New Utrecht library dances cheek to cheek

Seniors kicked up their heels for the grand finale of a senior ballroom dancing program on Thursday, June 29 at the New Utrecht Library.

Leading the class on that cloudy morning with dance partner Audrey Martinez was Walter Perez, who emigrated from Argentina over 15 years ago. “I believe in dancing socially,” he said. “It’s very important to connect, link, dress up, have that motivation.”

Perez, who taught the class for the last nine weeks, said tango saved his life because it helped him cope at the age of 21 with his mother’s death. Four years after the creation of a non-profit whose mission is passing on the art of dance to seniors and children, Perez currently organizes the Queer Tango Festival in New York, challenging the unbreakable gender roles solidified in dance.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to get together and broaden their horizons. Here, Asian-Americans are exposed to Latin dancing and that’s not something you typically see,” said Frank Fernandez, 61.

“It’s my first time here,” said Jimmy Pelser, 70. “I like to dance, and I could do the free styling. I don’t feel intimidated, and I definitely would come back.”

And that is the ideal for Sonia Valentin, president of the Friends of the New Utrecht Library, who wants to see the library increasingly become a community center.

With a $5,000 grant from City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, the library has so far been able to do watercolor and macrame workshops apart from the dance program. With the money left over, the library has stocked up on the supplies needed for a mural coming soon. Looking ahead, the branch, as a finalist in this year’s Library Awards, is slated to be awarded at least $10,000, money that will likely go toward programs that diversify and address the interests of the community.

“Programs like this, like our senior dance program, need to be kept in any capacity. It’s such a diverse group of people, and we want to bring in as many people as possible as much as possible,” Valentin said.

Over 50 people ended up attending the class in total, with the majority staying through the warm ups and grabbing a partner when music erupted from the speakers. Even Valentin participated in the dancing, eventually kicking off her shoes with fellow members of the community to dance across the carpet.

Among the party-goers, even children were taken along to watch and participate in dancing with the crowd. Popular especially by word of mouth, the event spurred many of the attendees to bring friends and family members, including Valentin’s mother Angela.

In addition, everything needing to be translated was said in Spanish and Mandarin as well as English, making it possible for everyone to grasp what was happening next. Not much was needed, given that many guests had already recognized the rhythm of certain songs for specific dances.

“It’s fun. It’s bringing a lot of people who may not come on a regular basis into the neighborhood. Libraries can offer more activity than books and reading, and this is something different,” said a man named Victor, husband of Library Information Supervisor Diane Barranca.

During a break, Perez and Martinez did a solo tango performance for the group and the day ended with an instrumental performance by violinist Liya Touvh and up-and-coming pianist Ayako Hirasawa.

“When I go out, I just want to feel comfortable. This does it, and there’s nothing that makes me feel so individual. My library is the best library,” said attendee Marina Sinkskaya.

“Programs for the aging, I think, help keep people motivated in a physical and emotional way. It helps their creativity,” said Friends group Secretary Treasurer Ruth Dallas. Dallas, who has worked with the library for three years, said the next steps could include expanding the branch’s reach toward the Chinese community along with a language or reading program.

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