By: Iva Dimitrova| Illustration: Orlando Pimentel
Photography: Iva Dimitrova
Summer descends over Athens like delicious possibility, offering the chance for some homegrown adventure and exploration. If you’ve ever been curious about the dance groups that rent out space in the bars and studios downtown, then the summer months are the time to see what they’re all about. Every week, the dance groups Athens Swung and SALSAthens host events for social dancing.
Swung hosts Athens swing night every Tuesday at DanceFX downtown. Beginner lessons start at 8 p.m., followed by social dancing from 9 p.m. - 11 p.m. The entrance cost is $3 for students and $5 for non-students. You get a free class on your first visit and every time you invite someone new. SALSAthens meets on Wednesday nights at Little Kings Shuffle Club downtown. The advanced lesson starts at 6:30 p.m., and mixed level lessons start at 7:30 p.m. The entrance cost is $10, which includes a free drink.
Passersby at Little Kings Shuffle Club may note the lively salsa music spilling out from the side doors, as it intermingles with the sounds of voices and moving feet. Inside, the space is low-lit and warm-toned.
“It’s very warm and welcoming,” says Sarah Harrison, a freshman marine science graduate student from Fort Pierce, FL. “No one’s judging you or watching you.” It was Harrison’s first time at SALSAthens.
But building up the courage to go is the first step. “Don’t feel like you have to take lessons outside of the group before you come for the first time,” says Melissa Gogo, president of Swung.
How the dancers got their starts varies. Gogo tried swing dancing after recovering from a major health problem.
“Maybe it was the exercise endorphins I hadn’t felt in a year, but I was hooked on swing before the first lesson was even over,” Gogo says. “And in the 5-plus years since, I’ve only missed out on Tuesday’s Swing Night a handful of times.”
Though you don’t need a partner in order to go dancing, visiting Swung can be a great way to meet new people.
“A question or a complement is an easy way to start a conversation,” says Justyna Szymonik, a junior biology major from Buford.
Beyond meeting new people, learning new steps is also a challenge. But the willingness to try is key.
“I think we get stuck with telling ourselves we’re not a person who does something. Like ‘I’m not good at math’ or ‘I can’t cook,’” says Bradley Walker, a senior information systems major from Blue Ridge. “I think you should never go around saying you’re one certain type of person. You should go around saying, I can do anything, and with anything, dance is definitely one of those things.”
In the case of twin sisters Justyna Szymonik and Joanna Szymonik, neither had a dance background before going to college. Yet, they both joined the Ballroom Performance Group and now participate in a variety of dance events on campus and in Athens.
“The more you dance, the more rewarding it becomes,” says Joanna Szymonik, a junior exercise and sport science major from Buford.
It’s a self-reinforcing practice. By going every week, beginners can improve and enjoy dancing more. “From a beginner’s perspective, I was admiring everyone else,” Harrison says. “But I knew I’d get there one day.”
Dancing is a creative outlet but leading, initiating and guiding a partner through different dance steps is an even greater creative challenge. “As a lead, it is very intimidating because you’re limited to what you know,” Walker says. “It forces you to be creative and be persistent and humble.”
But beyond these things, people come back for the sense of community. “It’s interesting to see such a diverse group coming together and having common ground,” Walker says. “But there’s a connection still, beyond the dance portion. You really get to know people lives more and more through it.”
Gogo can attest to that. “I have met almost all of my closest friends in Athens through social dancing,” Gogo says. “It wasn’t until I began dancing that I felt I had really found my place in Athens.”
From a hobby to a passion to a way of life, dancing is something that everyone can take part in. The statement, “I don’t dance,” simply doesn’t apply. Once you dare to embrace the unknown, you’ll find that you’ll grow in unimaginable ways.