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DANCE FEATURE: Latin dance in Rochester 

by Jesse Hanus

It was about five years ago that Jonah Inikori opened his own dance studio in Rochester, Darin Price started traveling the globe to learn more about Latin dance and music, and Kerri Vaughn started teaching salsa. These three are now at the core of the Latin dance scene in Rochester, and have dedicated themselves to help it evolve over the past several years into one of the largest Latin dance scenes in upstate New York.

Now an event like the monthly Latin night at Lovin' Cup in Henrietta's Park Point attracts nearly 150 dancers, including those taking lessons in the area and many trying it out for the first time. The bar was full at a recent Lovin' Cup Latin night, and the dance floor was, too. Several people came early for an introductory salsa lesson, and afterward took to the floor to dance socially.

Each man on the floor held a woman in his arms. Both dancers swayed their hips and moved their feet to the beat of the authentic Latin orchestra on stage. For one night a month, the Lovin' Cup is transformed into a destination for Latin dancing. And that's only one of the Latin dance opportunities Rochester has to offer.

The term "Latin dance" covers many styles, including salsa, bachata, cha-cha, mambo, merengue, samba, and Afro-Latin rhumba, all of which are taught at various locations in Rochester. Each style has slightly different steps, with the most popular in the Rochester area being salsa and bachata, according to Darin Price.

Price, 27, is artistic director of Essence of Rhythm, a Latin dance company in Rochester, and is also owner and executive director of Rhythm Society Urban Wellness Studio on Bittner Street, which he opened in March 2011. Price says he has been around music and dance his entire life, with a specific focus on studying jazz and playing percussion.

He began Latin dancing about 10 years ago by studying with local instructors in Rochester. Soon, he began traveling to areas like New York City, Chicago, and even internationally to further study Latin music and dance. Several things energized him to start teaching and organizing in Rochester.

First, when he attended a dance congress - a weekend-long event filled with social dancing, workshops, and competitions - in Chicago he realized the immense popularity of Latin dance.

"This stuff is big. It's underground, but it's huge," Price says, noting that there were around 1500 dancers in attendance at the Chicago event. He also noticed how much more advanced the style and level of dancing was compared to Rochester.

"What I'd seen out there wasn't being done here," he says. In terms of music and dance appreciation, he didn't see Rochester dancers trying to further their skills. "The dancers reached a certain level and then that was it, they were good enough for Rochester. No one really pushed themselves," he says.

Still, he was apprehensive about teaching. "I wasn't convinced that I could teach," Price says now. "It wasn't until students were telling me, 'This is what we're missing.'" Price says his new approach included classes rich in technique and style, but also imparting knowledge about the culture behind the dance styles.

Jonah Inikori has been dancing for 12 years and also noticed the need for more Latin dance instruction in Rochester. That is partially what prompted him to open Inikori Dance Studio on University Avenue five years ago.

"It was a combination of me being a business person, then also knowing the need that there was in the community to provide something different, something at a much higher level of skill than what existed," he says.

Inikori has seen Rochester's Latin dance scene change substantially over the past five years. Local dancers travel more now, he says, because they realize the opportunities that big cities have to offer, such as workshops, competitions, or a dance congress. Even something as simple as dance shoes are much more common now.

"The level of dance has increased significantly," Inikori says. "There is a lot more passion too now in the community...about this kind of dancing."

Kerri Vaughn, 47, has been teaching salsa dancing for about five years. She started in Syracuse, after nearly 20 years of sacred circle dancing, an international folk dance. While attending a dance event in Ithaca, she witnessed a salsa performance and said to herself, "I've gotta do it."

In 2008 Vaughn lost her corporate IT job, and around that same time the current owners of a ballroom space in the South Wedge were looking for a new tenant.

"It was kind of my retirement dream," Vaughn says about opening what became the Tango Cafe Dance Studio on Gregory Street in September 2008. Just one year later she opened an actual cafe on the first floor of the same building, which offers a smaller dance space and selection of drinks and light food fare.

While Rochester is on the small side compared to other Latin dance hotspots, Price says the city is rich in Latin culture. He points out the large Latino presence at local universities, many Latino-owned businesses, as well as top-notch Latin bands founded in Rochester. However, he adds that there is a difference between the Latino culture and the Latin dance scene.

"Our scene, although obviously having its influences from Latinos, it pulls people from all different walks of life," he says.

Given the difference in locations and styles of dances offered, the studios attract different demographics. Price not only teaches at his Bittner Street location, which draws an ethnically diverse crowd, but also at Mo Dancing in Penfield, where his students tend to be middle-upper-class and white.

Inikori runs a ballroom dance studio, with his instructors teaching more than 15 kinds of ballroom-style dances, including waltz, tango, and swing. Only 10 percent of his students are Latino, because he says he targets a diverse population.

Vaughn's studio also offers multiple dance styles, including tango, ballroom, and swing. "There's somewhat of a feeling that we're a salsa studio, but we really do more than that," she says. Many of Vaughn's students are young and older professionals, including many faculty members from local colleges.

Price says his students range in ages from 5 to 65 and come from a wide range of backgrounds. One of Price's students is Charlie Ballard from Rome, New York, a 55-year-old sergeant at a corrections facility who has been Latin dancing for three years. Ballard used to travel two hours to Rochester three times a week to attend Price's classes. He's cut down slightly, attending classes only one night a week and sometimes heading back for the Saturday night social.

While there is Latin dancing in the nearby city of Syracuse, Ballard says the level of instruction is simply not as high there, which is why he makes the trek out to Rochester to learn from Price.

"He's the best teacher I've ever had," Ballard says. "Darin's constantly evolving. As long as I'm with Darin, I'm going to evolve."

Another of Price's students is Denisse Ramos, a 20-year-old business senior at the college of Brockport. Ramos saw Price and his partner give a cha-cha demonstration at the Rochester Athletic Club and decided to start taking classes.

"Ever since high school I've always wanted to learn the actual steps," Ramos says.

Coming from a Latin background, Ramos has been exposed to Latin styles of dance for most of her life. Now, she is taking weekly bachata lessons, a style that originated in the Dominican Republic and which is heavy in Latin hip movement, and she hopes to start learning salsa soon.

"I love it because it's not only about the steps, it's all about the emotion and feel," Ramos says. She adds that it's good mental and physical exercise, and a great way to meet new people in a lower-stress and safer environment than the average bar.

"You feel a type of pressure when you go out to a bar or to a club," she says. However, at Price's studio she said that everyone's just there to learn, so she doesn't feel pressured or self-conscious.

Relief and recreation are common reasons why Price's students attend classes, but there are other benefits to Latin dancing. "We look at what we do as an escape for members," Inikori says. Often his students are looking for an escape from everyday life or whatever they do from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. "It's balancing them out," he says.

Students might take classes because they are divorced, or haven't dated in a while, or just want a new way to meet people. "I think the biggest thing is to get people over that hump of, 'I want to try it but I'm apprehensive,'" Vaughn says.

EmyKadanaugh is one of Vaughn's students who made it over that very hump. Kadanaugh, 56, is a mother of two, a wife, and a daycare provider. However, she still manages to make time for three classes a week at Vaughn's studio. Kadanaugh comes from a Puerto Rican background and grew up dancing the meringue at home with her dad.

"Once the kids got on their own I said, 'Let's get back into dancing,'" she says. Now she takes lessons in salsa, Argentine tango, and Rueda de Casino, which is a style of salsa where couples dance in a circle and one person, the "caller," announces the moves, which are to be executed in unison. She also attends the studio's weekly Friday-night social.

Even if she's in a bad mood when she arrives at Tango Cafe, Kadanaugh says the music comes on, her heart starts beating faster, and she realizes, "I wanna get on that floor and dance," she days.

There are many opportunities each week to go Latin dancing in Rochester. Studios host their own events, and many other businesses in Rochester host "Latin" nights. However, Price says to be wary of these events if you're looking for real Latin dancing. "Just because it's a Latin night doesn't necessarily mean that it's meant for dancers," Price says. (See sidebar for a listing of area events.)

Some of these events have live bands on occasion, but most of the time they are DJ'ed. Even though there are many Latin bands in Rochester and the surrounding areas, they are expensive, and sometimes not as convenient as DJ'ed music. "Bands are not a boombox," Inikori says, meaning that they don't offer the same variety and control that recorded music does.

However, many dancers prefer dancing to live music. "Live music is always preferable if you can get it," Vaughn says. "The band can really get the energy from the dancers and the dancers from the band."

Price agrees that bands can really liven up the night. "I tell my dancers all of the time, we're just another part of the band, we're just another instrument," he says.

In addition to social dances, there are also many other studios than the ones mentioned to learn dances like salsa and cha-cha in Rochester. Vaughn said these studios often teach a ballroom-style version of the dance.

Different styles of Latin dance include street, club, and ballroom. Price says his classes are a structured club-style, which means everything he teaches can be led and followed on the social dance floor or in a club.

Class sizes at these studios are kept small, with an average of 10 to 20 students per class. Price keeps them at this size by offering classes nearly every weekday night, and Vaughn has started capping her classes at 20 students after being featured on the coupon website Groupon twice.

The price for a single class is usually around $10 to $15, and can often be purchased in package deals. Workshop weekends are held occasionally with local or national instructors, and are around $30 to $50 for a day of classes. Social dances are usually $5 or less, sometimes more if there is live music.

Social dances in Rochester see large numbers, getting anywhere from 50 to 150 attendees depending on the night, venue, and type of music provided. Price says, "I encourage folks to not just come here to just take a lesson; you have to really encourage them to go out and dance."

No partner or experience is required to take lessons or attend social dances. Most lessons rotate partners, so that dancers learn how to lead and follow socially and not just with a specific partner.

While it seems like there are an abundance of Latin-dance opportunities in Rochester already, other cities go far above and beyond what our city currently offers. "In New York City you can go dancing every day of the week, even multiple dances a night," Inikori says.

Price believes there is still room to grow in Rochester. Competition between studios can be a limiting factor, but he actually likes that element of this scene. "I don't look at it as we're competing for the same group," Price says. He thinks of it as the studios pushing themselves to offer better things to the group they currently have.

However, he points out, "We'll never be a New York City, we'll never be a Chicago, we'll never be a Toronto," he says. Rochester simply doesn't have that big of a population.

While the room to grow might be limited, Price thinks if the studios work together more, hire more teachers, and push students to increase their skills, they can continue to build Rochester's Latin dance scene.

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