- by Mary K. Levie
What began as a hobby a year and a half ago has evolved into a passion and business for Sarah Beth Larson, co-founder of NewVo Blues, a Memphis blues dancing group. Blues dancing is a root form of dance that grew out of the jazz and blues of the African-American community, evolving and fusing with various other styles of dance over the years.
“Most people who blues dance also swing dance,” Larson says. “You can fuse blues with a lot of different dances because it has a lot of influences from many different cultures.”
Larson first began in the local swing dancing scene, learning various styles such as Charleston, Lindy-Hop, East Coast, West Coast and Balboa. What initially attracted her as a newcomer to the dancing scene was an opportunity to shed her perfectionist tendencies.
“If I can’t do something well, I don’t want to do it at all; I can’t enjoy it,” Larson says. “Dance for some reason is the first thing I found where I didn’t hold myself to that standard, and I could go, and I could not be doing right all the time, and it was still ok.”
Larson dove headfirst into the local scene, enjoying the energy and lifestyle of the dance community. Last February, when a group of local dance enthusiasts attended the International Blues Challenge on Beale Street, Larson and fellow dancer Candace Gustine were struck with an idea. Memphis, home of the blues and birthplace of rock-n-roll, has so much live blues music going on, but they often noticed not many people were really dancing to it.
“We thought that was kind of a shame that in Memphis where there’s so much great music that nobody was really taking advantage of it,” Larson says. “So out of that weekend Candance and I were really inspired to start something in Memphis which became NewVo Blues.”
The first step in creating the business was to contact nationally-known blues dancer and instructor Mihai Banulescu to ask him if he might be interested in conducting a weekend blues workshop in Memphis. He had his own proposal in mind - a blues teacher development retreat offering teachers the rare opportunity to learn from dancers of their own skill level. Larson and Gustine agreed to collaborate on the project, and the retreat was very successful, bringing in 8 teachers, both local and outside of Memphis.
Banulescu was interested in expanding the blues workshops he had been conducting in various regions across the country, and was excited at the opportunity to start something in Memphis, spreading the knowledge and appreciation of blues dancing to more places. So Larson, Gustine and Banulescu collaborated once again, and NewVo Blues officially formed and began setting goals.
“It was two way – he would invest time and money and then he would be able to make money that would pay back into his endeavor,” Larson says.
NewVo has been very successful in meeting their goals, Larson says, including amassing an email list of dancers all over the country of close to 600 people, lessons every month, and a workshop or big dance event every three months. NewVo held their first blues dance lesson in March of last year at what used to be the Blue Worm club on Airways. There was a great turnout of both those with dance experience and curious first-timers.
The Blue Worm, now called The Blues Club because of a change in ownership, is a popular spot for blues dancers to practice their craft. Larson says the atmosphere is completely welcoming and homey.
“You go in there and anyone will talk to you, and anyone will dance with you,” she says. “You don’t feel skin color in that club.”
Dancing in general, Larson says, is a form of communication entirely different from the everyday variety you have with people you meet, acquaintances and friends. Because of that difference, you begin to look at people through a less judgmental lens.
“Because you connect on a different level on the dance floor you don’t get concerned with not just the material things, but the other cultural things that we use to pigeon hole one another and ourselves.”
Another great place for blues dancers is the Memphis Blues Society Jam at Neil’s on every first and third Thursday. Members of the society show up, sign up for an instrument on a sheet, and are called on stage to form a temporary jam band for part of the evening. The musicians range from big names to those just getting started, Larson says, but because all of them are there to have fun and play with their friends, the atmosphere is always perfect for dancing.
“I think the band feels like it contributes to the energy in the room and helps them; they kind of feed off of us like we feed off of them,” Larson says.
NewVo is gearing up for their biggest event to date on February 29th, a blues dance exchange weekend called Bluesalicious. Successful exchange weekends are the pinnacle of achievement in the dance world, Larson says, bringing hundreds of people from all parts of the country to dance and see the best that the host city has to offer.
“They go away not only wanting to come visit you again, they go away with a sense of what your life is like, and what your city is like, and what the culture is like in Memphis,” Larson says.
NewVo plans to make their blues exchange more laid-back than most exchanges in that there will be no classes which often prevent participants from sightseeing and having time to enjoy the city. The weekend lineup includes a pub crawl on Beale to six clubs with live music, a Saturday afternoon of soul burgers and dance at Earnestine and Hazel’s, and the big dance event on Saturday night at the Premiere Palace with a DJ and live band, as well as a Rockin’ Delta Blues dance competition.
Though the exchange will bring in mostly experienced dancers from across the region, even those who have never taken a lesson can learn just from watching and testing the waters with more experienced dancers.
“Blues, I’ve always said, is a very accessible type of dance because it’s not like there’s a difficult pattern you have to learn,” Larson says. “It’s not anything that’s foreign to people.”
For more information on NewVo Blues and the upcoming Bluesalicious weekend, visit their website, newvoblues.com.