Studio proves no one really has Two Left Feet
The students in the beginner West Coast Swing class stepped One, Two, Three and Four, Five and Six. One, Two, Three and Four, Five and Six - while a smooth R&B song played in the background.
"Imagine your body is a glass of champagne," the instructor coached. "You don't want it to spill over!"
One, Two, the men guided their partners past them, right hands gently cupped together. Three and Four, the ladies spun around to face the men again. Five and Six, and repeat.
"Now don't pull us," the instructor cautioned the men. "Just get us started. We know where we're going."
The step, called the left shoulder pass, is one of eight basic moves that make up West Coast Swing - the most popular style at Two Left Feet dance studio.
"We're known worldwide," said Randy Krul, who has owned the studio with his wife, Stephanie, for eight years.
Regulars proudly agree, explaining that people from all over the state and even the country travel to the Danville studio to dance the West Coast Swing.
This is particularly true on Friday nights, which is "the" night at Two Left Feet. Once the classes end, the studio erupts into an all-out dance party that lasts until 2 a.m. and often attracts up to 200 people, said Krul.
"It's like a party without being drunk," he said. "They get off on the music. They get off on the dancing."
Last Friday night the studio was replete with festive colored lights hanging above the mirrors, refreshments in the back (no alcohol), and couches, chairs and benches where the dancers caught their breath between songs.
Krul sat coolly in a big chair by the front door of the studio, DJing the event and chatting with people as they ambled in throughout the evening.
He and his wife never intended to open a studio, he said. "It just happened."
They started teaching a couple nights a week, in bars mostly, but the bar owners weren't too happy with the setup since the dancers hardly ever bought alcohol. So in the early 1990s, the couple opened Two Left Feet, originally on Hartz Avenue, and six years afterward they moved to the current location on Diablo Road.
West Coast Swing
"West Coast Swing is one of the most creative dances, said Kari Mashburn, who's been dancing at Two Left Feet for 10 years, and helps teach the country two-step on Tuesdays. "In no other dance do you really make stuff up."
But before the dancers can get creative, learning the basic steps of the dance can be challenging. There are eight separate patterns to learn even at the beginner level - as opposed to just one in East Coast Swing, the dance's more-popular counterpart.
"If you've never danced before it can be a little challenging," said Krul, adding that he usually recommends East Coast Swing for beginners.
East Coast Swing is what most people think of in the "Swing Era" of the 1930s and 1940s - that big band music, girls being swung around the men's sides or through their legs or over their heads, limbs a-flailing all over.
But the movements in West Coast Swing are more subtle. It's a "slotted dance," meaning the two partners are confined to a small, defined space on the dance floor. The man stands in the center of the slot and "gets out of the way" as his partner travels back and forth through it.
"It's a lead-and-follow dance," said Krul. "It's really a smooth, intricate dance."
Steps aside, there's another important aspect that makes the dance unique, and that's the music. Be it hip hop, jazz, country, R&B or even top 40 songs - in West Coast Swing, pretty much anything goes.
Choice of 12,000 tunes
Krul, the master DJ, sat at his computer selecting the evening's playlist song by song.
"With each song comes a different dance, a different mood," he said.
West Coast Swing can be danced to almost any music in 4/4 time, the most common musical timing, which means just about all songs from all styles are on the table.
"There are some purists that say you should only dance to swing music," said Krul. "But my theory is: whatever makes it fun."
Krul said he's happy to take requests, but with a library of over 12,000 songs just for West Coast Swing, he can't play everything.
A typical night might range from classics like B.B. King, to newer music like Fergie. A smooth, crooning jazz song will come on, followed by a country twang. Krul said he'll gauge the mood of the crowd to decide which songs to put on, or choose ones that haven't been played in a while.
Sometimes the new songs get overplayed, like Usher's "Yeah!" or Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape," said Krul. But playing these popular songs is one thing that attracts the younger dancers to the studio.
"We mix it up, and that's why they like it."
And the kids aren't the only ones who like it.
"I'm gonna be turning 50, but I know the music of the teenagers," Mashburn happily pointed out. "I'm not stuck in what I grew up with."
Come to meet people, stay to dance
The reason most people originally visit Two Left Feet is because it's a great way to meet people, said Krul.
"We got a lot of couples that meet dancing," he said. "Most people come here as singles. Most singles learn to dance because they want to meet somebody. Then they get the bug, and they come for the dancing."
He said the classes work well as an ice breaker. Since the partners rotate, everyone gets to know each other and get comfortable. So once the post-class dance party starts, you're not facing a room full of strangers.
"I met my girlfriend here," Joel Hale said while waiting for a class to start.
Hale said he started dancing three years ago when his daughter got her driver's license.
"All of a sudden my evenings were free."
His kids started dancing, too, and now it's something the family can do together.
"It's not like a singles group or anything like that, where everyone's trying to meet someone and there's a lot of pressure," said Krul. "People get to know each other through the dancing."
An adamant enthusiast for partner dancing, Krul said he's "bored" with freestyle dance - such as people do at clubs alone or with friends.
"Once you learn partner dancing you never want to go back to freestyle," he said. "Partner dancing is a real conversation going on."
However Krul did concede that partner dancing isn't as "cool" with the youth these days.
"It's a cultural thing," he said. "Before World War II, it was the cool thing. But not now."
Hale, a software engineer by day, said his favorite thing about dancing is "you're working with a team to accomplish an aesthetic goal." He laughed at himself and added, "Is that too technical sounding?"
Two Left Feet does offer some freestyle classes, like hip hop and jazz. But the studio's main focus is on partner dances.
Krul said that people are often scared to take that first lesson; dancing with somebody else, particularly if you've never met, can be intimidating. But after the first class, they get hooked.
"Then there you go," he said. "You've found something to do!"
Learn to dance
Two Left Feet offers lessons in West Coast Swing, East Coast Swing, hustle, salsa, country two-step, hip hop, jazz, night club two-step and ballroom dancing. There are also private lessons available.
The ballroom dancing classes often attract couples who are preparing for a cruise, or are sick of sitting out the dances at weddings and parties, said Krul.
In the same vein, couples engaged to be married will sign up for classes to prepare for their wedding. These are usually private lessons.
Krul said he can't stand it when couples call a few days before the wedding thinking, "How hard can it be?"
"Dancing has nothing to do with the feet," he said. "It's body movement."
Most of the instructors at Two Left Feet are part-time, and not professional dancers. But there are some pros who teach at the studio.
Arjay Centeno and Melissa Rutz are famous in the West Coast Swing world. When they're not teaching classes at Two Left Feet, the award-winning couple travels around the country and abroad, dancing and conducting workshops.
"The pros help people to see the really good dancers, so they have something to strive for," said Mashburn. "Something to inspire them."
Centeno teaches hip hop on Tuesdays, and Rutz teaches jazz dance on Wednesdays. They also teach an intermediate/advanced West Coast Swing class together.
"Teaching is different than knowing how to dance," said Krul. "Knowing how to dance is only one-fifth of it."
The rest, he said, is in the social, personal aspects of teaching. And, of course, patience - especially with beginners.
"You can't make everybody perfect right away," he said. "But most people don't want to be perfect. They just want to be good enough."
Good enough for what? To have a good time.
Two Left Feet offers lessons seven nights a week, at 194 Diablo Road in Danville. Drop-in classes are $13 per person.
You don't need to bring a partner.