"Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction of life; it is life itself."--Havelock Ellis, British author, philosopher and scientist
Are you an erstwhile Shirley Temple who took tap dancing when only your face was dimpled? Have you harbored secret desires to dance like Fred Astaire? Did you go to years of ballet classes, only to quit just shy of your first pair of toe shoes?
Despite the aerobic dance craze, there are still those who prefer the purists' route: real dancing, for it's own sake. And whether you are a pro or novice, there are studios all over Washington where you can dance at any level and receive serious instruction, even on your noon hour.
"I had a very bad body: My feet were extremely bad; I had a slight curvature of the spine; I had no turnout. Everything on me is man-made through hard work and determination."--Arthur Mitchell, director, Dance Theater of Harlem
Dance can be one of the best forms of exercise, "a very effective form of conditioning and of muscle training," says Dr. John J. Canary, who chaired the Washington Ballet Health Committee from 1975-1980. He recommends an initial body evaluation by "a dance professional" for beginning adult dancers.
Another reminder: Take it easy in the beginning. "If you're going to go running," says Canary, "you don't run five miles the first time around."
"Dance is one of the best all-around body conditioners," says David Holmes Jr., who teaches jazz at D.C. Danceworks. "You work everything, particularly the cardiovascular system."
Holmes' students, he says, include a number of "professionals and a nice cross-section of middle-aged people. Jazz seems to attract a little bit of everything."
Dance as a diversion for males?
More and more men, say area instructors, are viewing dance as a viable form of exercise, relegated to women for too long. The Washington School of the Ballet, training ground for such star ballerinas as Amanda McKerrow and Bonnie Moore, offers a class just for men on Wednesday evenings. At least 20 men ranging in age from 20 to 35 attend regularly.
And according to Melvin Deal, of the African Heritage Center, as many men as women take his evening classes. Virgil Morris, a 20-year-old college student, started dancing over a year ago and now takes jazz and ballet classes four times a week.
"Baryshnikov, 'Fame,' 'All That Jazz' really got to me," says Morris, "so I thought, 'Why not give it a try?' And other guys are there, so I don't feel so bad. It gets my energy out."
A particularly challenging lunchtime class is Tyrone Murray's jazz session at Joy of Motion. Murray, who has taught at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, is relentlessly professional, driving students through grueling warm-ups and funky floor patterns.
"If it hurts, you know Tyrone taught," groaned one exhausted young woman in the dressing room after his class. Although the disco recordings of noontime classes are adequate, the live drumming in evening classes both at Joy of Motion and the Dance Place is sure to get your blood rushing.
". . . what makes it different is that I'm doing it. There's only one of me. There's only one of anybody. That's why steps look different on different people."--Judith Jamison, dancer, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and Broadway
Melvin Deal's classes at African Heritage are challenging and exciting for even the most experienced dancers. Deal's goal is to "have you learn dance and develop rhythmic ability and agility, which invariably helps you in other aspects of your life."
Deal shouts encouragement against the rhythms of no less than four--and sometimes as many as six--drums. At the end of each session, students "solo," stylizing their movements for the class' applause.
Rhythm, which opened just last year, has a particularly kitschy charm. The tiny, pink-ceilinged studio is decorated with papier-ma che' palm trees. "Mr. Max" and his staff take students through "time steps" and the perennial "step-shuffle-ball-change" to old standards such as "Ain't She Sweet." Classes are fairly small, allowing for individual attention.
There are many good, solid ballet classes in town. Nikitina and Sergieff's offers an intermediate-level ballet class ("with piano player!" says Nina Nikitina, who has been dancing for 45 years) in Georgetown. At The Washington School of the Ballet, regular piano accompaniment and three separate studios make any dancer, novice or not, feel professional.
Although it offers more ballet than anything else, Dance Downtown presents a rigorous bit of nostalgia at its Tuesday lunchtime, Jose Limon-technique class. Complete with dramatic music and classical modern dance exercises, this intermediate-level class is a joy for the purist in any dancer.
When asked if dancers should start at a very young age, modern dancer Paul Taylor replied: "It's propaganda. It depends on the individual."
Though professionals usually begin when they are children, there are always the exceptions, including D.C.'s own Carla Perlo, who began in college and now runs The Dance Place.
Most of Bill Garney's 350 students at the Academy of Theatrical Arts are adults; he calls the Academy "the largest adult dance school in Washington." The school has had a dance company for 28 years composed of "older dancers," from about age 25 and up.
"A lot of people say you can't put adults on pointe, but I do," says Garney, "and they're beautiful. You can make adults dance, they just have to be taught."
Meanwhile, at St. Mark's on the Hill, several diligent women of a certain age have finally slipped into their first toe shoes.