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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Salsa Picante

The following article being submitted for publication relates Mike Lauterborn's experience taking a Salsa dance class for the first time...

Salsa Picante

By Mike Lauterborn

© 2010. All Rights Reserved.


Synopsis: Moderately coordinated Caucasian male expects to receive one-on-one Salsa dance instruction from female dance company partner and imagines that he'll become a veritable Don Juan. Instead, he is dropped into a class of 16 women and stumbles his way through to their amusement. In the end, they've all enjoyed a steamy, one-hour session led by two high-energy professionals who are not only chasing their dream of having their own dance studio but also inspiring their class members to strive for their own dreams and objectives.

It was a rainy morning as I was headed to The Dance Collective in Westport to meet co-owner Amanda Parton. Blaring away in the car was a CD titled “Salsa Galactica”. It was driving the grays away, giving me warm, happy island thoughts and energizing me better than stiff caffeinated coffee. The timbales on “Grande Y Chiquita” had me drumming my palms on the dashboard and tapping my feet on the gas pedal.

I was trying to transport myself to another place – of plantains, frijoles negros, Montecristo cigars, hot sweaty nights and big-bottomed brown-eyed chiquitas batting their eyelashes and calling out “Guapo!” I was so awash and immersed in these thoughts, I managed to blow by the Westport exit I needed off the interstate and had to circle back. I made short work of local streets, gunning my large sedan along back roads like a typical circa-1950 chrome American car one might see on the streets of Cuba. I was, for the moment, Miguel de Cervezas, and was about to partake in my first Salsa dance lesson.

With an extra swagger in this gringo’s step, I sashayed into the studio feeling caliente and projecting ultra-machismo. But would I be as smooth on the “salon de baile”? Would I truly morph into “El Papi”?

Very toned and tall, Parton, sporting a black sports bra, gray top pulled down around her hips, black Lycra pants and black flats, ushered me right in. Her English name gave no hint of Latina spiciness but her body hinted otherwise. She was “La Mamacita”!

I had expected a one-on-one lesson but suddenly found myself deposited into a class full of women led by a lithe hombre calling out, “I want to see those hips! HIPS!” It was Enrique Alarcon, Parton’s partner and founder of The Dance Collective. I quickly fell into line, all my illusions of suaveness going straight out the door as I tried to capture the steps he was demonstrating.

“In salsa dancing, you have to imagine a center point,” Alarcon explained to the group. Sensing my panic, a fellow classmate pointed to another participant, “Watch her, she’s Brazilian!” I might have guessed as much, as this woman with the trademark booty laid down some mean steps.

Forward, back, side to side, left, right… we all moved collectively like a school of bonefish, grooving to Celia Cruz beats. All the while, Enrique, like a mad toreador, drove us on, hand clapping and crowing like a wild tropical bird. “You have to move your hips, in a graceful way. You have them there for a reason!” he chided.

“He’s great, we love him,” said patron Heather, 47, as we took a quick break. It was her fourth year with the program, pursuing a schedule of three 1-hour classes per week. A friend had initially encouraged her to try it. “It was so not me… but I came… and got hooked. It was out-of-the-box, different. I had been a runner and cyclist. This was a different challenge.”

The age range of the group was mid-30’s to mid-50’s, with an average age of 40. Though skill levels were mixed, all class members were enthusiastic and having fun. It wasn’t hard to imagine we were in the Tropics as all the booty swiveling and heavy breathing fogged up windows. And Enrique, with his wispy curls of black hair, tight sleeveless black top and stretchy bell bottoms, enhanced the Latin-feeling climate.

A true success story was class member Mary Wade. A retired teacher, she had been taking the program for the past six years and has lost 55 pounds through a combination of exercise, treadmill workouts, a structured diet and the Latin dance sessions taught here.

Fellow classmate Chiara Rudzin, 50, has also found success. Originally from Italy and a former Manhattanite, she says the program has “saved my spirit.” Like in Heather’s case, a friend had tipped her off about the classes. “I didn’t want to go to gyms or do Zumba. I wanted a class run like a Manhattan dance studio. I found it technical and not just exercise, and quickly got rid of eight pounds. I can see a difference in my dance abilities.”

About her instructors, Rudzin added,”Amanda and Enrique bring energy. They put in 120%. I can’t get enough of them. They truly want you to be a better dancer.”

Beatriz Araujo, 40, the aforementioned class member hailing from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, told a similar story. After marrying in Brazil and moving to Westport 10 years ago, she just wanted to “do something.” For the past two years, she has taken The Dance Collective’s salsa, samba and meringue classes. “All is good,” she says. “It’s Latin. I’m Latin. It’s in my blood. It’s nice, fun, you can really learn how to dance. For people who like to dance, it’s perfect.”

“Everyone has different reasons why they’re here,” explains Enrique. “People love the way we do our classes, love the music, like the way we help every level and make them feel like ‘I’ve done something.’”

Alarcon and Parton met when she initially began taking his classes. “It becomes more than working out. It’s like a drug, like a fix. My husband wondered what the hell I was doing! It’s good for your soul and brings joy... makes you feel good.”

A native of Peru, Alarcon, 31, was initially pursuing a law degree in college. It was a six-year program and he had completed four years when he began to more closely consider what he wanted to do with his life. “I always loved to dance… and would go to my sisters’ ballet classes. In South America, dance is very cultural. It’s part of life, but they don’t have facilities like the U.S. It’s very expensive and there are no boys dancing. I would watch from the sidelines.”

Alarcon became a dance teacher when he was 16, performing for eight or nine dance companies. “I would always have to sneak around my parents… and a macho cultural society. I thought I wanted to be an actor maybe… and wanted to go to Europe, to Italy. At one point, I just decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.”

At 19, Alarcon came to the U.S., visiting family in Connecticut. Though the visit didn’t inspire him, he returned again at age 23, for a six-month stay, hoping to get travel papers for Italy. His mother discovered she had cancer and, rather than have him return home, encouraged him to stay where he was.

“I had many dreams in my head,” he said, spoke no English and had to look for a job. He took a quick after-school program to learn the language and did everything he could to earn wages: cleaning houses, washing dishes, Labor Ready jobs.

“These were huge changes. I wasn’t used to it. I was young, scared, and felt like life wasn’t fair.” The motivator was that he was hard on himself. “If you want something in life, you have to push it out. My mother said before I dropped out of law school, ‘if you want to be an artist, why are you talking to me?’”

“You have to be, first, realistic, but at the same time, keep pushing your dreams and what you want in life. You have to open your own door.” Alarcon worked free at first, to get exposure, dancing and teaching. He lived with his brother and kept pushing himself, not letting his dream of a dance career go away, believing that some day it would pay off. He worked on a contract basis, at various facilities, on a seasonal basis.

Then, in November 2009, after unsuccessfully trying to partner with other instructors, he and Parton collaborated to form The Dance Collective. “We’ve become best friends. It’s easy to work with her. I learn from her a lot, she learns from me.” They started doing area shows, cabaret parties, Latin dance programs. In Alarcon’s opinion, Amanda brings stability, is a very talented contemporary class leader and assumes a fair share of the workload, particularly administration and marketing. “We agree and disagree, but at the end of the day create a good work product. I appreciate that I can work with my best friend.”

Parton echoes Alarcon’s sentiments. “We have a very strong relationship. He’s the closest person in my life, especially with my family overseas (Yorkshire, England). I think of him as a brother. He has amazing energy and lays it all out… he doesn’t hold back and people love getting the attention. For the women who are there for serious dance instruction, they watch my dance moves from a woman's perspective."

Recently they coordinated a recital at the Westport Playhouse, with class members as participants, for 350+ attendees comprised of family and friends. “They were terrified at first, on stage in costumes. But then when it was all over, they couldn’t believe what they had done. They were so happy, joyful, walking away with an amazing amount of pride. It gives you a sense of soul. I love what it brings to people. It’s more than just learning steps.”

At present, the dance duo sublet their space from a gym. “We would love to have our own place and own name on a door. That would make it legitimate,” says Amanda.

Their prospects seem rosy. Alarcon sums up, “She goes for it. I go for it. We’re not scared to do things.”

The Dance Collective is located in Playhouse Square, 275 Post Road East, Westport. 203-521-6555.

A Typewriter With Its Own Tale

From 1957-1960, my dad Robert was an advertising space salesman for the Syracuse Herald-Journal (his first job) and a very active member of the Syracuse Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) in western New York State. The Jaycees was a popular club with lots of active, enthusiastic members and an equally strong "Jayn"cees division (wives of Jaycee members).

For several reasons, many members of the group were very eager to go to the 1958 Jaycee national convention, to be held in St. Louis, MO. For one, the New York State Jaycee president was running for national president and the group wanted to show up en masse to support his bid. This local Jaycees chapter had also entered a number of national competitions for Jaycee clubs and figured they had a good chance to win a bunch of them (and ultimately did). My dad was also the New York State SPOKE Award winner that year, an honor given to the most outstanding new Jaycee in each state. He was, therefore, a contender for national recognition (which he achieved).

As it would have been prohibitively expensive for most in the group to make such a trip, they needed to develop a fundraiser. The idea they came up with was very creative in that it accomplished multiple goals and was very much in line with the raison d'etre of the Jaycees and its parent organization, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The group developed a pseudo "trade show" to showcase Syracuse area companies in the convention hall in front of 10,000 of the most promising young citizens in the country. This audience was a very desirable demographic: successful in their communities and their careers; young marrieds or incipient newlyweds; in or about to buy their first homes; all under 35 years of age. Who wouldn't want to advertise their products and services to these people, especially if you could do it in a unique venue?

Syracuse and the surrounding area had a diverse and thriving manufacturing base at the time. Some of the companies the Jaycees approached with its sales proposal included: General Electric (Syracuse was the home of the company's Consumer Electronics Division), Stickley furniture, Will & Baumer candles (they supplied candles to the Vatican), Oneida silverware, Syracuse china, Owens-Corning glass, Mohawk carpets, Nettleton shoes, Learbury men's suits, Porter-Cable power tools, Carrier air conditioners, Syroco Wood (they made elegant cast wood composite decorative sconces and related items from unique hand-carved molds) and Smith-Corona typewriters.

The Jaycees made a list of prospects and put together a selling package (using writers, designers, lawyers, salesmen and printers within the organization) to pitch these companies. Each young hotshot, like my dad, also took responsibility for bringing in one or more of the target companies.

Not only were they successful in getting these notable companies to sign on, the Jaycees even got a few business-to-business companies to come aboard, such as a conveyer belt company, Crouse-Hinds (the world's largest producer of traffic lights) and Syracuse University. More than 40 members of the local Jaycees group got to go to that convention, all expenses paid.

The promise to each company partner was to design and man a tasteful exhibit space for them. Imagine a Stickley dining table -- set with Syracuse china, Oneida silverware, Owens-Corning glassware, a casserole dish and Will & Baumer candles, all prominently identified -- sitting on a Mohawk carpet. A Stickley desk might be off to the side with the Smith-Corona typewriter (pictured above) on it, and the GE stereo console nearby, maybe beneath a Syroco Wood-framed mirror. There was also a full-size Crouse-Hinds traffic light on display, as well as a Carrier air conditioner. The exhibit space would always be staffed by at least two club members, a Jaycee and a Jayncee, and they would double or triple staff in peak periods. It was agreed that each staffer would learn the salient information about all of the companies and their products and that literature on everything would be handed out.

Every Jaycee and Jayncee who visited the exhibit was given a wallet-sized membership card in the Turnover Club, which authorized him or her to turn over the china in any restaurant to see if it was Syracuse china. It was a hoot for these card-carriers to go to any restaurant in the city during the convention and turn over their plates, an action that illicited howls of laughter when the brand revealed was Syracuse china, as it often was. (The company had a strong commercial crockery line.)

At the end of the convention, the company partners didn't want to pay to ship all that now-shopworn stuff back, so it was auctioned off. The boys (and girls) from Syracuse got first dibs, of course, on anything they wanted… which is how my dad came to have the first electric typewriter ever made!