditional dance, the academy gives classes in drum, hip-hop, ballet and jazz. $80 per month. www.koreandanceacademy.com, 213-487-2957
Kayamanan Ng Lahi Philippine Folk Arts
Filipinos—the largest Asian and Pacific Islander group in Los Angeles—are preserving the storied and colorful ways of their homeland through dance in L.A.’s historic Filipinotown. “For us, dance is a way to develop ourselves as individuals,” says Kayamanan Ng Lahi founder Joel Jacinto. “Our organization is a means for cultural empowerment.” $40 for 10 classes. www.kayamanan.org, 310-391-2357
Kelly School of Traditional Irish Dance
Riverdance redux? If the intricate footwork of Irish dance is intriguing to you, this is the place to get your clog on. “The beats and rhythms become stuck in your head, almost in your heart, when you are dancing,” says Caroline Garity, who, along with her twin sister, Kimberly, has been dancing for 11 years. In addition to Kelly’s El Segundo studio, classes are offered at locations throughout the South Bay. Call for prices. www.kellyirishdance.com, 310-332-9090
Lula Washington Dance Theater
In the true spirit of L.A.’s multicultural roots, legendary dancer Lula Washington’s studio offers Western styles such as ballet and hip-hop alongside Senegalese and Caribbean. “People come to African dance at our studio so they can stand to be at work the next day—they want to be revived and energized,” says Erwin Washington, Lula’s husband and executive director. $12–$15 per class. www.lulawashington.com, 323-292-5852
The Salsa Box Studios
No matter your age or body type, Rosalba Jasso’s Egyptian belly-dance class is perfect for anyone who wants to work it outside of the gym. The full-on diaphanous scarf attire isn’t necessary—most folks dance in workout clothes and add a belly dancer’s coin belt to get that extra, um, jingle. “It’s my alter ego,” says 25-year-old student Mylissa Acevedo. Level one teaches basic hip-shaking moves, while level two adds choreography and a chance to perform at the studio’s monthly showcase. $15 per class. www.thesalsaboxstudios.com, 323-972-1831
Shida Pegahi’s Persian Dance at Pacific Arts Center
Traditional Persian dance, with its undulations and arm movements, may be outlawed in Iran under the Islamic fundamentalist regime, but it hasn’t stopped the rhythm here in L.A. Kids and adults thrive from the liberating choreography, which centers on the upper body, including facial expressions, rather than hips and legs. Though the dance movements are complex, Pegahi’s techniques can even be learned by beginners. $20 per class. www.pacificartscenter.com, 310-481-9966
Israeli Dance at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Jews and non-Jews come together in droves on Wednesday nights (other nights in other areas of the San Fernando Valley) for “the largest session of Israeli dance outside of Israel,” says instructor David Dassa. In keeping with the genial nature of the dance itself, his classes are always ebullient social affairs, where many of the pupils have become partners on and off the dance floor. $9 per class. www.rikud.com, 310-210-6634
JANE JELENKO is president of Center Dance Arts at the Music Center. She recently authored the book Changing Lanes: Road Maps to Midlife Renewal.