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In Natasha’s Ballroom

At Studio 6, dance students of all ages discover their secret identities.

 


Photography by Aaron Locke

Friday afternoon. Cruise east on Sixth Avenue, past the costume shop that says it’s open but is not, past the restaurant that’s recently closed, past stores selling records for a dollar. Stand before Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, a Gothic Revival with some serious stained glass and a stone bell tower. In front is a wood-staked “For Sale” sign, but at 2:00 p.m., the bells still chime.

A half block further is a double-wide commercial space with plate-glass windows. Before one can find a business sign, a very tall gentleman is sliding out the door on soft-sole shoes. His fitted black trousers and burgundy blouse, unbuttoned perhaps one more button than typical of a man approaching sixty, are stage- show-bright here on the sidewalk.

“Would you like to come inside?” he asks. He holds open the door to a dance studio with pale wood floors and mirrors along one wall. Soft Latin music plays, though for the moment there are no dancers here except the man, with his full head of champagne-colored hair and eyes that ask, Would you like to dance?

It is not a question that needs to be verbalized at Studio 6 Ballroom. Teenagers learning hip-hop, a couple clenched in Argentine tango, the fleet-of-foot and those sure they have two left ones, the professional competitors and the anxious-not-to-be-anxious wallflowers — all come here to learn to dance in a big room on a stretch of street that appears to need just a little movement to take off, maybe in the form of a rumba, which Kent, the man with the champagne hair, does twice a week during private lessons. An endeavor that fills him with what seems to be ecstasy and has the added benefit of allowing him to put his arms around many women.

“Lock your forearm close to mine,” he says. “Closer. Now: fast, fast, slow.” And away he rumbas, explaining that he dances five nights a week at veterans’ clubs and Elks Lodges. That “if men don’t dance, they’re idiots,” what with the ratio of women to men being, in his experience, four or five to one. And no, he’s not married, he works in IT, and as one continues to go fast, fast, slow, one sees Kent has a remarkable S-shaped nose, that he is bowlegged as a cowboy but precise in his steps, something he makes sure of by videotaping himself. The camera is set up in the studio’s window, between a headless mannequin in a yellow chiffon gown and a man-size gold 6 that would have looked perfect on the cover of a Bee Gees album.

Kent is gone at five, when there is a lull in Studio 6’s twelve-hour day. Open from ten to ten, the studio launched in August 2007, when thirty-four-year-old professional dancer Natasha Thayer and her boyfriend, Wes Rogers, rented and transformed the former pool hall, which, more recently, was “a store where a guy sold old periodicals,” Natasha explains. “You had to get buzzed in.”

She gives a tour of the studio. It does not take long to see the framed 8 x 10s of Natasha competing in dance competitions around the U.S. and the Philippines from 1997 to 2002. Here she is a platinum blond in a handkerchief-sized costume with a waist the size of a softball. Here, with shiny auburn hair and a buffed complexion, she’s choreographing a piece for a 2008 Museum of Glass benefit. At the rear of the studio is the lounge, a womb of slouchy couches set around a TV. Natasha’s dachshund, Rumba, tinkles his collar as she pops in a compilation tape of herself and her former partner competing in Denver and LA.

“I’d like to get back to competing,” she says, looking at a previous incarnation of herself, arching backwards in an abalone sheath, beaming for the judges as a recording of Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On” plays on and on.

Today, Natasha, in a loose skirt and sweater, is the creative side of Studio 6 Ballroom; whether it is profitable, she does not know. She does know she and Wes have created a dance space that has, as it says on the studio’s website, “a welcoming family feeling . . . the ‘Cheers’ feeling!”

“When Wes got out of the Navy, he started taking lessons from me,” says Natasha. The Tacoma studio where she was teaching then was a pit, and there was no place to sit. Wes didn’t want her to work there; he wanted, she says, “to see me at a place where I would enjoy my day, and not be in a place that was filthy and dirty and where my car was broken into.” And so Natasha — who besides competing in dance competitions had done time as a veterinary student — said yes when he wanted to open this studio. Was he opening it for her? Natasha smiles.

“And for the other students,” she says, two dozen of whom filter in for the 1940s jitterbug-style dance class called East Coast Swing. Group classes run $10 to $18 at Studio 6, private lessons $65 to $80. The students, says Natasha, range in age from four to ninety, including “a group of home-schooled Mormons that the previous year had had a dance and all the kids just sat there. They didn’t know how to dance, they didn’t know how to interact, and so they ended up playing board games.” This year, they danced.

In the ballroom tonight there are an attorney and a parks department employee; a female detective and a Boeing engineer; a widow and her teenage daughter. Thayer knows them all, knows whose mother has dementia, who’s going through a rocky divorce, who has vertigo and who’s looking for romance (the last a given), or if not for romance exactly, then the connection of holding the hands of another.

“We’re short one gal,” says Don, a greensman for the Mariners’ field and lean as a stick of jerky. The writer puts down her pad; there is no reason not to be that gal. Until there is, after she repeatedly turns right when she should turn left, and goes under instead of over, so that despite Don’s protestations of “You’re doing great,” it must be mentioned he does not look crestfallen when Natasha instead becomes that gal. And if she is fleshier than when she competed, she is perhaps a greater pleasure to watch: her hips roll like lava, her feet barely brush the floor, but more than knowing what to do with her feet, she knows what to do with her head, snapping it back, showing her throat. She is pure theatre, incandescent, every eye in the room looking toward her light.

“Come on, Rumba,” says Wes to the dog, who’s been standing on the sidelines watching his mistress. Wes has not stopped moving in the past four hours, though he has not been dancing. He vacuums and sprays down the bathroom and carries purses across the studio. A big twenty-five-year-old who grew up in Stehekin, he wears a paint-spattered sweatshirt that reads, “Property of Camp Arifjan, Kuwait,” his soft blond hair a somewhat longer version of a military buzz.

Wes began dancing in Kuwait, on the base. “Initially, it was obviously to meet girls,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that white guy that can’t dance, we all know that guy.” Stateside, he started taking classes and “fell in love with the group thing: people come from Seattle, Tacoma, Bremerton, Port Orchard. We’d all go out on a Saturday evening . . . I was a beginning dancer, but you feel comfortable dancing with people you know. I would never get out on the floor otherwise.”

He looks at Natasha, who has her right hand on the small of Fiona’s back. Sixteen, with a head of Marie Antoinette curls and a pair of skinny red jeans, Fiona allows her left arm to be lifted high by Natasha, who gives the girl’s hip a push and launches her into a spin.

“Dancing helps develop self-confidence, and Natasha’s really good at working that in,” says Wes. “She works a lot with finding them where they are and getting them to that place where they want to be.”

Where they want to be, as the 7:30 swing class segues to the 8:30 salsa, is a supra-normal place, both familiar and exotic, where a barrel-gutted man chewing gum, a man who might not appear seductive sitting on a barstool or in the cab of a truck, here, by dint of his sureness of step, does. Where a man who says he has mastered the fox-trot approaches a woman he has never met, and, though neither is French, asks, “Pourquoi ne dansez-vous pas?”

The writer thinks that maybe with a few lessons, she could feel like Fiona, who compares her ability to dance to being “like a superhero, my secret dancing identity.”

Between classes, students gather on the squishy seating cubes that line the studio. “Sixth Avenue was not so good a few years ago,” says Lynette, a professor at University of Puget Sound. “The market on the corner used to get held up at gunpoint every week.”

“It was Skid Row,” says her husband, Greg, who works at a nearby lumber store and is glad to see new businesses along Sixth. Last Christmas he bought a series of private dance lessons for himself and his wife, because he knew she wanted to dance, “and not just in our kitchen, after a few glasses of wine.”

“I read that people think of wine and candlelight as the romantic thing to do to put you in the mood,” says Lynette. “But dancing is physical, you get a little sweaty — doing that gets you in the mood.”

“It is,” says Greg, “an extension of making love.”

“That’s one way to put it,” says Natasha. “Also, ‘the stand-up version,’ with no diseases.”

She cues up Latin versions of “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” The dancers line up, six men facing six women, and start to salsa. Men remain in place while women switch partners after each song. There is smiling and teasing and a lot of touching, and working on the premise that dancing is an extension of lovemaking, one finds oneself naughtily comparing people’s techniques. One guy works very hard. Another thinks he’s a smoothie. And this one, the one dancing six feet away, is transfixing. Wearing a “Hike or Die: Death Valley” T-shirt, Jay has a rugged quickstep, and where some dancers are serious or intense, he is playful as he takes the hand of each new partner, giving her a self-deprecating smile, widening his eyes in mock heartbreak, sliding his arm around her waist in a way that says, Let go, I’ve got you.

It’s ten o’clock, and though she must climb the half wall between the lounge and the dance floor to do so, Natasha unplugs the lights. The women shake out their hair and the men say “Yeah,” as a disco ball starts throwing its silver sparks. And while class ostensibly ended a half hour ago, no one makes a move to leave; they keep dancing in the dark, here and who knows where else as they let go. •

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