Dancers cut loose with an alternative to the attitude-heavy nightclub. article September 7, 2000 (SF Chronicle) Lisa Hix, Chronicle Staff Writer
In a dim San Francisco dance studio, the floor is alive with hip-switching steps—salsa, cha-cha- cha, meringue and several made up on the spot. Two women twirl arm in arm, flaunting a huge gauzy scarf. A young man and woman roll against each other on the floor. Fringe flies as a man, wearing shirt and pants designed for maximum effect, bounces and spins.
And a Sunday night at Barefoot Boogie would not be complete without a few intricate tangos, interpretive motions, modern-dance contortions, kicks and dips. This weekly event is just one of several freestyle dances in the Bay Area with no limits and few rules. And those generally are: Lose your shoes, respect the others and don’t drink or smoke. But these dances do more than provide offbeat fun—they give folks absolute freedom to express themselves without being ridiculed or objectified.
Dance Freedom, the first dance of its kind, began in Cambridge, Mass., in 1968. Dance Jam in Berkeley sprang to life in 1980, and Barefoot Boogie and Dance Spirit in San Rafael followed in the ‘80s. Although freestyle dances are common on the coasts, they’ve even spread to places such as Tucson, Ariz., and Decatur, Ga.
While many of the dancers have been involved with boogies since their early days, this type of event at tracts people in their 20s as well. Berkeley’s Dance Jam has gotten so popular from word of mouth in the past two years, topping 180 people, that it’s had to expand into a second studio. Barefoot Boogie also packs its studio.
The freedom and safety can be addictive. For devotees, these “boogies” provide a therapeutic level of stress relief, a place to reach a state of spiritual ecstasy and a supporting community of friends.
Each dancer seems to cut loose like someone home alone who’s put on his or her favorite album at top volume and broken into a carefree frenzy complete with faux-gymnastics and lip-synching drama. Though it’s fun, regulars say, the experience goes beyond that.
Christina Tuccillo, founder of the Dance Jam collective, says the dance events are nothing like nightclubs, where people are more guarded, copping attitudes and downing beers. At the boogies, participants have permission to do whatever they want—they can watch, dance by themselves, dance with others. And they don’t have to dress up.
“You can do weird stuff you can’t do anywhere else,” says Tuccillo, who’s been going to boogies for 17 years. “It’s play time. You can let boundaries down.”
Howard Cushnir, 39, a Mill Valley writer, says he doesn’t go to clubs because he finds them stifling. He prefers the more open Dance Jam atmosphere.
“This is a place where everyone is welcome,” he says, “where all body types are accepted, a place to come and move as if no one’s watching.”
Even though there is a lot of physical contact at the boogies, dancers’ sexual boundaries are respected. One form of dance is called Contact Improvisation, which uses touch and weight. To see people roll against one another might be jarring for a newcomer. Then again, it might be appealing.
Kenny Schachat, an organizer for both Barefoot Boogie and Dance Jam, has seen a whole range of reactions from first-timers.
“Some people just stand there with their mouths open for their first six years,” Schachat says. “Other people come in and say, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for my entire life.’ They’ve been looking for that juicy human touch. Their faces light up, and within minutes they’re involved in a six-way human puddle.
“People say this changed their lives. Others come in and say, ‘Oh my God! It’s a human snake pit!’ But they can slowly open up to the sense of acceptance.”
A lot of the boogie regulars can really move. Some are performers, and many have taken dance classes. But that’s no reason to be timid, says Schachat, who’s been dancing for 15 years.
“We have people from every walk of life, from computer geeks to artists,” he says. “You need no kind of dance training. You can be a klutz and come here and have fun.”
Though some people come to boogies for kicks and go straight home afterward, many people develop deeper connections. Tuccillo says many regulars date one another and some get married. At Dance Jam’s meeting circle, a time when everyone sits and listens to announcements, people can speak their minds.
Some share birthdays and graduations and other big life events.
For people who go three to four times a week, “it is their social life,” Tuccillo says. “It’s their exercise, it’s their prayers, it’s their connection. It’s a way of life.” She says boogies provide many of the same things churches do, such as worship and community, an antidote to big-city aloofness and isolation.
Declan Banfield, a Dance Jam organizer, is wary of the church comparison. “We don’t want to institutionalize anything,” he says. “People are free to create their own experiences.”
But Barefoot Boogie has been inspirational for Elizabeth Pauker, a 40-year-old Berkeley massage therapist, who calls the dances “the glue that held me together.”
“It’s a place for us to come and get love, with people accepting you for whoever you are,” Pauker says. “People have come and gone, but it’s always there.”
Dance Spirit director Sabrina Page
manages to create a temple like environment for her dancers in the aerobics room of a fitness center, of all places. The dark room at Nautilus of Marin is lit with colored bulbs, Christmas lights and candles. An altar holds figurines of Buddha and Shiva, as well as rocks, flowers and crystals.
Getting involved with Dance Spirit 12 years ago, Page went through what she calls “a process of loosening.”
“I really blossomed, in my creativity, in my whole being,” she says.
“That’s why I do this. I want to offer that to other people.”
The music at boogies is spun to create a mind-opening experience, with
styles, ranging from hip-hop, funk and techno to rock and traditional
music, from all over the world. ‘A JOURNEY OF FEELINGS’
“It’s a journey of feelings,” says Schachat, who’s a DJ for Dance Jam and Barefoot Boogie. “It can go from a gospel fervor down to stillness and into sadness. I’m not consciously trying to provide therapy. But I’m comfortable with a lot of feelings, so I don’t shy away from anything.”
And letting out those emotions is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, people will start crying once they begin moving.
“When you’re dancing and someone comes up and hugs you, it’s hard to hold it in,” says Tuccillo, who’s a DJ at Dance Jam and Barefoot Boogie.
The dancers, who are often in their 30s and 40s, move with a youthful exuberance.
“We have lawyers, doctors and engineers who come,” Tuccillo says, “but they’re not stuck in that box because they’re getting to go out and play.”