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Feeling the freedom to follow

Dance class for the gay and lesbian community removes stereotypes of who assumes what role.

November 07, 2007|By Rachel Kane

Howard Wan is a hard person to twirl. For one thing, he’s very tall.

In most dance classes, the 41-year-old Pasadena resident would not be spinning around a high-shine, parquet floor with a wide smile on his face, dipping under the arm of a male partner.

But the chance to do just that is what’s kept him coming to Shall We Dance, the Burbank-based ballroom dance class that caters to gays and lesbians, once a week for more than a month now, he said.

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Wan feels free to dip, pose and swirl in a way that only women do in other studios.

“If it wasn’t a gay class, I think it would be less compatible,” Wan said. “Because here I am naturally following instead of leading. In a straight class, I would be naturally assumed as leading.”

Following is an easier way to learn, said Gloria Paternostro, the owner of the 13-year-old business operating above the offices of the Burbank Assn. of Realtors on West Magnolia Boulevard.

Paternostro doesn’t know much about it herself, except on the dance floor. In her professional life she’s definitely a leader.

She broke from her previous dance studio to start Shall We Dance after her bosses gave her an ultimatum — stop teaching the gay and lesbian set or leave, she said.

So she left and took her students with her.

“They have as much right to dance as anybody else does,” Paternostro said.

Now her studio has turned into a comfort zone and a learning center for gay and lesbian couples looking to gain coordination and confidence on and off the dance floor.

“I see new students getting a lot of social skills and confidence out of this,” said Larry Rose, of Van Nuys, a student of Paternostro’s for 13 years.

Dancing helped Rose overcome his own fears of performance, which stemmed from a traumatic childhood experience, he said.

Ballroom dancing has been a stress reducer and become a way of life, Rose said.

“One of the very first things that [Paternostro] said — she said ‘dancing should be fun. You have got enough competing in your lives,’” he said. “And I thought, I think I’m going to like it here. And I did.”

The classes, which come in six-week sessions, have become social gatherings as well as learning opportunities, Paternostro said.

About a dozen people get together on weeknights and learn steps they can incorporate and interpret in free dancing for weddings, special events or any time they like, she said.

“You don’t have to be a Mario Lopez to do it,” she said.


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