DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Stepping into the river of dancers

CLOSE YOUR EYES, and allow yourself to float in your partner’s arms. This is not the time for thinking. And if you start to talk about this activity right here, you might miss the good stuff.

This is what I’m learning in Wednesday night classes at the Quimper Grange on Corona Street in Port Townsend: How to dance in harmony with a fellow human. Cheri Van Hoover and Doug Groening’s spring session delved into cajun two-step and zydeco, summer brought waltz and next month is for salsa and cha-cha.

Before you say “oh no, I can’t dance,” let me share what Van Hoover and Groening, the most generous of teachers, impart.

You’ve got to feel it, not think it. Trust your partner. I know these are some of the most difficult things to do on any given evening — which is why it’s good to practice.

The lead, who is often a man but can be a woman, speaks with his or her body, offering invitations to turn and pausing when it feels right. If it’s a traveling dance such as a waltz or country two-step, the lead and follow glide counterclockwise around the floor, forming a river of dancers.

The follow, who can also be either gender, tunes in to this wordless communication. When ready, he or she chooses to accept those invitations. Speech, mind you, hinders the follow’s ability to sense the lead’s signals. Hence Van Hoover strongly discourages talking while dancing.

What a relief. Many of us spend our work days talking, typing, wracking our brains. Blessed are the times when we can let that part of the brain rest.

Van Hoover and Groening teach with a blend of expertise and enthusiasm. Their class fee is whatever donation you can put into the jar at the door. They do not brook misbehavior, be it students talking while they’re instructing or practicing sloppily. As we rotate from partner to partner, no chitchat is tolerated. It’s hello, practice a step for three or four minutes, thank this partner, and go to the next. All of this emphasizes what we’re here to do: dance in the moment.

In addition to classes, Van Hoover, Groening and friends use the donations to build community at the iPod Shuffle, a dance at the Quimper Grange on the first Friday of the month. Sometimes an iPod or similar device dishes out a variety of songs, rhythms and tempos. For the Aug. 2 dance, get ready: The superbly hip yet accessible band Abakis will play.

You can be sure the snug room will vibrate with the energy only live music can ignite.

With Aba Kiser and Jack Dwyer on vocals and guitars, David Conklin on bass and drummer Angie Tabor driving the rhythms, Abakis does Western swing, vintage country and then some: “Now and Then (A Fool Such as I),” “Once a Day,” “Out of Control Raging Fire” — move to this music and you’re glad you’re alive.

By the way, this newspaper, along with websites such as OlympicPeninsulaDance.com, have details about other dances and lessons across our region.

It’s been six years practically to the day since I began taking partner-dance classes in Port Angeles, Sequim and Port Townsend. I used to think my lead and I would reach a point when we were silk, light and flawless across the ballroom floor. Nowadays I focus on one evening at a time. Let go of words, feel the energy from my partner: These are the practice.

It’s just as my best lead, Phil, says: “When that dance moment happens, you know it. And it feels really darn good.”


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Aug. 7.

Reach her at [email protected]

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