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Isabel Piekarski
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Isabel Piekarski

Latin Dance Sensation

By Tai Moses

THE PETITE DANCE INSTRUCTOR PROWLS THE MULTIPURPOSE ROOM at Bay View Elementary, giving a touch here, a correction there to the eight couples moving hesitantly across the floor.

"One, two-three, one, two-three, turn and forward," she intones in her richly accented voice, eyes trained on her student's shuffling feet. "The key is very small steps."

This is only the second class for these novice salsa dancers, but under the watchful eye and patient instruction of Isabel Piekarski, née Juarez, they're showing promise. "OK, let's change partners and let's go." She turns on the music and as the rhythm of salsa piano fills the room she lets out a spirited trill.

Isabel has been teaching salsa, merengue and cha-cha-cha for 13 years. The first class she ever taught for Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation--which included cumbia and mambo among the dance steps--drew a whopping 38 students. "It was a very interesting class because they gave me the wrong key. So I had to teach 38 people in the parking lot. But you know, I love dancing so if they don't mind I don't mind. I can teach anywhere."

Now she limits her classes to 20 so she can spend time with each student.

"Dancing has been part of my life since I was born. I was born and raised in Mexico and in my culture you dance all the time. My mother says that I learned how to dance before I learned how to walk. My father is an excellent dancer so I guess I got it from my dad."

She hasn't limited herself to Latin dances. "In Mexico I did six years of hula dancing--I actually had my own show in a Hawaiian restaurant."

When Isabel got married (yes, she and her husband did the salsa for their wedding dance) her new Slavic surname caused a bit of confusion.

"A lot of people that don't know me from years ago they see 'Isabel Piekarski,' they expect this tall blond woman to appear," she says, highly amused. "My husband was born and raised in Poland. He didn't know how to dance, I taught him ... and he is a great dancer. He has very good rhythm. When you have good rhythm you can dance anything."

One of the things that makes Isabel's class so popular is her informal teaching style.

"I like to have a really cool relaxed environment. You know, some people actually became couples in my class."

It's time for the class to progress to the next dance. All eyes are trained upon Isabel, who stands at the front of the room and demonstrates the cha-cha-cha: "Cross, toe, one-two-three."

The couples link arms and face one another expectantly as their instructor delivers the words of wisdom:

"Now, the easy part about cha-cha is that you almost have to cha-cha-cha before you do anything else."

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Critics' Choice Awards

Jesse Davis: All the Shoes That Fit
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Seema Weatherwax: Late-Blooming Photographer
Stephanie Smith: Student of the Sciences
Theo Paige: The Not.So.Mad Fiddler

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From the March 21-28, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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