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Dancin’ Downtown

Published: August 1, 2014

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PHOTO BY MARIO DE LOPEZ
Andrew Vaca leads a group of dancers at the L.A. Music Center.

Andrew Vaca loves to dance. He wants you to love it too.

One of the many ways he tries to spread his love of dance is through a pair of programs he participates in through the Los Angeles Music Center’s Active Arts program—Dance Downtown and A Taste of Dance.

“Over the years they have created two very popular programs and I serve both those programs,” said Vaca, a professor and chair in CSULB’s Department of Dance. “Dance Downtown happens in the summer and it’s an opportunity for the community come out on a Friday night and literally have a free dance party at the Music Center in the plaza area.”

Dance Downtown revolves around a theme, for example, 60’s music with either a DJ or band providing era-relevant songs. When the music stops, that’s when a dance teacher goes on stage and gives a free dance lesson for all the people in attendance.

Enter Vaca, a perfect fit based on his years of experience working with large groups. In college he taught cheerleading and dance camps and more recently has worked with NBA and NFL dance teams.

“I’ve choreographed big halftime shows for the NFL and sometimes I’m using rookie dancers who have more cheer experience than dance experience. I use some of the same methods at Dance Downtown to help people quickly feel like they’re completely getting into the movement and fully dancing,” said Vaca, who noted he has kind of become the program’s resident 60s dance expert. He will also be teaching dances from the 90s on Friday, Aug. 22, from 6:30-10 p.m. at the Music Center. “It’s usually 100 to 200 people who have come to enjoy Friday night dancing.

“Recently they had a 60s night and had a band playing British 60s hits, a lot of Beatles, Rolling Stones and things like that,” he added. “When the band took a break I got up on stage with a microphone and I taught people 60s dance steps. One of the things I love about these events is that I’ll look out into the audience and there’s always someone with this look on their face as if this is something they’ve always wanted to try and never tried it before and you can tell they’re having a blast. It’s so exciting to see that.”

And no matter what era of dancing Vaca is teaching a group, his approach is exactly the same—keep it fun, keep it simple and organize the material in a way that the participants can feel like they’re really dancing.

“I think when it’s the most fun for them is when I make it feel a little bit more like a routine and I think that that’s where the real skill comes in,” said Vaca. “I usually have 40-45 minutes to teach them as much as I possibly can and keep the party rolling, keep having a good time.”

But there’s more than just a good time at stake, according to Vaca, who feels a real responsibility to give back as an artist.

“One of the things we owe to the community is to engage them in art, especially today because most students and children are not getting enough in their schooling,” said Vaca. “Here’s an opportunity to contribute to really fun events where people can come in and learn and explore and have a great time and hopefully they’ll be inspired to want to learn more whether they go take a dance lesson or they pick up an instrument or they come see a show. It’s all feeding back into the world you’re involved in as an artist.”

Through the Active Arts program, individuals can participate in a number of ways. Besides, Dance Downtown and A Taste of Dance, there are Friday Night Sing-Alongs, Drum Downtown, and Ukulele-related events, among others.

“What they’re trying to do is keep the community involved in art-making all year round by coming to the Music Center,” said Vaca. “Active Arts’ purpose is to embrace the members of the L.A. community in all forms of art through simple, often free events. It’s really a great opportunity to involve the community and you don’t have to come in with any skills or learning background, you just have to come in with a good attitude and be ready to try.”

Asked what kind of crowd shows up for the events, Vaca thought for a moment before responding.

“It’s really a melting pot and the funny thing is that every time you go up and do one of these events it’s generally a mix,” he said. “The crowd definitely looks like L.A.”