It’s the University District’s best dance party—and it happens in broad daylight. Twice a week for the past six years, a group of University of Washington faculty, staff, and students have gathered to move, groove, and otherwise get down at a lunch hour dance class from noon to 1pm in a studio space at the Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center.
Most of the time, the lunch hour dance class is led by Dalya Perez, a fourth year PhD student in the College of Education. After joining the UW in 2013, Perez—who is also a researcher on the Brotherhood Initiative research team examining the graduation gap for men of color—decided to initiate the Tuesday-Thursday session as a way of getting motivated to work out during the day to leave more time free in the evenings.
“I’m a working mom, so when I go home, I can be with my family, have dinner, do bath time, bed time and not leave to go take a run or go to the gym,” she says. “I want to be determined to fit my fitness in to my work day.”
The class takes a Zumba-style format, with high-energy tunes and a mirror at the front that allows dancers to follow along, learning moves as they go as well as improvising their own. Perez incorporates a range of dance and workout styles into each class—from bootcamp-style jumping jacks and squats to salsa, hip-hop, and meringue. The class is high-energy, yet “so low-pressure.”
“We have this beautiful community of multigenerational folks—all bodies, all genders, all peoples,” Perez says. “We move joyfully and to feel alive and to dance it out. I want to bring it all and create a space where we can let go and be silly and uninhibited, bold and brave, and also strong and tough.”
“I’m doing this out of my love and joy for doing this; it’s not about perfection.”
The group’s motto of late is, “when in doubt, squat it out,” meaning that if you can’t follow a certain dance move, just squat in place until you feel like jumping back into the routine. Perez had to step back herself in the past year as she recovered from having her second child. Lena Hopkins, a former staff member in human resources at UW Continuum College who now works for the city of Lynnwood, took over in her stead.
Upon her return, Perez says she recognized how essential dance can be to anyone going through difficult times.
“We’ve had people dance through hardships and stress and pregnancies and through joyful celebrations and milestones. It’s just been an incredible circle of dancing community.”
All that dancing does mean that she and others head back to work a little more unkempt than when they arrived, but Perez says the energized feeling she gets after a dance workout more than makes up for it: “It helps me get back into that space of concentration. I call it my second coffee for the day.”
Rachel Livingston, a program administrator with UW Continuum College who has been dancing with Dalya’s Dance Crew for more than five years, seconds that sentiment: “It’s a great endorphin rush and I have learned a lot about dancing and am a much better dancer since I’ve been dancing with Dalya.”
The group recently marked Livingston’s birthday along with a host of others’. “I think it makes us all feel younger and happier,” Livingston says.
UW research scientist Mary Jane Lohr is another group regular who started doing dance aerobics with colleagues in the basement of the School of Social Work in the 1980s. The group remained an underground phenomenon—literally and figuratively—for decades until Dalya started leading classes and the group swelled in size and moved locations.
“Word grew, because Dalya’s got so much energy and is so much fun,” Lohr says. “If someone is thinking about checking us out, I’d say, definitely try a class—there’s nothing to lose; everyone is really low-key; it’s just about having fun.”
For Perez, dancing and movement is about “love and life.”
“My mom is from Egypt and my dad is from the Philippines and part of my parents’ love story was that they found each other through folkloric dancing when they were both immigrants and refugees in this country. That was part of their courtship, so I feel like it’s in my blood.”
Dancing, Perez says, can completely turn a day around.
“It’s part of resiliency. I can be in a really dark, low place and with dance I can reconnect with a place that feels joyful, good, and true,” she says.
“It’s a way that I can literally sweat toxins out of me and free myself of burdens and recreate myself.”
For an activity that involves so much movement, the weekly dance crew meet ups continue to provide Perez and others a sense of stability and consistency among personal and professional growth and change.
“This is my total passion and joy,” Perez says. “I’ve never done it professionally and so I’ve found this place to do it recreationally and I’m so grateful for it.”