Catch the beat and discover the people and places driving the dance craze in Southwest Florida.
Dancers at a local tango club.
Photography by Erik Kellar
She’s a gorgeous, well-known Naples philanthropist who took her first dance lesson just two years ago. He’s a sizzling-hot world dance champion from the Ukraine, who started dancing almost as soon as he could walk. Together as a newly paired competition team, they’re wowing judges and bringing home trophies from scores of top competitions around the globe. Their names are Shelia Davis and Maksym Lototskyy, but if we change the names and modify the circumstances, we could easily be talking about dozens of others on the Gulfshore.
There’s the beyond-elegant Eva Sugden Gomez, whose name graces patron circles of many leading Southwest Florida charities. She not only waltzes like a fairy tale princess, she looks every bit the part in her stunning, jewel-encrusted ball gowns. There’s Dolly Scott, who makes pies for a living in Bonita Springs. At 77, the owner of Dolly’s Produce Patch in Bonita Springs brought home a Fred Astaire World Championship trophy in her first year of dancing.
In Fort Myers, Cindy-Lee Overton, national champion, dance teacher and owner of 1stDanz Studio, melts the dance floor with her sensuous West Coast Swing and high-energy Lindy Hop. Bonita Springs’ Dance Life owner Lori Foehr lures the dance-addicted to weekly parties in her state-of-the-art ballroom. Champion dancer Mary Anne Puleio presides over the Naples chapter of USA Dance, which is recognized by the international Olympic committee as the national governing body for DanceSport in the U.S. In Naples, Jamaican-born world mambo title-holder Marcia Barrett stays busy six days a week teaching her students to “shake what your mama gave you.” Causing quite a stir on the Naples dance scene is young Anastasia Kazmina, the stunning raven-haired co-owner of the glam new Arthur Murray Dance Center in Naples.
And that’s just the toe of the dance shoe, so to speak. Southwest Florida is now a burgeoning hotbed of dancing queens, and most of us aren’t teachers, competitors or studio owners. We’re women who have reclaimed our dancing souls and are making the time to savor the experience. We’re rank beginners and seasoned social dancers. We’re artists and writers, lawyers and sales executives, kindergarten teachers and pastry chefs. We’re newlyweds and widows, grandmothers and college students, and some of us are mothers of the groom-to-be, practicing for that poignant mother/son dance at the wedding. And increasingly, we’re 20-somethings who salsa into the wee hours of the mornings.
And there are more places to learn and practice in our area than ever before.
Embraced by Paul, Ed, Henric, Michael and the Rest
This diverse mix of women, their partners—and those who would like to be their partners—are clearly a driving force in the blossoming of studios, clubs and dance floors along the Gulfshore. But it started with the male dance establishment, anchored by studio pros like Jim Clemens of Modern Steps School of Dance and Paul Stewart of Absolute Ballroom Company, who embrace (literally and figuratively) the dance revival and accompanying competition. The teachers and pros regularly show up at one another’s dance events, teach guest classes, and celebrate each other’s successes. Last year, Cindy-Lee Overton and Paul Stewart established the Southwest Florida Swing Dance Club, creating a bridge between the dance communities. Members enjoy monthly dance parties and can sign up for beginner-to-competition-level classes taught by studio principals an visiting champions. Dance enthusiast and DJ Michael Levaul voluntarily keeps the dance community abreast of upcoming dance parties and master classes via weekly email. Mary Anne Puleio’s husband Henric Gomes, also a champion dancer, generously dances with beginner and intermediate level dancers at the public dance parties.
For beginning dancers, the dance scene is also a fabulous spectator sport. Where else can you pay $10 to $15 for a whole evening of music and hors d’oeuvres and a stage-level seat as Johnny and Lisa PerMar transform a West Coast Swing into a love scene on the dance floor or Russian-born champions Anastasia Kazmina and Oleg Kharlamov dance a lyrical Viennese waltz that make Fred and Ginger look like Wild West gunslingers.
Shelia and Maks
To me, they look like finalists on Dancing with the Stars, as they practice in the fitness room at Mediterra this Saturday afternoon. They’ve already been practicing for several hours when I arrive. His forehead glistens; she appears salon fresh, in a form-fitting black dance dress and strappy red heels. They flow like silk in a waltz move that looks perfect to me, but this is not a social occasion. Maks demands perfection in the position of his protégé’s toes, the exact styling of her fingers, the tilt of her head and the precise lean of her body into his. And no wonder—a world championship is at stake. No matter that Shelia already holds some 75 top-tier competition titles and a collection of other honors. Her new partnership with Maks has taken her to another level—serious enough to drive several times a week to Sarasota for all-day coaching and practice, interspersed with his trips to Naples.
They didn’t choose each other lightly. The interview process was a dance in itself. They each had other partners when they met, actually competing against each other on the dance floor. Coincidentally, both found themselves in search of a new partner at the same time. While Shelia was getting feedback from judges and interviewing potential pro partners, Maks was doing the same with his practiced eye. When they finally connected, the result was magical.
“In a competition, the judges don’t just look at technique,” Maks says. “Your lines as a couple must be beautiful. There must be a perfect aesthetic of height and body shape. Judges watch for the balance you create between light and shadow, the sensuality and emotional connection you express as a couple. It was very exciting when we first danced together against professionals, to see the judges’ expressions, looking at each other and wondering, ‘Who is she?’ Shelia has what it takes to win at the professional level. We have fun, but we also work very hard. If you’re going to do it, do it!”
With that, my time is up … Maks refocuses on his student/partner. “Right there! He says as she comes out of a complex turn. “You must not stand straight—complete the action!”
The competition season is just heating up this month. We’ll be watching you, Dancing Queen.
Eva, Roman, Oleg and Anastasia
The biggest flurry of excitement in the Naples dance community came in December, when Roman Gomez opened the trendy new Arthur Murray Dance Center of Naples, with partner Anastasia. Banish all preconceived notions, because this New York night club-style studio with its purple leather and gleaming chrome lounge, sophisticated spotlights, floor lights and objets d’art inspires dance fever before the music starts. Roman, a professional graphic artist and set designer who’s relatively new to dance himself (no doubt inspired by his glamorous world trophy-winning mother Eva), specified mirrors on all facing walls. “After all, males have to dance backward much of the time,” he explained. “It’s nice to see where we’re going.”
The entire dance community turned out to welcome Roman and Anastasia and wish them well in a lavish party that included showstopping demonstrations by Anastasia and her professional partner, Oleg Kharlamov. He wowed the crowd with a stunning jive number with his new student, Katia, showcasing her moves after just two weeks of lessons. Of course we’re all thinking, “That could be me!”
“We’re all about the love of dance here,” Roman says. “We want people to feel happy the minute they walk in. Once they learn the language of dance, and see how one success leads to another, it’s contagious!”
IT’S ALL ABOUT ME
MY GOAL IS TO WEST COAST SWING LIKE CINDY-LEE OVERTON.
Before I trek up to Fort Myers to humiliate myself before the goddess herself, I try a few lessons with pros in my own neighborhood.
Mac: Do NOT look at our feet.
My Groupon special gets me four lessons with Mac McCord at Modern Steps Ballroom Studio. Mac makes me feel very comfortable and I’m a lump of clay in his hands. He’s not so concerned with my footwork, as long as I lock eyes with him. His patience is infinite, no matter how many times he has to say, “Look at me, not at our feet.” I pick up two special moves, which I write down and practice at home, locking eyes with my mirror.
Oleg: Up against the wall.
Young, gorgeous and sweet does not mean he’s loose and indulgent. The Russian-born and trained pro says anyone can learn proper technique, including me. When I push when I should pull, and pull when my partner needs resistance, he takes me to the wall, literally, where I can press against my own body weight to see what my elbows are supposed to be doing in the back-and-forth movement of West Coast Swing. It seems a no-brainer, but I have to practice a lot before I get it.
Steve: I’m leading. Your job is to follow.
Steve is an advanced student who takes lessons regularly. We practice together. Sometimes I can’t tell by the beat which Latin dance he’s going to choose, and he refuses to give me a heads-up so I can start counting my steps. “It’s my job to lead,” he says. “It’s your job to follow.” It’s maddening, but when I get it, I feel triumphant and Steve is proud of both of us.
Randy and me: Sweet whispers
He’s an advanced student, too, but Randy doesn’t mind helping me get started by counting the steps. He’s pretty clever about it, too. If he whispers softly and doesn’t move his mouth too much, nobody can tell.
WHERE IT’S HAPPENING
Doo-wop, Rock & Roll, Rockabilly Fever
Catch Elvis clone Joe Marino and his band, All The King’s Men at The Sandy Parrot at 17200 S. Tamiami Trail in Fort Myers. See the full calendar of entertainers, including special tribute shows to Rod Stewart, The Eagles, the Beatles and more at thesandyparrot.com, (239) 454-8454.
Sunday Tea Dances with Jessie Garcia
Dance in elegance reminiscent of a more gracious time at 5 p.m. on Sundays at Jessie Garcia’s Naples Ballroom Company. It’s an intimate setting, with a nice group of regulars. Guests are warmly welcomed. naplesballroomcompany.com, (239) 537-1143.
Argentine Tango with Pablo Repun
Put a rose between your teeth and learn classic Argentine Tango from the master. Elegant Buenos Aires native Pablo Repun, trained under top Argentine champions and commuting to Naples from the East Coast for the past several years, finally moved his family here, to the joy of the dance community. pablorepuntango.com, (239) 738-4184.
Hot, Hot Noche Latina at Noodles Cafe
It’s sophisticated, sizzling Latin dancing into the wee hours Friday nights with La Rumba “Noche Latina,” at Noodles Café (noodlescafe.com). (239) 592-0050. Popular with the 20-40-somethings. Get a head start by booking a private lesson at Fred Astaire’s brand new studio right next door.
West Coast Swing with Cindy-Lee
It’s smooth, it’s sexy, and it’s the hottest social dance on the scene today. Learn the moves from the queen of WCS on Wednesdays in Cindy-Lee Overton’s shiny new 1st Danz studio, in Fort Myers. Ages range from late teens to late 70s, and the energy is high. 1stdanz.com, (239) 931-3269.
Dancing with Erich
Singer/DJ Erich, a long-time icon on the singles dance scene, hosts Sunday night dances at the Bonita Springs- Estero Elks Lodge on Coconut Road. The mostly over-55 crowd is friendly and the cost is only $8. Erich draws a younger following at the Shell Factory in North Fort Myers on Wednesdays, at Lake Kennedy in Cape Coral on Tuesdays, and throughout the week in various locations. musicbyerich.com, (239) 541-1546.
Dancing by the Fountain
The latest trend is dancing under the stars, from Old Naples to the Fort Myers River District. The Village on Venetian Bay in Naples is the place to be on the last Thursday of every month, from 6-9 p.m., when Fred Astaire Studios hosts demonstrations and dancing under the stars. Calendar at venetianvillage.com.
TAKE THE FIRST STEP
THERE ARE SCORES of dance studios throughout Southwest Florida. Here are a few to get you started.
12901 McGregor Blvd.,
Absolute Ballroom Co.
985 Creech Road,
Aki’s Ballroom Dance Studio
6300 Metro Plantation
Road, Fort Myers
Arthur Murray of Naples
3339 Tamiami Trail N.,
DanceLife of SWFL
26251 U.S. 41 S.,
Dancing with Erich
Dancing with Marcia
Road, Naples (Greek
Fred Astaire Dance Studio
5926 Premier Way,
Suite 134, Naples
Modern Steps Ballroom Studio
4117 Tamiami Trail E.,
Naples Ballroom Company
1644 Trade Center
Naples Performing Arts Center
6646 Willow Park,
Repun Tango Naples
1673 Pine Ridge Road,
Suite 1, Naples