It’s 9:15 on a Saturday morning, and the main studio at Santa Barbara Dance Center is buzzing. Already, there are 40 women on the dance floor, and latecomers are still trickling in. World music plays in the background — a female vocalist calls out joyfully above a steady African beat. The women stand in groups, chatting excitedly. They range from teenagers to retirees, tall to short, slender to full-bodied.
Suddenly, they begin moving in unison. Out of the speakers float the opening strains of the musical Oklahoma! “Oh what a beautiful morning,” Hugh Jackman croons, and the dancers respond, waltzing side to side, sinking and rising to the music’s rhythm, using their arms to carve swooping, lyrical arcs. When the song comes to an end, they burst into spontaneous applause.
This is Janet Reineck’s World Dance Workout, a class that for the past two years has developed an intensely loyal following. When I first visited her class in August 2010, Reineck was teaching just five or six women a week; she now has more than 120 regular students who take part in five weekly classes.
What could explain such a surge in interest, and such sticking power on the part of students? Generally speaking, dance classes come and go in Santa Barbara; attendance waxes and wanes, and it’s challenging for any teacher, however gifted, to maintain a large core group of students over the course of months.
So what makes World Dance Workout different?
For starters, a workout costs just $10 or $70 a month for unlimited classes — that’s pretty cheap, by Santa Barbara standards. What’s more exceptional by far is where that money goes. Once Reineck has covered the cost of studio rental, the proceeds from her class go to help women around the world. In 2011, World Dance Workout donated more than $16,000 to women’s projects in Kenya, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Santa Barbara. Those funds went to support trauma counseling for war survivors, agricultural projects and educational scholarships, and health-care, literacy, youth leadership, and drug rehabilitation programs. This year, World Dance Workout is supporting 20 women worldwide through Women for Women International. On the day I visited, Reineck’s students presented a check for $3,000 to Carol Vernal, the founder of Children’s Medical Aid Foundation, who was in Santa Barbara expressly to meet the World Dance Workout community. Their donation will pay for the exam room of the brand-new Chisang Clinic in Bhawanee, Southeastern Nepal, scheduled to open next month. For the months of April, May, and June 2012, Reineck plans to donate the proceeds of her classes to a humanitarian project for women in Uganda.
Check out the Web site worlddancesantabarbara.com, and you’ll see the class motto: “In shape, inspired, in service to humanity.” It’s obvious this class is making a difference — not only in the larger world but also in the lives of its students.
“This class is an oasis for many women,” Reineck explained to me after Saturday’s class. She was still slightly breathless, her face glowing from exertion. “Some dance classes are about improving yourself; this class is about getting over yourself.”
Ask students what keeps them coming back week after week, and many of them talk about “soul.” That’s a pretty elusive concept, but one woman after another uses it to describe the World Dance Workout, along with words like “connectedness,” “community,” “sisterhood,” and “passion.”
“This class feeds my soul,” explained Celeste Pearlman, an experienced dancer and massage therapist. “There’s a connectedness you feel when dancing,” said Lyndy Belchere, a visual artist who attends classes three times a week. “It’s fulfilling to the mind, body, spirit, and soul.”
That sense of joy and fulfillment is totally evident in Saturday morning’s class. As the soundtrack plays through Michael Jackson hits and “Mack the Knife,” West African rhythms and salsa tracks, Balkan music and Irish jigs, it’s hard to resist joining in. Most of the women have the movements to each song memorized, and they flow from one dance to the next with ecstatic glee. Occasionally, someone emits a spontaneous “whoop!” Some of the dancers are clearly experienced; others are here for the first time. At the front of the room, Reineck leads the way, her blond bob bouncing, her eyes lit with joy. She doesn’t stop to check whether everybody’s got the moves. All that matters is that the music is pumping, and the women are dancing their hearts out.
Among them is Leah Combs, a nonprofit employee who came to Reineck’s class as an alternative to physical therapy following a car accident. “This is an amazing community of women,” she explained. “Through this class I am rebuilding myself physically and mentally, and helping women worldwide.”
Teresa Kuskey Nowak, a mother of six, says she was moved to tears after her first class. “There’s a common bond in our mission to forget ourselves and to fight for those who need our support,” she said. “This group of women not only supports the needs of others but nourishes the needs of our sisters in the class.”
As World Dance Workout celebrates its second anniversary, Reineck and her students continue to make a difference for women across the world, but perhaps nowhere more than right here at home.
Janet Reineck’s World Dance Workout meets four days a week at the Santa Barbara Dance Center (127A W. Canon Perdido St.), and once a week as part of SBCC’s Adult Ed program. To learn more about Reineck and her class, call (805) 966-5439 or visit worlddancesantabarbara.com.