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Stepping out
Free dance lessons, live music offered in Grant Park

Chicago Suburban News - June 25, 2003 - Chicago Tribune
by Lauren B. Kraft - Staff Writer
-  or (815) 439-4348  -

 Dance instructor Paul Collins started out with an easy question on the first night of Chicago SummerDance in Grant Park.

 "Does everybody understand left from right?"

  The crowd that had gathered around him in two circles was as diverse as the city was lively at 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday. Holding hands but not quite loosened up yet, many of the would-be dancers nodded silently.

 "If you don't understand left from right, that's OK," Collins said. "We'll show you."

  And so begins a summer of dancing in the park sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

  Each Thursday through Sunday, a different dance instructor teaches up to 2,000 people how to put away that step-together move they've been holding onto since high school and groove into something unusual.

  Sunday afternoons are reserved for ballroom dancing — the tango, fox trot and rumba are taught, as well as others — but Thursday through Saturday evenings bring a cornucopia of genres. Latin dancing nights and swing nights are the most popular, but dances range from square dancing to bop.

  Paul Collins taught dances to accompany Fanfare Ciocarlia, a Romanian gypsy band. Eastern European dances like the hora, sirba and briul were as foreign to the dancers as was the late June weather — a chilly 57 degrees with wind swirling around the flower-laden park just days before the official start of summer.

  But the dancers held their own, and by the time the one-hour lesson was over, they were taking their break time to practice together in large groups.

  Not used to the unseasonal weather, the concession stand served no warm drinks to accompany their light dishes like chicken skewers and hummus and pita chips but offered sangria, beer and wine to serve as a bit of liquid courage.

  Holding a plastic cup of red wine, John Bell took the break as a chance to watch others practice their moves. He noted that Eastern European dancing isn't his style, but he was looking forward to the zydeco band that would play in a few weeks.

  With living quarters just down the street from SummerDance, Bell walks down whenever he's in town, he said.

  During lessons that evening, Bell had danced with a massage therapy student and an older lady, as well, he said.

  "I love how you don't have to have a date," he said. "You can just come and dance. It's not hard to find a partner."

  Indeed, it seemed that while more than a few people were paired up, a number of them were sitting by themselves waiting for the band to begin.

  Puerto Rican-born Jose Uribe, who lives near the park now, said he's been coming for five of the seven years SummerDance has been offering the free nights out.

  "I need to have a couple of drinks," he said, laughing. "Then I'll get out there."

  Uribe took advantage of the free rental chairs the sponsors hand out with the exchange of an ID. He sat on the lawn near picnickers and families with children who were just there to enjoy the music.

  As soon as the 10-piece band took to the stage, it had the complete attention of the crowd, many of whom had waited patiently on the dance floor.

  A group of people from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan who had taken a daylong bus ride to Chicago just to hear the band immediately began jumping up and down and twirling around the floor. As the horn music pounded out from the stage, they laughed and danced around freely with the rest of the crowd, who had already joined hands again for the group dances Collins had taught.

  "It's an incredible atmosphere," said Sarah Dandelet of Michigan. "The energy ... the cultural experience of it."

  "That's really, I think, what's constant," said Michael Orlove, program director for the Department of Cultural Affairs. "We have this incredible mix of age, race, cultures that, for me, I think, makes it so special."

  Oak Park 17-year-olds Virginia Young and Nick Davis were two of only a few who stuck to themselves while dancing instead of joining in the large group.

  They had mistakenly thought the band would play merenge music, but their smiles showed they were delighted, nonetheless.

  "It seems like a very accepting crowd," Young said. "I'm happy."

  Although the two were only used to salsa and merenge dancing, the young couple said the lessons made it easy enough to join in.

  That's the point, said Manny Lopez-Marquez, a Bolingbrook man who teaches at SummerDance at least once a year.

  "I usually guarantee they'll be dancing that night," Lopez-Marquez said. "How well depends on how hard they work." ·


06/25/03 — © 2003 Digital Chicago & Hollinger International Inc.