Wearing a choker made of black ribbon, a stud in her nose and a lipstick-red corset over a black short-sleeved shirt, Apryl Smathers strutted into the Spanish Fly Dance Club a little before 7:30 on a Thursday evening. She wore black, strappy shoes with just a bit of heel showing underneath charcoal-gray suit pants with light gray pinstripes, and she’s here to teach people to dance.
There are traditional dance studios in town, such as the Academy of Fine Arts, Twilight Dance Studio, Columbia Dance Academy, Columbia Performing Arts Centre, Cosmopolitan Dancing, Dancearts of Columbia and Perlman Halcyone Ewalt School of Ballet. But at the Spanish Fly Dance Club, the Latin dance instruction is free; it’s the drinks that cost.
Lincoln Overton is one of Smathers’ regular students. He has lost 25 pounds dancing at the club every week since mid-May. “The stuff just falls off you because you’re dancing,” he said when he took a break from the steamy dance floor.
Dancing isn’t just a novelty or exercise to Overton. His parents are both in a nursing home, and he wants them to see him in a dance competition; so Overton comes four nights a week, every week, to learn each new dance.
There’s also Terry Ann Lodwick, who works in an antique clock shop; friends Myra Wolf and Robyn Chittenden; and Carl Berndt, an analyst for Shelter Insurance Cos. He recommends the “Dancing for Dummies” books.
“Back in the ’70s we did the hustle, whether we knew it or not,” Berndt said as he sipped from a glass before stepping onto the dance floor. The hustle just doesn’t cut it for Berndt anymore. He has taken salsa and bolero lessons at Twilight Dance Studio, in addition to dancing at the Spanish Fly. Berndt’s goal this winter has been to learn to dance.
Others arrived, about 15 in total. Some are regular attendees, like Colette Nolin, who also has taken ballroom dance lessons at Twilight Dance Studio. And then there are others like Erica Pope, who had been to the bar but not for dance lessons, and John Holmes and Dan Ostercamp, who were complete newcomers. Their motivations may be different, but one thing’s for sure: They all came ready to dance.
Latin dancing seems to be in Smathers’ blood. Her mother was a ballroom dancer, and her mother’s side of the family is Spanish, she said. Smathers, who is originally from New Mexico, moved to Columbia about a year ago from Florida, and she taught at Twilight Dance Studio until she graduated from massage therapy school in December. Now she freelances massage therapy and waits tables. But on that night last fall, she taught her students at the Spanish Fly the basics of salsa.
When the men and women lined up on opposite sides of the dance floor, Smathers got down to business.
“Left, right, left.
“Right, left, right.
“One, two, three, four.
“One, two, three, four.
“You see how my feet were still going? I was just turning my body.
“Left, right, get out of her way.
“You’re just going to rotate your body, so you’re going to end up facing the other direction.”
Berndt repeated this mantra — one, two, three, four — staring at his feet and grinning while he danced with Lodwick.
“We need some music,” he said.
Smathers obliged and went to the tile-trimmed DJ booth.
Their bodies were a few inches from each other. Berndt’s left hand held her right, his other hand above her hip, stepping, twirling to the music.
The Spanish Fly certainly isn’t the only dance venue in Columbia, but Joy Castillo thinks she’s got something special. Castillo opened the bar with Jayne Radar, her business partner, in April.
She was a regular at the Blue Fugue when it had a “Latin night” nearly every week, but Castillo wanted more. She wanted Latin dancing more than just once a week on a dance floor that you don’t have to cross to enter the bar. And since this was before the citywide smoking ban was on the horizon, she wanted to dance in a bar that did not permit smoking.
So they opened the Spanish Fly at 808 Cherry St., where smoking is only allowed on the covered patio. Once inside you have to walk through a throng of tables and woven chairs, past the bar and past Bill Brauer’s prints of dancers framed on avocado-green walls to reach the dance floor. You can order tropical drinks or beers from the bar, under a faux-thatch awning, but it’s not required. The drinks just pay the bills, and so far the bar is making steady increases in revenue each month.
“I don’t have bar experience, so moderate growth is fine with me,” Castillo said. “My goal is to bring dancing to Columbia.”
The free classes didn’t begin immediately after the bar opened, and originally they were held only on Wednesdays and Fridays. She drew on her relationships with dancer friends and instructors from Twilight Dance Studio to lead the classes. It was quickly apparent that too many people were showing up for dance lessons, so the classes were expanded to eight a week: two each night the bar is open, Wednesday through Saturday. The first class began at 7:30 p.m., the second at 8:30 p.m.
Since the holiday break, as people left town and interest waned, classes have been held only at 8:30 p.m. Until interest picks up again, and the weather improves, classes will only be held once a night. If more people start showing up, Castillo will offer the earlier class again. But for now, Castillo is happy with the attendance.
On this night, she stood behind the bar watching Martin Pickering lead the second class in cha-cha.
“Step-step-step ... step ... step.
“Two, three, step-step-step. Two, three, step-step-step.”
Drinking water at the bar with Joy, Apryl is taking a break.
“I think Martin has a ball-bearing in there somewhere,” Castillo said, referring to Pickering’s swivel.
“Pretty good, guys,” Pickering said to his students. “We need to go over what it means to be balanced over one foot at a time — walking to rhythm.
“Two, three, cha-cha-cha.
“Two, three, cha-cha-one.
“If you’re paying attention to what foot you are on, and you’re doing what the music is telling you to do, you really can never be wrong,” Pickering said.
Once the lessons are over, the fluorescent lights in the drop ceiling go off and the dance floor track lights go on. School is out and the dance party begins. It’s time to put those lessons to a test. Friday night is usually the busiest, with as many as a couple of hundred people in and out all night, packing the dance floor or imbibing tropical drinks at the tables.
On another night a week later, Smathers taught again. It was a slower night — only six people showed up — but Overton was there as usual. He loves to salsa and cha-cha.
Because few people came on this evening, Smathers switched it up a bit and explained a different kind of dance — the cumbia, a popular Latin American dance that originated in Colombia.
Carlos Lozano moved from behind the bar and sat down near the dance floor. He moved to Columbia from Mexico City about three years ago and began dancing with Castillo on Friday nights at the Blue Fugue. He helped renovate the place and helped run it until recently.
The cumbia is his dance, and, after enough goading, Lozano stepped up to help Smathers demonstrate.
Overton, the regular, said he’s learning waltz and tango. He started coming to the lessons because he loves to dance.
The Spanish Fly is “totally different” from other clubs, he said. “People are here to dance.”