In Hampden, couple seek to build community through dance

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The old Ideal theatre has been an icon in Hampden since it opened in 1908 as a nickelodeon

"Ministry of Swing Studio," says a small easel sign on the sidewalk outside St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hampden. "Upstairs to the right."

At the top of the stairs is another sign that says, "Get your swing on."

The signs lead to a 1,000-square-foot room with hardwood floors, windows with white curtains, pews against one wall and several stained glass windows depicting religious scenes. There, you will find dance instructors Jody and Abby Moscaritolo, practitioners of the popular partner dance known as West Coast Swing.

For the past year, the Hampden residents have been teaching the dance to a small but enthusiastic clientele of beginner, intermediate and advanced dancers on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, plus one Saturday a month, at $14 for an hour-long session or $45 a month. They also sell dance shoes to those who need them.

Above a small check-in station is a third sign with their motto, "We're all on this floor to dance with each other."

"Anyone and everyone is welcome and encouraged to join in the fun!" says the mission statement on their website, www.ministryofwestcoastswing.com. "Our goal is to create a collaborative and supportive community through the learning, practicing and socializing of West Coast Swing."

The Moscaritolos said they found the space on West 36th Street (The Avenue) through a friend, Jim Muratore, student vicar at St. Luke's, rehabbed the old church classroom and named their studio Ministry of Swing. They celebrated their first anniversary with a dance party at St. Luke's on Aug. 22.

But they might not be there much longer. They are planning to move later this year to the old Ideal Theatre — more than four times as large as their current space — in the 900 block of The Avenue. Their goal is to expand the mission of the studio to offer different kinds of dance and movement classes, and to rent the split-level theater space to other dance groups.

They also plan to build a light and sound booth, put up mirrors and make sitting areas with sofas, to give the studio a "kind of a speak-easy feel," Jody Moscaritolo said.

'The dancer's dance'

The couple received hearty applause when they announced their plans earlier this month at a meeting of the Hampden Village Merchants Association. The Ideal is an icon in Hampden, built in 1908 as a nickelodeon, and has been used through the years for vaudeville, a Salvation Army thrift store, a real estate office and several antiques-oriented businesses.

Melissa and Alfred Strati bought the building in 2005, rehabbed it extensively and leased it to Woodward's, an antiques gallery and auction house, which has since relocated to Baltimore's arts district. In 2012, they expanded their Avenue Antiques store, which already was in the old G.C. Murphy five-and-dime store, into the adjacent former theater. In 2014, they sold both local landmark buildings to investors and closed Avenue Antiques.

Now, the Moscaritolos plan to bring the old cinema house to life again, as "something that doesn't exist on The Avenue," Jody Moscaritolo told the merchants' group.

No doubt it will be a swinging place, judging from the scene on a recent Wednesday at St. Luke's, where about a dozen students ranging from their early 20s to their late 50s practiced dance moves like the Sugar Push and the Whip with interchanging partners, high-fiving one another after every tutorial.

Most of the students had heard about Ministry of Swing by word of mouth.

"I tried it out one time and I was hooked," said Laura Meyd, 32, of Towson, a production manager for a publishing company. "It's a really fun dance and the instructors here are great. They give you technique and work with you on any problems you have."

According to various Internet websites, West Coast Swing, once known as Western Swing, dates roughly to the 1940s, with its roots in the Lindy Hop or Savoy and Jitterbug dance styles of the 1920s. It places more emphasis on improvisation and partners dance in a straight line within a narrow slotted area of the dance floor, rather than in a circular pattern, as in East Coast Swing. West Coast Swing is also a little slower and more formal, and is known as more sensual. Partners are always connected with one hand.

"I like how it's more collaborative," said Laura Watkins, 31, of Hampden, an astronomer with Johns Hopkins University's Space Telescope Science Institute, who tries to take lessons twice a week, depending on her schedule. Compared to other dances, West Coast is "more of a conversation," Watkins said, and not as structured as what people might see on "Dancing With the Stars."

"The creativity is great," said Abby Moscaritolo. "It makes you think. It's called the dancer's dance. You incorporate styling into the dance itself."

West Coast Swing also goes well with a variety of musical genres, including blues, soul, funk, hip hop and rap, said her husband, whose amplified iPhone provides the songs by artists ranging from Snoop Dog to Coldplay to Ed Sheeran.

Filling a void

The Moscaritolos, who give private and group lessons, have been dancing since they were children. Abby, a native of Oregon, started with tap dancing at age 6 and got into partner dancing when she was 19. Jody Moscaritolo has been dancing since 11, and was a fan of Broadway musicals and jazz. He got interested in partner and ballroom dancing in his mid-20s. He was living in Pikesville when they met in 2010 at a West Coast Swing convention in Medfield, Ore.

The West Coast circuit is worldwide, run by the World Swing Dance Council, they said, noting that, on their honeymoon, they visited a friend's dance studio in France and ran into five fellow dancers they knew.

"It's a close community," said Abby Moscaritolo, for whom teaching West Coast Swing is a full-time job. She travels about twice a month. Jody, a business consultant to Baltimore County, teaches dance part-time. On their travels, they often rent space in studios on the fly or make arrangements to teach and stay in people's houses.

"It's such a niche thing," Jody Moscaritolo said.

In Baltimore, there used to be a weekly West Coast Swing dance on Sundays in the Randallstown area, but it has faded away.

"We wanted to fill that void," Jody Moscaritolo said.

At St. Luke's, Watkins and Meyd were the only students for the first hour-long group lesson Aug. 19. But Watkins stayed for the next, larger session, as the Moscaritolos put a dozen dancers through their paces, exhorting them to watch their spacing and posture, not to over-rotate on their turns and not to rush coming out of their turns.

"No one is a natural dancer," Jody Moscaritolo said, quoting the famed dancer, Martha Graham. "For our customers, part of what draws them here is other customers. It's been really exciting to see the way it's grown."

Those who came to a Wednesday night session last month wore everything from shorts and jeans to slacks, and footwear ranging from sandals and sneakers to dance shoes and dress shoes.

"I think it's a sexy dance," said Sharon Lampron, 56, of Westminster, who practices what she called energy kinesiology. She came with her friend, graphic designer Dean Nettles, 57, of Hampden.

"I'm always looking for ways to stay active," said engineer Jake Novicky, 29, of Charles Village. "Girls love a guy who can dance."

Novicky came with a group of friends from a social club for young adults, based at Saints Phillip & James Catholic Church in Charles Village. Among them was Anne Mathews, 24, of Mount Washington, an assistant editor at Agora Publishing.

"It's not exactly my strong suit," Mathews said as she finished dancing. But she praised the Moscaritolos, saying, "They're very patient."

Mathews thought her swing dancing was on the upswing, although she added with a smile, 'It was hard to go down from where I was."

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