“Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio Continues to Share Happiness” By: Linda Pang

“Come on, Tyler,” Julie Berger calls, walking through grass to the parking lot. Tyler is sniffing the ground, but moves closer to Julie when she calls. He follows her up the dark wooden stairs of a brick building with a green awning.

“He’s my son,” she says, laughing, and tugs on the leash attached to the small white and grey Shichon. Julie adds that he is three years old and a mix of Bichon Frisé and Shih Tzu. “He’s the studio mascot,” she explains, smiling. “Students ask for him by name!”

In a cozy waiting area, a few women are chatting with each other on wooden benches and a large, red suede couch. The large window that looks into the main dance studio shows a darkened classroom, dimly lit by rope lights, and sounds of a slow pop song wafts through the closed door. Shadowy figures can be seen inside doing cool-down stretches in their fitness class.

Paintings and posters of dancers line the walls. Nearby, a red-fabric-covered table displays tan and black ladies’ Latin and ballroom dance shoes with gemstone-covered-heels that sparkle when they catch the light.

Off leash, Tyler roams the waiting area as the previous class finishes. Julie exchanges her sandals for tap shoes, grabs her pink-covered laptop, and heads into the studio room, where the tap students are waiting.

“Welcome, it’s week one,” Julie says, motioning her students towards the center. The sounds of clicks, clacks, and taps fill the room as they make their way into a circle.

“I’m so excited for this new choreography!” Julie declares. “But first, let’s go around the room and say your name and one fun tap fact to fill the room with good vibes!”

The class of eight women and one man take turns sharing their names and facts, with laughter, cheers, and applause from their classmates. Julie instructs the class to form two lines and face the front floor-to-ceiling mirrors, which are bordered by rope lighting giving off a warm glow beneath the fluorescent overhead lights. She returns to the front of the room to begin warm-up.

“Eight shuffles front, three, four… seven, eight, side…back, now four,” Julie calls out, as she flicks her leg and taps her shoe. “Both feet now to the side… toe, heel, toe, step and clap.”

The faces in the mirror look serious as students concentrate to follow the pattern, watching her feet in the mirror. Click. Clack. Clickity. Clack. Clack. The sound of 10 pairs of tap shoes moving in unison fill the room and echo off of the walls, mirrors, and smooth tan floors.
“It’s okay to smile and have fun,” Julie says, reminding her students with a laugh.

Julie Berger is the founder and artistic director of Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio in Media, Pa., and her days are filled with both teaching and administrative responsibilities. This May, the studio celebrates its 10-year anniversary and Julie couldn’t be happier.
The happiness shows as tap class begins wrapping up an hour later with a mini exercise. After each student gets a chance to show-off to applause from their classmates, Julie gathers the group into a circle again with their hands in the center.

“One, two, three…” she calls out.

“Best tap session ever!” shouts the entire group in reply, raising their hands into the air as a team.

After class, Julie quickly checks-in at the desk, while swapping tap shoes for strappy, satin dance shoes with gem-covered heels.
She is multi-tasking: answering questions from a student, chatting with Kim, changing shoes, and instructing her co-teacher for the next class to get the group started. Ryan Morfei, a high school student and the studio’s youngest Latin dance instructor, nods and heads to the studio, calling the intermediate bachata performance students in as he walks past.

“Dancers, get into two lines and look ready to warm up!” Julie says, calling out to the dancers as she closes the door. Julie and Ryan take their places in the front of the room, leading the co-ed group of dancers through bachata dance warm-ups.

Julie fell in love with dance at a young age, starting tap classes at age three. As she became more experienced, she started teaching hip-hop and tap lessons at age 14 to classes of eight-year-olds, before teaching tap lessons at a Latin dance studio later on. Julie said although she chose to study theater in college, she wanted to veer back to her first love of performing arts: dance.

Julie added that her first vivid memory of salsa was in a London nightclub, when she was 20 and studying abroad.

“It was mystical,” she says. “I wanted to understand what it was.” Her next vivid experience was in France, when she went to teach English.

“I started the studio because I fell in love with salsa dancing and wanted to share that with everyone,” Julie says. “I felt like I had to share this great secret with the world!” Her first salsa classes were taught in a small, rented room above a pizza shop.

Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio now offers a variety of classes for adult students, mostly in the evenings and on weekends, plus special dance socials and workshops. There are Latin dance classes such as salsa, bachata, beginner and intermediate group performance classes, plus fitness classes such as Zumba and yoga. Julie adds that other dance styles, such as ballroom, swing, belly dance, ballet, and burlesque, are available currently through private lessons and half-day workshops.

According to Julie, adult tap has been offered at Salsa in the Suburbs for only the past year, after she finished creating her Latin dance curriculum, a systemized and detailed syllabus for each course from beginner to advanced dancers.

“I’ve videotaped the patterns and trained the teachers so they can all teach it,” Julie says. “It was hard before to take a vacation, now it’s so easy to just go.” She adds that the instructors can also use the videos as reference and, with new instructors to help teach, she was finally able to find an open slot to offer tap classes.

“It’s one of my happiest hours of the week,” Julie exclaims. “My first dance language.”

But Julie admits that there are still daily obstacles and running her own business isn’t always smooth sailing. “Some obstacles right now are figuring out where the company should go,” Julie says, adding that another challenge is setting long-term goals for the company’s growth and future vision.

Back in the classroom, Julie lets Ryan takes the reins as he explains the next section of choreography. At times, the class splits into two groups, based on gender, to work on footwork and arm styling for specific sections, Ryan leading the males.

“It needs to be a cross, step-out, and lunge,” Julie instructs, demonstrating at the same time. She adds arms and then isolates just the arms for practice.

During the last minutes of a two-hour class, Julie calls out the choreography they have learned while the dancers walk through the steps. The dancers try it twice before she adds the music, encouraging them to try it at regular speed.

“It’s fast!” exclaims a student in surprise as the selection ends.

Julie agrees, reminding them that there are still many weeks until their June performance to get it perfect, as they exit the studio room.

While she is still thankful for finding the current location, Julie adds that she has big dreams for her company. Julie explains that initially she was renting a private space by the hour and is now renting her own space with two studio rooms. “I wanted my own space in Media,” she says. “But I didn’t even know what that meant.” She adds that now that she’s been in the current space for a few years, she has an idea.

“Maybe form another studio location or find a place to have a bigger studio” she says, explaining that it would require having a completely full program to fill the studio with classes all day.

“We have a successful daytime yoga program finally,” Julie says. “In the day, you’re really limited to your audience.” She adds that she hopes to fill all of the quiet time, so that she can feel like the studio has truly outgrown its current space.

“There’s a quote about if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” Julie explains. “I sometimes wish I could see more friends or have evenings free, but I really love it here. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

(Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio: 1245 N. Providence Road, www.SalsaInTheSuburbs.com)

When it comes to salsa dancing, Every Step Counts

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This was Donna in 2014, prior to losing 95 pounds!

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This is Donna in 2016, 95 pounds lighter and still losing weight!

 

Being an Accountant means everything needs to add up. And for Donna McCoy, that holds true as well. As an accountant by day- and now a Salsa in the Suburbs (SITS) dancer by night, Donna McCoy understands the importance of calculating risks and taking the right measures to get it right. Owning your own business and traveling all the time often leads to no time for yourself and unhealthy choices. “When I was young, my mom made sure we had balanced meals and, while she never restricted junk food, there was always an alternative: fresh fruit, etc. So I didn’t struggle with weight as a child. It wasn’t until I was in college and, as it happens, my choices were less about health and more about quick, easy and microwavable. Needless to say, by the time I graduated college, I was well over a healthy weight for someone my age. That, combined with the sedentary lifestyle of an accountant, did not make for a good combination.”

 

Donna is not a tax accountant but one who evaluates companie’s internal control systems and recommends improvements. And for her own personal health, Donna chose to evaluate her own internal control system and chose to make some improvements of her own. “I actually took my first dance class at Salsa in the Suburbs in February 2014. But prior to that I was realizing my physical health was out of control and my doctor wanted to put me on medicines for this thing and that. It made me really begin to examine my life. I don’t see myself as a person bound by limitations, and yet, here I was allowing myself to be limited by my own actions (or inaction). I couldn’t go up a flight of steps without being winded and there were dance moves that I found hard to do because of my size. These are things that you don’t realize are limiting you until you are free of them and realize you were only living half a life (maybe less). So, I made a decision. The weight must go!! I didn’t care how long it took. I just knew it had to go. I was so resolute when I made the decision that I scared myself a little, because what if I fail? But I decided to approach it like I approached all things when I was younger: the concept of failure had never occurred to me back then because I had never failed at anything. So far, so good.”

Donna states that she didn’t even intend to dance when she ended up at SITS. “I bought a Groupon for classes with the intention of taking Zumba. donna gradAs it happened, a Beginner I Salsa class was starting that week, so I decided to try salsa since they said I didn’t need a partner. I showed up by myself having no clue what I was going to be doing. Everyone was friendly and there were a bunch of people there just like me: completely clueless but excited about the prospect of trying something new.

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Donna with her Beginner Bachata Performance classmates getting ready to perform!

 

The teachers there were so great, I just kept going. I liked that they rotated partners so that everyone danced with a partner, no one was left out and you had a little time to get to know some of the people in your class. I was a little hesitant when Julie, my instructor, said at the beginning of class that it was suggested that we buy special shoes for this. The accountant in me was thinking: What? Another expense? I’m only taking 5 classes (the number I purchased on the Groupon), why would I need to buy shoes? Well, little did I know that 5 classes would turn to 8 (the number of classes in the Beginner I curriculum). I mean, I had to finish, right? The 8 classes became 16, because, hey, if you do Beginner I, why not do Beginner II? So, here I am 2 years and at least 6 pairs of shoes later and I’m still taking salsa lessons. I’ve also completed a Bachata Performance class and am about to perform for the second time on June 18th! I go out social dancing sometimes too, which is a lot of fun. “

“Since my initial endeavor when going to SITS was to take Zumba, I decided to actually do that too, even though I had used up my Groupon on Salsa classes. My first Zumba class was taught by Nicole on Saturday mornings. I had so much fun, I forgot I was working out until I stopped and realized I was sweating (her classes sort of sneak up on you that way). That was nearly two years ago and, to this day, it is still one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday morning.”

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This is Donna at her Intermediate A Salsa graduation!

Donna said that she didn’t necessarily set out to lose weight when she first started and wanted to make gradual changes so she began watching her food intake by using the Weight Watchers point system. And now she is down 95 pounds and counting. And with the support of her family, friends and keeping up with regular classes at Salsa in the Suburbs, she has continued her success. “There are only so many hours in a day, so I try not be too hard on myself. I have learned (and it only took me 47 years) that stress is not a friend in a crisis. So, I try to keep my head, make sure I get in some amount of exercise every day, make sure I each fruits and vegetables and try to pay attention to the things I can control, not the things I can’t.

When asked what she would recommend to anyone interested in Salsa dancing at Salsa in the Suburbs (SITS), Donna says, “I say jump in with both feet. They have a beautifully nurturing environment. Whatever level you’re on, they’ll meet you there and take you to the level where you want to go. My one sentence to describe SITS? (I’ve said it before) SITS is my happy place. We are proud of you Donna in too many ways to count!

 

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Donna recently received her Zumba teaching certificate and here she is with her first class of her very own Zumba students! You can take Donna’s class on Sunday mornings at 10:30a.m. at Salsa in the Suburbs for an inspiring, super fun class, which is sure to help you reach your own fitness goals!!!

People From All Walks of Life United by Salsa

Ashish and Neelohita from India and Sandy from Wisconsin discovered the joy of Latin Dancing.

Your favorite celebrities have performed it on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ children chant ‘cha-cha-cha’ during birthday songs, yet the roots of the social dance style, salsa, are often misunderstood. Originating in New York during the 1970s, this quick, upbeat dance includes strong influences from Latin American dance styles, drawing inspiration from the mambo, swing, the hustle, guaguanco and pachanga. Its eclectic foundations, energetic movements and irresistible music make it the sweat-worthy, slightly sultry, workout of choice for a people of all ages and backgrounds at Salsa in the Suburbs.

Ashish Lokhande

ashish1Thanks to a friend’s persuasion, Ashish Lokhande, born in India and now a resident of Upper Darby, PA, took a trial salsa class and was amazed. “The people were very nice and friendly, and the instructor took great care in ensuring that everyone understands the intricacies of various salsa/bachata steps.”

And that’s no easy task. Salsa movements focus on constantly shifting weight through the hips and legs, while using the upper body to lead or follow with a partner.

ashish_goodAdmittedly, Lokhande attributes his initial intrigue to the sensational sounds of salsa; “Moving to the sounds of that music kept me wanting to learn more. There was a mere sense of joy, it’s very rhythmic.” But once he was hooked, he was determined to participate in performances. “Seeing great dancers around the studio encouraged me to learn more and perform one day.”

Partner dancing inherently cultivates friendships and bonds within the class, something Lokhande appreciated. “We get to know people from all walks of life. My life before coming to the Philadelphia area was spent developing my career. Salsa exposed me to another culture of fun and happiness. There’s so much we can learn about the Latin American culture just through some good dancing.”

Neelohita Kalisetti

neelohita_indiaClassmate Neelohita Kalisetti, also born in India, but now a resident of Media, PA, empathizes with Lokhande’s pre-salsa lifestyle. “Life was getting monotonous, I needed a new hobby. I love to dance and I found this salsa class. I got hooked instantly.” Despite her passion for dance, Kalisetti admits it was a little tough in the beginning. “Initially, it was hard, but the beginner classes are so well designed that anybody could pick up the dance.”

Like Lokhande, Kalisetti’s dedication and participation in performance classes changed from “just a class” to a place “where you make friends, good friends, close enough to start going out dancing with.” On the day of her first performance, Kalisetti recalls a ‘salsa high’; “I remember having a rush of blood to my head, which I’ve only felt when I was sky diving. That day, I decided I needed to do a second performance!”

Sandy Stamn

sandy3Similarly to Lokhande, Sandy Stamn, born and raised in Wisconsin, and currently a resident of Media, PA, initially began her salsa training due to social media. A Groupon deal brought Stamn to the doors of her first Beginner I class where she achieved her primary goal: “I’ve always wanted to learn how to properly salsa.”

Since then, Stamn has enjoyed the inviting culture that Lokhande and Kalisetti mentioned; “Everyone is there to have fun. It’s friendly and supportive, we all want to have a good time.”

Outside of regular classes, practice sessions, and even salsa bootcamps, members meet up to perfect their technique and revel in the salsa spirit. “Many of the students meet up at different clubs to have a good time and just dance. The fun factor keeps us coming back,” mentions Stamn.

Since Lokhande, Kalisetti and Stamn have joined the Salsa in the Suburbs community, all three, with varying professions and backgrounds, have introduced their newest passion to friends and family alike. Salsa’s melting-pot influences, dance style and sounds draw onlookers in like a moth to a light.

Stamn surmises, “My husband saw me dancing with a friend, and because I was having so much fun, he started to take lessons as well.”

If you’re looking to have fun, meet people and learn a dance style you can show off at your next wedding reception or night on the town, think salsa!

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Zumba Changes Lives, from Teachers to Rock Stars – Literally!

My friends and I tried Zumba at other studios, but nothing could compare to the classes at Salsa and the Suburbs. I couldn’t imagine going anyplace else!

Zumba Changes Lives

Since its inception in the 1990s, Zumba has forever altered the dance fitness industry. This workout implements movements and rhythms from traditional dances, like the tango and salsa to reggaeton and hip hop.

The result?

A pulse-pounding, adrenaline- boosting and life-changing workout.

Just ask January’s students of the month, Audrey Neill and Courtney Jansen. Both students came to Salsa in the Suburbs seeking to supplement their current fitness regimens, unsure of what to expect, and haven’t looked back!

Neill, a seasoned teacher at St. Dorothy’s Catholic School in Drexel Hill, was encouraged by colleagues to give Zumba a try. Already an avid walker and Weight Watchers member, Audrey seized the Salsa in the Suburbs special offered on Groupon in June 2012 and “hasn’t stopped since.”

Similarly, Courtney Jansen, lead singer of Gypsy Wisdom, a Philadelphia area cover band, sought a new way to exercise. Friends mentioned they loved Zumba, so she gave it a try.

“I was hearing a lot of great things about Salsa in the Suburbs…I also knew two girls who were instructors and students there.” Like Neill, Jansen purchased a social media special and attended a Zumba class with her sister. She says, “I was hooked from the first class!”

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Audrey recalls initialing feeling intimidated. “It took a few months for me to feel confident enough to relax and just enjoy myself.” But her commitment to her health goals kept Neill and her friends coming back for more. “My friends and I tried Zumba at other studios, but nothing could compare to the classes at Salsa and the Suburbs. After a class with Beth, I couldn’t imagine going anyplace else!”

At Salsa in the Suburbs, instructors focus on each individual student, giving them the support, encouragement and direction they need.

“I was coming with girls half my age who had done some exercise prior to Zumba…Beth was an incredible motivator and very supportive, she engages all of her students.”

Jansen agrees, stating that “the energy, skill level and motivation are a huge part of what keeps me coming back.”

And come back they did! Now, just over a year later, Neill boasts over an 85-pound weight loss, surpassing her initial weight loss goals. She attributes this to her love of and dedication to Zumba classes. The benefits of which have affected her life, both in the studio as well as in the classroom.

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Before and after! What a difference Zumba makes!

“Most noticeably is my stamina…As a Kindergarten teacher, I am on my feet all day. Before Zumba, I would walk up four flights of stairs and have to rest before having a conversation. Now, I can literally jog up the steps and talk the whole time.”

Jansen, no stranger to high-energy performances, has seen dramatic changes as well. “Zumba has increased my endurance, and I can really jump around the way I’ve always wanted to. I also smile when I catch myself adding some moves from class to a Lady Gaga song or Rihanna dance beat.”

Beyond their wellness goals, both Neill and Jansen enjoy the Zumba community offered at Salsa and the Suburbs. Courtney appreciates the overall friendliness of the studio, “I’ve seen some Salsa in the Suburbs’ students at Gypsy Wisdom shows, including [instructor] Beth.”

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When Audrey was scheduled to go on a vacation, she couldn’t imagine being away from exercise class that long. Beth gave Neill her playlist so she could do Zumba while away from the studio. “That speaks volumes about the caring, supportive [staff].”

Now, as Zumba regulars, both ladies encourage people of all ages and fitness levels to come and see results for themselves. Continual changes in routine moves keep regulars consistently challenged, and new dances being added guarantee an energetic “sweat fest,” says Jansen.

For those a bit hesitant, Neill recommends, “Whenever anyone new comes to class, I encourage them to do what they can, not to be frustrated with the routines, and just relax and enjoy it!”

Ready to get in shape – the fun way? Try Zumba!

From Two Left Feet to Salsa Blackbelt: An Intimate Look at a Loyal Supporter

Wes Sturgis has been an indispensable volunteer for Salsa In The Suburbs Dance Studio and one of its most loyal supporters.

Wes helped founder and artistic director Julie Berger paint the studio before its opening. He helped transport and set up sound equipment when salsa socials were held at outside venues, routinely arriving home just a few hours before sunrise. He regularly attends additional classes, beyond those in which he himself is a student, so that there would be an experienced dancer who could work with beginning dancers.

WESWes remembers feeling extremely uncoordinated before joining Julie Berger’s studio in the fall of 2008. He signed up for 10 private lessons and recalls having trouble mastering basic steps, and distinguishing salsa songs from merengue rhythms. But he refused to give up and made gradual improvements through force of repetition.

Wes has become one of the studio’s regulars on Tuesday nights, “performance class night,” and he would hardly know how to occupy his time if he weren’t taking dance classes.

For Wes, the studio has become a home away from home. He has taken every single performance class ever offered, so many that he has actually lost track of the actual number. He estimates about a dozen. He keeps coming back because he enjoys learning new dance moves, developing new friendships and a sense of camaraderie. He considers his fellow dancers like a “second family.”

WES2He enjoys a bond and connection with other salsa enthusiasts that remains intact even if they no longer come to the studio or don’t go out salsa dancing as much, if at all. Wes still goes out to dinner with former dance partners from years earlier.

There have been numerous outings, including whitewater rafting, canoeing, concerts, trips to Longwood Gardens as well as biking and hiking in Fairmount Park and other cultural events in the city. And, of course, they’ve gone out for nights of dancing too.

“You make a lot of friends, and I like that. Who’s got too many friends?”

Wes had never danced before arriving at Julie’s studio. But he was motivated to learn after realizing he knew nothing about Latin dancing while on a first date with a Latina woman from South America. In his initial email to Julie he wrote, “We went dancing at Cuba Libre a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t keep up and felt like a dweeb.”

Fast-forward five years and it’s obvious that all those dance lessons are starting to pay off for Wes. He’s an assistant teacher in Beginner Salsa classes on multiple days per week and wears a t-shirt which says “Blackbelt in Salsa,” which Julie presented to him for his birthday.

Julie, who met Wes before finding a home for her studio in Media just off Route 1, said Wes has been an immense help.

“He is a great dancer and an even better person,” Julie says. “Wes helps out with everything, including having painted the studio before we opened our doors to moving tables and chairs for set up and break down at salsa parties at outside venues and even promoting the studio. He is one of those people I couldn’t do without.”

“I’ve always volunteered all the time for stuff like that,” Wes says.

WES3Persistence paid off in more ways than one. Wes is now one of the Beginner II Salsa instructors. As a result, he has gained a new level of self-confidence.

“I became the guy who had three left feet to a guy who teaches class,” Wes says in classic Wes style, with a mix of humor and modesty.

He sees his personal growth as an ongoing “journey” that he still enjoys.

“I dread the day when I stop,” Wes says. For now though, the Garnet Valley man is definitely savoring the moment; call it “sabor Latino.”

Julie says, “Wes is the poster boy for how transformational Salsa in the Suburbs’ can be. He is proof that someone can walk in with very little dance ability and no prior experience and become an advanced dancer. He will be the first to admit to our beginner students that it took him ten hours of private lessons to master what our students learn in two group classes. He has worked very hard and his brain has become a salsa sponge and he picks up patterns very quickly and you should see the ladies line up to dance with him!”

“I’ve always been blessed to have wonderful dance partners,” Wes says. “I’ve been very blessed to have the best dance partners a guy could ever want. It’s because of them, I’ve been able to accomplish so much.”

Written by: Wilford Shamlin III

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Salsa Helps to Reclaim Personal Power after Traumatic Injuries

Salsa Dancing Rehabilitation Physical Therapy

A vehicle operated by a hit-and-run driver changed her life but salsa dancing became the vehicle by which she reclaimed her personal power.

Two of Julie Berger’s students, Darren Hepke and Kristen Gilia, turned to salsa dancing after undergoing traumatic experiences that changed their perspectives about life. Salsa dancing was revitalizing on multiple levels, helping with their overall well-being and energizing their spirit.

The ever-athletic Darren was regaining his strength and coordination after a spinal cord injury left him temporarily paralyzed. Kristen was looking for a fun activity with a low-risk of injury after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a street. They both found salsa dancing invigorating and inspiring as they recovered from serious injuries.

Darren Hepke

darren hepkeIt’s been about four years since Bryn Mawr’s Darren Hepke, 26, a three-sport athlete, added salsa dancing to his list of accomplishments. He enjoyed the mental challenge of learning new moves that require hand and foot coordination. There were also the physical benefits of dancing in addition to the social aspect of meeting new people in a fun atmosphere.

“It was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Hepke said. But a tag football game on Dec. 9, 2012, would give him the scare of his life. After reaching for a high pass, Hepke came down and fell backward and hit the ground so forcefully that two discs were dislodged from his spinal column. He jogged back to the huddle, but it was only a matter of minutes before his right arm became immobile. Moments later, he was fully paralyzed and had to be flown to the hospital in a medical helicopter.

Hepke spent two months in rehabilitation. Doctors were uncertain whether he would regain mobility, let alone play sports again. But he made steady improvements. He told his doctors that salsa dancing would be a part of his physical therapy and was eager to get back to it along with all of his normal activities as soon as possible. He came back to salsa class just 9 weeks after his accident, and didn’t let a neck-brace stop him from participating in his first class back. Then, just 14 weeks after the accident, was able to drive and went back to playing soccer after 18 weeks, shying away from contact and being careful to avoid exerting himself. He played while his right foot felt weak but he wanted to test himself.

“I pushed the limits by going back to salsa and sports so quickly, but it challenged me to see where I was and what was really weak,” he said. “Physical activity is a really big part of my life.”

Thinking about life partially, or fully, paralyzed was emotionally painful for a man who had played high school varsity soccer, ice hockey and golf. He followed the doctor’s orders to the letter and worked hard on his rehabilitation.

Hepke’s life is back to normal, so much that he pauses when he is asked which arm was weakest during his recovery. There are no residual effects from his spinal cord injury. Hepke feels triumphant in being able to go out salsa dancing again and has even successfully taken the most advanced salsa class offered at Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio.

Kristen Gilia

Salsa Dancer Kristen Gilia

Kristen Gilia, 27, of West Chester, is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. At first glance, you wouldn’t guess that she copes with a permanent injury after being struck by a hit-and-run driver as she walked across the street during the early morning hours of September 2, 2007, moments after parting ways with her best friend.

It’s easy to miss the 8-inch raised scar from her right elbow to her right shoulder if you aren’t looking for it. Her right arm was shattered, her pelvis fractured in three places and she suffered bruising to her brain. She used a wheelchair and a walker for three months as she learned to walk again.

The skin around the injured part of her upper arm never completely healed. She has some mobility but she can’t make an arm movement that most people take for granted. She can flap her arms like a duck, she says, but can’t raise her hand above her head.

She is a classically trained and passionate dancer, having taken hip-hop, jazz and tap dance classes since the age of 5. She looks incredibly comfortable on the dance floor and you’d never guess that she has an injured wing that must always be handled gingerly.

“If you don’t know how to dance with me, it’s very likely that you could hurt me,” Gilia says.

If her partner lifts her arm too high for a dance move, or accidentally brushes against her scar, she can experience painful spasms. But it’s a risk she willingly takes. A vehicle operated by a hit-and-run driver changed her life but salsa dancing became the vehicle by which she reclaimed her personal power.

Kristen at Salsa in the Suburbs

“I stopped my life long enough,” Gilia says. “Finding salsa dancing was like falling in love again after you’ve had your heart broken.”

For two years after the accident, Gilia stopped being herself. She would hang out with friends but stopped participating in the activities that brought her the most joy. Gilia stopped playing softball rather than risk being pegged in the arm by a ball, which happened a few times before she quit the game. But she eventually made an agreement with her mother who taught her a lesson about collateral damage.

“If you’re stupid enough to do it, you’re stupid enough to get hurt,” Gilia said, recalling her mother’s words.

The message was that pain is temporary and can be endured but passions run deep and should be nurtured. Dancing was more than just plain fun. It was liberating.

“I stopped my life long enough,” Gilia says. “Finding salsa dancing was like falling in love again after you’ve had your heart broken.”

Salsa Dance Party Halloween

Can you find Kristen in this photo? Of course you can!

Gilia joined Salsa In The Suburbs Dance Studio after her friend, Luis Sierra, recommended salsa dancing as a fun activity that had a low-risk of injury to her arm. She now takes salsa classes regularly and attends social dances sponsored by the studio where fellow dancers have learned to improvise on the dance floor in order to avoid aggravating her arm injury. She is also often front and center when performing with one of Salsa in the Suburbs’ performance classes. Her injury is so unapparent to the unknowing eye, that she is even one of the few who has been hired to dance professionally for the studio.

Gilia said that returning to dance has been rewarding because it’s given her the opportunity to educate people about her injury. She says her openness has helped alleviate the awkward moments that arise when people are uncertain about what to say or how to dance with her.

She believes her dance partners have become better leaders because they are aware of her physical limitations and adapt their style accordingly, remembering to lead more turns with her left hand rather than her right and using her injured arm sparingly. Some very interesting moves and patterns often result!

Julie, Darren and Kristen’s dance teacher says, “It’s just amazing how many benefits there are to dancing! They’re endless. So many people come here for an emotional escape, and it’s therapeutic for many. But the physical benefits are also numerous. I feel so fortunately to have seen both Darren and Kristen tackle dancing with such determination and grace and to have not let their injuries hold them back from reinventing themselves as great dancers.”

Salsa Classes at Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio

Come Join Our Salsa Classes for Some “Sexy, Healthy, Fun” – Happiness Guaranteed!

–Written by Wilford Shamlin III

Salsa Dancing & Weight Loss: 2 Success Stories

Dancing Off the Pounds

Two women who struggled with weight loss have turned to salsa dancing to help them keep off the pounds and they have found a new zest for life along the way. Cathy Moretti and Monika Barman, who take dance lessons at Salsa In The Suburbs Dance Studio, say they feel more energized and more self-confident since shedding unwanted pounds following gastric bypass surgery.

It has changed my life completely. – Cathy Moretti

The two women say dancing has been extremely therapeutic, helping them to cope with personal loss and chronic problems due to their weight. They have widened their circle of friends and found an inner peace on the dance floor.« Continue »

Dance Your Grief Away; How Dance Can Help with Loss

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Claudia, wearing her mom’s tap shoes with the super-long lace looped around her left shoe. We still don’t know why Claudia’s mom, Linda, had such a long shoelace on her shoe…

A pretty, tall blonde woman walked into tap class for the sixth class of a ten week session. She was wearing a worn pair of tap shoes, which had one very long shoelace looped around one of the soles of her leather tap-shoes. “Hi. I’m Julie, the instructor. Welcome to class. You’ve tapped before, right?” I asked. “Hello. I’m Claudia.” She responded. “No, this is my first time attempting to tap dance.” I looked down at her tap shoes with a perplexed expression. “These were my mom’s. They’re a little bit big on me,” she answered quickly. She then swallowed and continued, “She’s been dead two weeks.”

 

 

 

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Claudia and her mom, Linda.

Claudia later explained that her mom loved tap dancing, and Claudia was coming to class to  feel connected to her mom. She wanted to experience a joy that her mom had felt, and she wanted to fill her mom’s shoes…literally. Claudia decided to take some private lessons with another student, Ruthie. Ruthie then decided to invite her daughter, Allyson, who was home for the holidays, to the lesson. So, Ruthie and her daughter Allyson and Claudia attended a semi-private lesson together. During this lesson, I couldn’t help but feel like I was teaching two mother-daughter sets. There was Allyson with her mom Ruthie, and then there was Claudia wearing her mom’s shoes. If ghosts exist, I was sure that her mom wouldn’t miss this! Her baby girl, although all grown up, was making her first tap sounds with her feet. I imagined her mom there, cheering her on and going down the floor tapping along side of her.

 

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The tattoo of Ron’s son’s laughter print over-top of a heartbeat…

Around the same time that Claudia started taking tap lessons, I started hearing student after student tell me that they were grieving over the loss of a loved one. One salsa student, Ron, had an interesting tattoo on his forearm. When I asked him what it meant, he told me, “It’s the voice print of my deceased son’s laugh overlaying a heart beat…Think of it as a version of laugh, love, live.” Ron said that he hadn’t felt the same elation as he had been feeling in dance class in the three years since the passing of his son. “Dancing at the studio feels like home – a family of friends. It’s easy, fun, and happy. It’s the music, the movement, and the connectedness which was missing in my life.”

Another Latin dance student, Denise, sat on the red couch at the studio during a salsa party and told me that she was so glad she had come to the party because if she hadn’t, she would be sitting at home crying about her late husband. Here is what she had to say about how dance has helped her through her grieving process:

“After losing my husband, I felt the entire world had crumbled under me and that I would never be the same.  I had lost the love of my life, my best friend, the father of my children and a person who was the most humble, kind and loving person’s I had ever met.  For the most part, grief made me feel like I had a hole in my chest that was empty in the place that kept me alive, ‘my heart.’  I was convinced I would never laugh again.

Everyone kept saying, you have to find ‘a new normal.’  If I heard that one more time, I wanted to scream, ‘life will never be normal again!!!’ I tried grief groups,  grief counseling, being more active in my community, going to the gym, swimming more, and even lost one hundred pounds in the process! It seemed like I still could not find ‘me.’

My husband and I always loved dancing at parties and I always wanted to learn to salsa dance. So one morning, I woke up and said, ‘just do it.’ I went to the internet and found Salsa In The Suburbs. I called Julie, who patiently listened to my story and the universe was working in my favor as a beginners’ class had started that week. I was apprehensive, wondering if this would be a successful venture and would I be the only person there ‘alone.’ Julie assured me that I can do it and I will never be alone. That same day I had a private lesson with Shauna and a group Beginner class with Rob and Ryan. I was really comfortable and was actually laughing.

Everyone was so friendly; Julie and the instructors are supportive and from the very first day have provided encouragement making me feel that it is ok to make mistakes as it is part of learning. I started going to the parties and making new friends. I even show off my videos of me dancing to my family and friends who don’t know Latin dancing but they do know of all the sadness I displayed after the loss of my husband. My family was so happy to see me laughing and engaged in something to make me happy.

Through private lessons, group classes and even dance bootcamps, I have completed both Beginner Salsa and Bachata, and now take Intermediate classes! I have even challenged myself and have gone to a lively Salsa club!

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Denise, smiling, after losing 100 pounds and finding her inner dancer!

 

My journey in finding the new me, has been transformed with learning Latin dancing.  While at times, I am not patient with myself, the support that I have with my new family of friends at Salsa in the Suburbs and the fun with dancing has been an integral part of my new life. I encourage anyone who has suffered a loss, to never give in to sadness and to find something that makes you happy. While life will never be the same because losing a loved one is traumatic, our loved ones would not ever want us to give up and live a life of sadness but would much rather see us dance!!!!

 

Another one of my tap students, Regina, comes to class each week and thanks me for her “grief therapy.” After class one day she told me that she was so grateful for that hour of class because it was just the escape she needed. The following day would be the anniversary of the day she buried her daughter. I asked her if we could sit down for an interview and here it is:

  1. Can you tell me about your loss? I have lost three prominent family members: my mother and father were both deceased by the time I was 18 and I lost by sixteen year old daughter.
  2. What brought you to dance?  Music and dance are universal languages. I have been dancing since childhood. When you hear music, the mind and body flow emotionally, psychologically and socially to different outlets.
  3. What classes did you start taking and which ones are you taking now?  I started with Salsa and am currently attending my 10th month of tap. I had tried aerobics and Zumba, but was not interested in those exercise programs. However, tap has the same characteristics that aerobics and Zumba have, but with one huge difference: You have musical instruments on the bottom of your soles. Also, another added feature is that you are banging your inner emotional frustrations out on the floor and it’s expected. No one knows what is pent up within; however, you are releasing that emotion.
  4. What are your dance goals? I would like to achieve all styles of Latin Dances. An additional achievement is to stay fit, both physically and mentally.
  5. How has the community at Salsa in the Suburbs helped you on your journey? You are able to meet many different people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.
  6. What advice would you give someone who has recently experienced a loss? First and foremost, take care of yourself the first three years of a loss. Each year there is a different level of despair. Find what you are passionate about and set a goal!

Grief has recently become a very present and common topic in my day to day work. Whereas I had noticed other trends and many reasons why people would dance before, this topic has recently started to come up so often that I started to wonder if dance could be a leading way to help people deal and cope with grief and loss. So, I decided to share this story in hopes that it can reach other people who are dealing with grief, and possibly open their eyes to a new outlet or coping method, if and when they feel ready of course.

The Women Who Lead!

Typically in salsa dancing, the man is the leader of the dance and the woman is the one who follows. However, Carey Buck wanted to try something different so that she could dance with her wife.

Something funny happened in Carey Buck’s salsa performance class recently.

Instructor Shauna Belizéando asked one of the dancers in class to pick a guy to dance with and the dancer picked Carey.

Shauna quickly said, “I meant pick your leader!”

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Carey and Kathy during the Beginner Salsa Performance class photoshoot!

Carey Buck is leading the pack, literally, at Salsa in the Suburbs as part of a growing number of women who want to lead.

Typically in salsa dancing, the man is the leader of the dance and the woman is the one who follows. However, Buck wanted to try something different so that she could dance with her wife.

Buck, a small business owner, who lives in Chester County with her wife, Kathy, started taking lessons and knew right away that she was going to assume the leader role immediately once she and Kathy started dancing.

“There wasn’t much of a decision really,” Buck said. “She’s more of the how shall we say girly type so finger styling, shimmies and hair caresses are right up her alley. Me? Not so much. I knew that I would be taking on the guy role when dancing and I was fine with that.”

In class with Belizéando, she shouted, “I’m her guy,” Buck said.

Buck also said, none of the dancers at Salsa in the Suburbs have even batted an eye when it comes to her leading.

“I was actually a little nervous at first to be honest,” Buck said.

“But all of the followers have been awesome when dancing with me, they all seem extremely comfortable with no problems.”

The Beginner Salsa performance class, which Carey and Kathy participated in recently performed at The Reef nightclub in Philadelphia. Carey’s wife, Kathy, was ill and couldn’t make it and another follower in the class, Megan Smith jumped in and partnered Carey!

Miriam Leisman

Another leader who is having no problems at all with her newfound knowledge is Miriam Leisman.

Miriam and David dancing at their wedding.

Leisman, who has been dancing at Salsa in the Suburbs since February of 2014, has also found a love for leading in group classes and participated in the Beginner Salsa Performance class as a leader this past August.

She started dancing at another studio four years ago when she was getting married and needed to learn a wedding dance. She and her husband, Daniel, signed up for lessons and at the first one, the instructor addressed Leisman’s husband saying he would be leading.

It struck a chord with Leisman, a math teacher from Narberth, but she kept quiet because she needed to get the lessons under her belt before her wedding.

However, she couldn’t stay quiet for long. In 2012, she asked to be allowed to learn to lead in group classes at the studio she was at (a different studio than Salsa in the Suburbs) and was rebuffed. She was feeling very discouraged by such pressure to stick to a traditional gender role.

The other aspects of the studio where she was taking lessons were great and it was a source of turmoil for Leisman to reconcile those experiences. That turmoil made Leisman scared to contact other studios to find out if they would have less of a problem with her learning to lead, she said.

“I left feeling like I was this strange, bizarre creature that wanted the rest of the world to bend to accommodate her weirdness,” Leisman said.

Thankfully, Leisman contacted founder and artistic director of Salsa in the Suburbs, Julie Berger, in February 2014 and was happily surprised that Berger playfully scoffed at her question.

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Miriam and partner Erin are the second pair from the left, and are striking a pose with the rest of their Beginner Salsa Performance Class.

“She made me feel like my question was ridiculous because OF COURSE I COULD LEARN TO LEAD!!!!”

Berger burst with joy at women who lead because it not only improves their dancing but in a case like Carey and Kathy’s it can spice up a relationship.

“My goal is to make salsa accessible to everyone! Salsa transcends so many things: age, ethnicity, socio-economic backgrounds. Why should traditional gender-roles be any different?” Berger said.

If dancers learn one part first and then switch and learn the other part, they definitely become more empathetic towards the people they dance with once they understand the process the other person is going through. They also have a better understanding of the dance as a whole,” she added.

“Also, I love seeing women learn to lead one another, especially when it adds joy and fun to their relationship, just as any other male-female pair!”

Zelma Maldonado

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Zelma with her instructor Julie Berger at her Beginner I Salsa graduation ceremony!

A relationship that has definitely become more fun is student Zelma Maldonado and her girlfriend Jean Smolen.

Maldonado, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, started at Salsa in the Suburbs in September and has loved learning to lead.

“Leading is just awesome; it does require planning though,” Maldonado said.

As a follower, you just have to show up but as a leader, Maldonado cautioned, there is much more to it.
“As a lead you better have a plan or you’ll be doing the basic all night!”

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Jean and Zelma with Julie Berger at the annual “Spooktacular Halloween Salsa Party!”

All of these ladies have had simple wants and desires when it comes to learning to lead, whether it be, dancing with their wife or girlfriend, or just looking at dancing from a different perspective.

Leisman put it best when she said, “I don’t seek to be stronger or better than anyone else. I just want to have a good time in a room with a mix of dance partners.”

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Written by: Christine Olley

 


More Salsa Class Photos  – Can you find the women who lead?

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