In an underground dance studio on 15th Ave E, you can find Ilana Rubin — hair wisped and face flush — running around or behind her desk fresh out of one workout or another, her office strewn with Halloween decorations.
Rubin runs Dance Underground, a 14-year business running a 45-year-old dance studio. The studio was first opened by Shirley Jenkins when it was called Strong Winds Wild Horses. In fact, it’s the very place Rubin met her partner more than two decades ago doing Argentine tango. Rubin herself has been a dancer all her life, harking back to her roots in Israel.
The space itself contains two spacious studios with christmas lights lining the wall-length mirrors. It certainly has a homey, lived-in feel to it through the walls and the ceiling but it’s welcoming.
“To me it’s just a part of that old Seattle that we keep talking about that’s disappearing,” said Barb Duff who uses the space for BaDi dance and exercise. “From what we do for a living, you’re just not going to find a 2,000-square-foot, unobstructed studio with a hard sprung wood floor anywhere with these cookie-cutter Ikea showrooms.”
Duff and her BaDi coworker Dina Love came to Seattle from the East Coast a while back. For them, the studio is reminiscent of New York’s “gritty dance studios” because of its ambiance.
Duff and Love live across the street from the studio and joked it’s so they could be closer to it.
“It’s our home, we love it,” Love said. “There’s all the posters of all the things happening in the city. It’s like a cultural hub. Everything is a handshake and your word actually means something and we all help pitch in to clean up. It’s very, very real.”
Love explained the space is a community icon, and community means devotion — including sticking around when people drive you crazy. In addition, most of the businesses involved are women-owned.
But like many community hubs around Capitol Hill, Dance Underground is feeling the push.
“Up until recently the rate was at a very reasonable rate,” owner Rubin said. “They decided not to be as generous. Now they’re making us pay full market price. It’s been a huge struggle for us.”
Dance Underground’s doom isn’t immediate, however, or guaranteed. Rubin encourages others to use the space and is doing more outreach to keep the dance hub afloat. She hopes to hold an annual fundraiser.
Should Dance Underground disappear, so will a space open to many uniquely Capitol Hill subsets. The space isn’t only used by older dancers and Cornish students. It’s also used by circus performers, theater groups and children. There’s Tai Chi, yoga, ecstatic dance, tango, salsa, blues, pico pico, bachata, parties, you name it.
“The way I’ve built this business up, it’s about building community,” Rubin said. “Community means a part of belonging to a global village, belonging to something that’s bigger than yourself. It’s identity and self expression and strength — also carrying on traditions of different cultures. It’s having a positive place to put your energy that’s not harming anybody, especially with the volatile politics that are going on right now.”
Rubin feels a great weight and responsibility in keeping Dance Underground alive. In talking about this, tears begin to accumulate and her voice strains. To move forward, Rubin looks for people who are self-starters because she can’t take on additional promotion. She also wants and expects teachers to add on and bring their own community.
“Part of it’s personal,” Rubin said because of her Argentine tango passion. “I can see all the good and outreach that a space like this has on all the other communities and how important it is to them to keep their craft alive and going. What a positive difference it makes in people’s lives. Not only does it bring people together, but you see little kids…I mean, these are things that shape your life. It’s not something that’s light, it’s something that will stay with you forever.”
Rubin hopes Dance Underground and all of its performers can stick around with the other businesses on 15th Ave that seem to be neighborhood mainstays despite development.
“If it spills out to the people who live in these neighborhoods and they also use the space, then I think we can be here a lot longer than we can imagine,” she said.
Dance Underground is located at 340 15th Ave E. You can learn more at dance-underground.com.