Baltimore native John Dawson, owner and head instructor of dance StudioDNA in Pikesville, teaches a smooth fox trot and a spicy salsa, but some of his students feel they gain more than improved rhythm and sure footing. More confidence, a sense of accomplishment and feelings of grace and pure joy are also what keeps these students practicing and coming back for more.
“Aside from the health benefits,” said Donna Siegel, 62, an executive at the Social Security Administration, “I feel free when I dance. I feel pretty when I dance. I feel graceful, it just feels good.”
Thirteen years ago, Siegel and her husband wanted to dance at their son’s bar mitzvah and started taking lessons. Her husband’s interest fell off after several years, but he encouraged Siegel to continue on her own. Now she can’t imagine a life without dance and, with lessons three times a week in addition to gym visits, massage and acupuncture, she’s also managed to stave off surgery for her spinal stenosis.
Siegel dances fox trot, waltz, salsa, merengue, cha-cha, rumba and tango, but swing is her favorite. She recently danced in a competition with Dawson and won for her age group and dance level. But there are days, she said, that she’s very challenged, such as when she recently worked on a difficult tuck turn. But, she added, “other times when we get in the zone, it’s beautiful. You’re almost outside yourself, listening to the music and moving. … You’re just dancing, it’s pure joy.”
Dawson said clients come to dance for many reasons. It may be in anticipation of a wedding or other event or simply to spend time as a couple. Or clients may be working through an illness or even the loss of a spouse or child.
“But at least for an hour’s worth of time,” said Dawson, “you can get involved in music and movement and forget everything around you.”
Dawson first worked as a mental health administrator at Sheppard Pratt hospital but was laid off after a few years, which, he says, was really a godsend. He answered a dance instruction ad and began formalized training; fortunately, he had a base of many hours spent onstage dancing and singing through high school and college.
He opened StudioDNA in 1994, and now, at an almost perpetually-in-motion 45 years old, he teaches students from ages 7 to 87 and has the reputation of being able to coax and coddle a saucy cha-cha move out of a stiff student. But he also doesn’t shrink from pointing out —sometimes very bluntly — a step that isn’t working, a directive he may deliver with gesticulating arms and a perfect Brooklyn Jewish mother accent.
“Sometimes we’re laughing so hard during the lessons,” said Siegel, “that we’re having trouble dancing and we’re standing there laughing ‘til we cry, and we have to serious up a little bit.
“Other times, when we get in the zone, it’s beautiful. You’re almost outside yourself, listening to the music and moving. You’re just dancing … it’s pure joy.”
Often, people start dance lessons because of the “glitz and the lights,” said Dawson, referencing the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” “and then you get down to the fact that it’s a lot of dedication, it’s a lot of work. But it’s a lot of fun as well, even if I have to smack someone on the tuchas once in a while [to get them] back on track.”
StudioDNA, which has a second location in Canton, is dedicated to providing safe and comfortable spaces where people can go to move and learn, not feel judged, and be able to laugh at themselves, Dawson said.
Liza Massouda and Patty Simmons also teach with Dawson, and Simmons has been working with her client, Steve Levin, since May.
Levin, a youthful and physically fit 70-year-old, was the primary caretaker to his father, Jake, for more than 20 years. He met Simmons at the Envoy nursing home where their fathers were resident roommates. Over a few years, their friendship grew, and Simmons occasionally suggested he take lessons. But Levin always balked at the idea. Then Levin’s father passed away in March 2014.
“Patty called me maybe a month or six weeks after that and asked me if
I would be interested in trying ballroom dancing,” recalled Levin, who has danced zydeco. “I think somehow she knew it would be a good thing for me, maybe before I knew it.”
He added, “I had the time and was inclined to give it a try, to help with my grief. You can get lost in dancing, you can transcend the moment.”
Seven months into his ballroom lessons, Levin danced a waltz in a showcase at StudioDNA, an event at which students and instructors perform routines for invited family and friends. Levin appreciates the connection he feels with his instructor and other dancers and the sense of levity that pervades the studio, even when improvement is the goal.
“I remember one time after I made a dance move, Patty said, ‘Steve, maybe you should take that look of horror off of your face.’ It was funny, but she was right,” he said, laughing. “I’ve learned to relax my face when I dance, it was a good tip.”
Dawson prides himself in the ability to meet people where they are in terms of how they learn. He may simply demonstrate a step for someone to mimic but can break it down to the mathematical and mechanical elements as well. Dawson also offers group lessons that Marge and Roy Deutschman, both 67, have taken for six years with their friends, Berly and Avi Hershkovitz.
“For us, it’s a date night,” said Roy Deutschman. “It keeps us young, fresh and vibrant and all those things old people need to be. It’s exercise and socialization, and we have a lot of fun with John — we kibbitz, dance and yell at each other.”
Marge Deutschman added, “I feel like a princess, I feel like Ginger Rogers. Anybody can dance with John; he just makes you feel so good. And after every session I thank him for making me feel that way.”
Roy Deutschman said he’s amazed that if needed, John can just grab him and “take the role of the woman” in order to address a step that needs correction. Marge Deutschman said dancing regularly helps her get through some of life’s trying times, and it’s helped with her attitude too.
“It gives me a lot of security to know that I’ve mastered dance,” she said. “I feel confident in the things I do. I just retired, and that took a lot of confidence.”
Siegel admitted it didn’t come naturally for her to let someone else lead, even on the dance floor.
“It’s been a lesson for me to let somebody else be in charge,” she said. “Sometimes I do just need to shut up and let somebody tell me a different way to learn something. And that’s kind of a life lesson. Dance is kind of a microcosm of everything.”