Publication Date: Wednesday, March 10, 2004
Dancing with a difference
Dancing with a difference
(March 10, 2004) Belly dancing, Scottish jigs, Bulgarian circles: local dancers have a wealth of unusual options on the Midpeninsula.
By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer
The band begins to play, and some of the people chatting in the lobby of Menlo Park's Burgess Recreation Center recognize the tune. They run eagerly into the big dance room.
Full skirts and embroidered vests fly by. Most people at the international folk dance party also wear belts, because in Bulgarian dances people often cross arms and hold onto each other's belts.
Watching the small crowd follow the music, Todd Wagner lets out the chuckle of a kindred spirit. He and his wife, Sarah, teach Hungarian and Transylvanian folk dance classes here at Burgess, and are regulars at this monthly Saturday fete.
Excitedly, he motions an observer over to his video camera, where he plays back images of a roomful of vigorous young dancers at a recent folk-dancing night in Budapest. He and his wife own a flat in the Hungarian capital and have been there 19 times.
"We're dance fanatics," Mr. Wagner says. "When I want to have fun, I go to Hungary."
Fortunately, most fanatics -- or fans -- on the Midpeninsula don't need an airplane to get their dance fix.
Besides the array of adult classes at private dance studios, there are many options at city facilities such as Burgess and Holbrook-Palmer Park in Atherton. Common styles such as tap, ballroom and jazz are prevalent. But those who care to trip the light fantastic in a more unusual way can do everything from a Russian Korobushka to a Scottish jig.
Why dance? Sandra Troutman, who teaches Middle Eastern belly dancing at Burgess, has a ready answer.
"There's just something about letting your life getting dull and boring that I'd like to avoid," she says, smiling.
Hundreds of dances
At the folk party at Burgess, Bruce Wyckoff looks wistful for a moment. Chattering dancers pass between the large room, where the band is playing, and the small room, where advanced dancers show off trickier moves to recorded music.
"It used to be that there was one (party) every Saturday night someplace," says Mr. Wyckoff, a folk dance teacher in San Carlos.
The dances of Central Europe, the Balkans and Israel don't have as widespread appeal on the Peninsula as they did in the early 1970s, when hip teens and college students made them fashionable. Nowadays, folk dancing generally attracts a smaller, older crowd.
"But it's still viable," Mr. Wyckoff is quick to add.
Viable -- and durable. The other teachers at Burgess look to veteran teacher Marcel Vinokur, who runs the Saturday parties there, as an example. Mr. Vinokur, who has been dancing since 1950 and teaching on the Peninsula since 1957, still attracts a loyal following.
He estimates he actively teaches about 300 dances, which include moves both for couples and groups in circles. "It takes me about seven years to go through the teaching cycle," he says.
'An ideal stomach'
On Monday nights, the music in the big dance room at Burgess takes on a different mood: Moroccan, Turkish, Arabic and North African. Women with scarves around their hips raise their arms gracefully in Sandra Troutman's belly dancing class.
Most people's perceptions of belly dancing are all wrong, Ms. Troutman says. It's sensuous, but it's not just about sex. It's an elegantly rolling wrist, a move flowing with the music, a set of exercises to strengthen the back and add flexibility to the body, she says.
One challenge is keeping the head still while the lower body moves, she says. A practiced dancer can balance a sword on her head.
Buoyed by MTV and the moves of singer Shakira, belly dancing is currently enjoying a fad of popularity. Its appeal is more timeless in the Bay Area because of the large Middle Eastern population here, says Ms. Troutman.
"I perform at baby showers and wedding receptions," she says.
Belly dancing also appeals to many because its fluid moves don't pressure women to be stick-thin.
"You're making yourself into a womanly shape with curves," Ms. Troutman says. "Every belly dancer has in her mind an ideal stomach, and it's never a six-pack."
Freedom on the dance floor
Shy when she was young, Jo Hamilton found a cure in her 20s: Scottish dancing.
"On the dance floor, it was like I wasn't really me. I could be flirty, cheeky, or ethereal," she says. "It gave me a freedom of experimenting about being me."
Now Ms. Hamilton likes to watch her students open up. Like the dancing masters of old, who traveled from town to town to teach, she leads classes in several Peninsula locations, including Holbrook-Palmer Park in Atherton, where she specializes in women's Scottish Highland dancing.
With its roots in ballet and the "exuberance of the Highland nature," Highland or step dancing is done mostly as solos or in small groups, Ms. Hamilton says. Her classes mix traditional dances with new ones choreographed in the old style.
Ms. Hamilton, who began Scottish dancing in 1968, has performed around the globe.
"We danced on a boat going down the Yangtze River in China. I met my husband through dancing, when we were performing in a show in Vancouver," she says. "You can shove a pair of shoes in your suitcase and go anywhere and find dancers."
** Dances from Central Europe, the Balkans
and Israel: Many classes are offered on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
evenings at the Burgess Recreation Center in Menlo Park. There are also
monthly folk-dance parties. Go to www.menlopark.org
or call 330-2200 for more information.
** Middle Eastern belly dancing: Beginner and intermediate classes are
held on Monday evenings at the Burgess Recreation Center. Go to www.menlopark.org
or call 330-2200.
** Women's Scottish highland dance: Tuesday evening classes for beginner and intermediate dancers are held at Holbrook-Palmer Park in Atherton, with new beginners accepted in the fall. Teacher Jo Hamilton also has more advanced classes at Peninsula School in Menlo Park. Call her at 328-0474.
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