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Every Friday, dancing under Columbia's People Tree

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

6:01 AM EDT, August 1, 2012

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Friday night after Friday night, in the summer, they dance.

"They" can range anywhere from a dozen, as was the size of the group Friday, July 27, to nearly 50, and they dance under the People Tree, on the waterfront at Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia.

For two hours every Friday night, from mid-June until September, Tatia Zack gives free dance lessons, as part of the Columbia Association's Summer Festival. And every Friday night, people dance — line dancing, salsa dancing, even the chicken dance.

"We have people in the lawn stand up and start dancing," she said. "You can start dancing wherever you want. It's just, you hear the music, and it makes you want to dance."

Halfway through the lesson, Zack's words are proven true. The crowd she is teaching blends into the crowd at Clyde's, the people picnicking on the grass steps for the Friday night movie, and those just passing through. Many just watch and enjoy the music — fittingly, Lady Gaga's"Just Dance" and then Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men."

Zack, 47, of Ellicott City, has been teaching dance on the waterfront since 1998, she said. During that time, she has seen people come and go, but some keep on coming back, week after week, summer after summer.

One of those people is Steve Drakos, of Wilde Lake, who has been taking Zack's classes for years.

"It's nice to come here, to be a part of the community, to make acquaintances," he said. "Besides, it's just good fun. And it's good exercise."

The lessons are for all age groups, and all skill groups, Zack said. If a person has never danced a step in his or her life, that's fine. Zack walks the group through a routine, step by step, as the music plays.

Zack said that though she has her regulars, there are always new people joining the group.

'Like Michael Jackson'

Last week, it was Janet Robinson's first time at the lesson. She took her 6-year-old son, Seth — who confided that one day, he wanted to dance "like Michael Jackson."

"It's something fun to do," said Robinson, of Kings Contrivance. "I see a lot of people I know; there's a lot of community here. ... I'm just stumbling through the steps like everyone else."

Julian Paul, of Hickory Ridge, is more of a semi-regular; the 20-year-old said he has been coming to Zack's classes "on and off" for the last four or five years.

"I like the fact that it brings everyone together," Paul said. "It loosens you up. With a larger group like this, I'm just one person, and it kind of takes your fear away."

Paul said that through Zack's classes, he discovered a love for Latin dancing, like salsa, and eventually joined the Latin Dance Club at his college, University of Maryland Baltimore County. He wouldn't have done that, he said, if not for the Friday night lessons.

"It's a gateway dance," he said.

Though a typical lesson is filled with children, Zack said, there are few teenagers and young adults, though there have been more as the years progress.

"It's a good date night," she said. "You're doing something artistic and constructive. They can have a nice dinner, or a picnic, sit on the grass, dance, watch the movie. Everyone can have a blast here."

Paul said he wished more people his age would attend the classes.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "I feel like, with the mall right there, people see that as a social environment. There, it's a lot of people in a small space, and here, it's the opposite — it's a few people in a large space. This is much more social, more connecting."

The best part about the lessons, Zack said, is the people.

"Seeing the smiles on people's faces, the fun they're having, and being able to be a part of that, I love it," she said. "It's sharing a love of dance, but it's also bringing people together. It's under the People Tree, and that's what it's all about."