THE WEEKLY DANCE at the Renton Senior Activity Center once took place on Friday evenings, but the dancers didn’t like driving in the dark. So now they pack the center on Thursday afternoons, coming from Seattle and beyond to dance to the stylings of Bill the Dance Master, known for mixing up the tempo between a fast song and a slow swing, before moving on to a rumba or a country-and-western song.
Bright light pours into the high-ceilinged room, where some dancers are dressed in spangly kitten heels and glittery skirts that twirl during spins.
Gene S. Moy, 102, learned to dance in 1941, when he was stationed in California for the U.S. Army. He learned the swing, waltz, cha-cha and rumba, among others, and danced the five years he served. He stopped dancing while raising four kids, but started again after he retired in the 1980s from his mechanic job at Boeing.
“Once you learn how, you never lose it,” says Moy, who dances to every song and sits down in between. “It’s exercise you enjoy doing. You don’t feel tired.”
The dancers range in age from their 50s to Moy’s century-plus, but almost no one is using a wheelchair, cane or walker. Credit the dancing, maybe.
The reasons to dance are much more layered than health. Dance is a smile, and eye contact, and the fun in asking a new partner to dance to each new song. Dance is a toddler tap class, where the parents are just as joyful as their 2-year-olds. Dance is laughing at yourself when you fumble the footwork. Dance is sharing your story.
TRACEY WONG, a first-generation Teochew-American who grew up on Beacon Hill and learned breaking and hip-hop dance in the halls of Garfield High School, Waacks — a club-style dance originating in Los Angeles’ underground disco scene of the 1970s from the black and Latinx gay communities — as a way to express who she is.
“I feel hella love for myself. I feel empowered, in tune with myself, like I’m tapping into the best version of myself at that moment,” says Wong, 27. “I can honestly express myself and tell my story through dance, especially when I find it hard to speak and articulate how I am feeling.”
It’s helpful to distill the many benefits of dance. It improves balance, posture and coordination. Dance helps with mood and self-confidence, and reduces stress. Dance supports your brain, so you can pay better attention and improve your memory, says Jo Blake, who teaches Minding Motion for Graceful Aging, a dance class for the elderly, at various assisted-living and memory-care centers.
Dance also can make a big difference in how you live out your final years. A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine on mental acuity for people 75 years old and up showed that of 11 physical activities, only social dancing was associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia.
Blake says family members see the difference his dance classes make.
“They say, ‘My mom has changed. My dad, I see something in him now; his eyes came alive.’ ”
Dance also entices with many ephemeral reasons, slightly harder to pinpoint, but clear and vivid when you see the way dance is tucked into every pocket of Seattle.
Dance is expression, sharing who you are when moving as if you have no bones across a dance studio to the throbbing pulse of house music. Dance is human touch, holding hands with a stranger who leads you, his hand pointed to direct you through a salsa spin without a single spoken word. Dance is memory, as emotions come to the surface while lost in movement to music. Dance is release, jumping higher than anyone else in the room to let go of the intensity of a day spent in front of a computer. Dance is focus, the determination on a young, furrowed brow doing the same step over and over to cement it in muscle memory. Dance is community, celebrating that your body can still move — and move well — at 102 years old. Dance is joy, a smile spreading across someone’s face at the end of an exhilarating series of steps executed well.
At its center, dance is connection — to yourself and to others. It’s the pathway to know your body, to know your community, to know music, to know yourself. Dance is a physical experience and expression of who we are.
DANCERS GATHER in a large circle in an elegant space at Century Ballroom on Capitol Hill, surrounding teacher Hallie Kuperman for an Intro to Salsa class. Some of these people haven’t danced salsa in some time, if ever, while others show off flair with high heels and hip swivels during class.
Kuperman makes salsa simple and accessible, breaking down the basic steps and how to spin before amping up the complexity by adding partners.
She separates the group into leads and followers, and everyone starts to rotate through the circle, learning what it’s like to dance with someone new every time.
Whenever the class rotates, the introductions are brief, the question the same — “Have you done salsa before?”
Answers vary. Some have taken salsa once or twice, while others took salsa in college, which means, “That was a long time ago.”
The evening is a collective plunge into the unknown. A class that initially seemed full of strangers morphs into a room of friends united by the experience, focused on remembering steps and not messing up their part of the dance.
As one partner tells me, “I’m trying to survive.”
Christiane Reid, who has been doing social dance since college, met her husband at Century. She prefers it over other kinds of dance because of an element some might shy away from — touch.
“I am a big believer in the value of touch, positive nonthreatening touch,” she says.
In dances like Kizomba, known for a slow, sensuous rhythm and a close embrace, she can indulge in her cuddly tendencies, says the 35-year-old Kirkland resident. It’s a low-pressure connection because there are rules around where and how you touch.
“It’s a way of being sensual without there needing to be a relationship with the dancer,” Reid says. “You can get a hunger for contact satisfied.”
At the end of the dance, you don’t have to exchange numbers.
“It can be just dance,” she says.
THE DANCERS ARE lined up in two rows. The instructions are straightforward, yet also could plant terror into a new house-dancer’s heart: Dance across the floor to the music.
That’s it. Just move your body, no choreography needed.
The freestyle came early in the house dance class with instructor Mike (Majinn) O’Neal at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill.
After the first round, the instructions continue:
• Move your upper body fast and your lower body slow.
• Move your upper body slow and your lower body fast.
• Move in close contact with the floor, rolling or crawling.
• Create as many angles as possible.
As the freestyle instruction progresses, people start to loosen up and have fun, making angles with their arms or legs. O’Neal tells people to look up, away from the floor, and encourages them to imitate others if they need to.
House is a freestyle street dance with roots in the 1970s underground gay, black and Latinx cultures. It started as a dance of resistance, O’Neal says.
“Its essence is to be you, show who you are,” he says.
But that can be a difficult approach, even for experienced dancers. O’Neal got his start on a dance team in high school in Tacoma. He was a shy kid, but he found he could express himself through dance, and he loved performing. He majored in dance at the University of Washington, where he is now a part-time lecturer.
A friend in high school exposed him to hip-hop and breaking, and he fell in love with the culture. It eventually led him to house.
“A big thing for me is, ‘What are you saying with that movement?’ ” O’Neal says. “ ‘How are you letting people know who you are?’ ”
For Kathryn Courtney, dance for a long time was rigid and constrained. Courtney grew up as a classical ballet dancer and danced seriously for years. But as a girl who didn’t fit into the petite archetype for ballerinas, dancing was emotionally destructive, she says.
Then she walked past a studio in Missoula, Montana, where people were dancing and looked like they were having an insane amount of fun. For a year and a half, Courtney went to the Oula Fitness dance class, and hid in the back.
“I could be in the back, make a mess and not know what to do,” she says.
The classes transformed her; she felt like she was allowed to move again. Now, she teaches the choreographed, high-energy classes at Compfit in Wallingford, where people come dressed in leggings and sneakers, sing along loudly to the Jonas Brothers and sweat.
Amy Audetat, 40, used to take Zumba classes in Buffalo, New York, six days a week. Once she moved to Seattle two years ago, she discovered Oula.
Audetat says she loves that she can ramp up in a dance class if she wants to, and turn jumping jacks into vigorous star jumps. Even if she’s had a terrible day at work at Amazon, and is going on four hours of sleep, if she dances, she leaves class a happier person.
“My endorphins get going when I’m hollering and cheering,” she says.
Music plays a powerful role in the experience of dance. Hannah Wiley, a professor in the Department of Dance at the University of Washington, sometimes chooses a class based on the music.
The combination of music and movement becomes a potent healing tool.
“I go to emotional places I wouldn’t find in an average day or even an unusual day,” she says. “Maybe memories, physical sensations, memories of place, memories of people, that if I were just taking my hour walk, that wouldn’t happen.”
“TOE! HEEL! SLAM!”
“Toe! Heel! Slam!”
Ayanna Omar ignores the chaos behind her and perseveres with instructions, even though most of her students aren’t doing what she says. One student, wearing a pink shirt that says “Dance Dance Dance,” hangs on to her grandfather’s leg while he does the slide. Another runs up to the mirror and makes faces. Amid the bedlam of tap shoes clacking on the floor, Omar yells over the music: “Knock, knock, step!” while firmly clacking her tap shoes on the wooden floor at Northwest Tap Connection in Rainier Beach.
When all else fails — which happens often in a class where the average age is 3 — the 19-year-old turns to “Baby Shark Dance” to save the students, the parents and herself.
The hallways at Northwest Tap Connection are small and teem with kids who learned to tap early. Peek into one studio (a sign on the door reads, “No parents in class”), and see five young boys following their 16-year-old teacher through tap choreography. Another studio holds girls in black leotards and pink tights working with legendary teacher Dani Tirrell on modern dance technique. In a third studio, two teenagers work with young girls on tap.
When director Melba Ayco shows up in a studio to see how class is going, students run over to give her a hug.
“Let’s see what y’all got!” declares Ayco, 59, known as Ms. Melba.
One of Joy Thurman-Nguyen’s good friends grew up dancing at the studio. When Thurman-Nguyen got pregnant, her friend told her, “Your kid is gonna grow up tapping.”
Thurman-Nguyen had seen some of the studio’s performances and didn’t need to be convinced.
Her daughter, Andersyn Nguyen, loved it right away. Toddlers can take only tap, but Andersyn, now 6, soon asked for more. She took African hip-hop and does modern dance. Thurman-Nguyen’s youngest daughter, Harper Nguyen, 2½, has been tapping since she learned to walk.
“They get confidence, joy,” Thurman-Nguyen says. “It’s something they both truly love.”
Thurman-Nguyen also was drawn to the social-justice mission of Northwest Tap, which boasts in-house teachers who have grown up there and teaches kids about the history of the dances they learn.
“It’s amazing and powerful to have a place the kids are comfortable and see kids who look like them,” she says.
Ayco’s vision was to give black students experiences she didn’t have as a kid in segregated Louisiana. She was never hungry, but she also never traveled; people made fun of tap dancing. Now, her kids travel; perform at a national level; and learn African American history, from captivity and enslavement to freedom, she says.
Some of the students who grow up with her develop into the studio’s teachers. All kids start with tap to get rhythm, timing and confidence down; they perform to develop self-confidence.
“To be able to say I had the vision and lived long enough for it to unfold every day and see everything coming together, I feel tremendous joy,” says Ayco, who has bright eyes and seemingly endless energy for her huge flock.
DANCE TOGETHER at any age, and friends will emerge. At the Renton Senior Activity Center, the social element is as essential as the physical benefits.
The dancers threw Moy a 102nd birthday party. They’ve seen each other through cancer, illnesses including Alzheimer’s and the deaths of spouses. They look out for each other.
Bob Sarver has been dancing since he was 25, both ballroom and folk. His wife taught ballroom dance at the center for many years, and he helped out.
Now, at 90, he finds two hours of dancing is a great workout. Sarver enjoys the dancing and the people; he says there are enough folks younger than him who make him forget his age.
“I’ll dance until I die,” he says.
Nicole Tsong is an author and a goal and energy coach, and teaches yoga in Seattle. Learn more or reach her at nicoletsong.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.