Age is nothing but a number at the Lake Merritt Dance Center

Kim Chai, an Oakland resident for 15 years, is a dance instructor at the Lake Merritt Dance Center.

Kim Chai, an Oakland resident for 15 years, is a dance instructor at the Lake Merritt Dance Center.

The music starts and age goes out the window. A women’s shoulder blade hold, her hand firmly pressed into her partner’s palm, helps their arms create the shape of a bow and arrow. No one misses the ceremonial dip.

On a Wednesday at Lake Merritt Dance Center—while the day’s usual runners circle the lake—seniors are tightening the strings on their dress shoes as they get ready for “Over the Hump,” a weekly dance lesson that culminates with dancing the night away until 11 o’clock.

The instructor, Kim Chai, has lived in Oakland for 15 years. He started giving lessons at the center in May and had previously primarily been a private instructor. There are some women and men in their thirties coming to learn from him at this weekly lesson, but most are retired and over the age of 55.

“He is very meticulous,” said Charles Riley, who travels from El Cerrito for lessons every week. “He pushes us. Dancing is good for the brain, you go from one side of the brain to the other, and you have to coordinate. So it’s good for us.”  There’s a 95-year-old woman who comes to the center to dance, he said, and a 93-year-old man who couldn’t make it this week. “I don’t feel 70,” said Riley. “Not anymore. The music moves you—if you let it move you.”

What makes people come out to dance on a weeknight? It only cost $5 for a lesson, including cookies and coffee. Riley, who started dancing after retiring three years ago, joined after a friend’s invitation.

The instructor has students take on a new dance every month. In May it was Chinese Tango; this month it’s swing dancing. Chai isn’t worried about running out of material. “You have ballroom dancing composed with what we call smooth dances, waltz, foxtrot, tango, and then the Latin dances, rumba, cha-cha-cha, bolero—quite a number,” he said.

Chai doesn’t consider himself a tough coach, though a few dancers can be spotted taking emphatic notes between fancy footwork. Chai tries to “go easy on them” in the beginning, wanting them to enjoy dancing. “Its not something for them to feel bad about if they don’t do well,” he said. “As long as they enjoy the music, the company, meeting new people, it’s a social occasion. I like to get them on their feet. It’s good for their health, body and mind because of social interaction.”

In four weeks the students have learned four to five dance patterns on each dance. Chai said his secret is that he forces them to change partners—no matter what—including married couples. If you get use to just one partner, he said, then you’re stuck in a rut. But if you try different partners, he said, each one dances differently. “You get more experience with variety—and variety is the spice of life,” he said.

Lake Merritt Dance Center offers weekly dances and dance lessons of all varieties. To find out more click here.

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