- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It may not have the bells and whistles of your local health club, but any one of the District’s neighborhood community centers may have something that’s worth even more: a human being with a very human story, who might just be your neighbor.

Want to limber up? Try slimnastics at Chevy Chase, led by an agile local resident who fled communist Hungary. Want to learn to swim? Check out the aquatics classes at the Takoma center, where the instructor is known for pushing students to their limits — but gently. Want to exercise both body and mind? The ticket is hand dancing at Fort Stevens, taught by a master who’s performed at the Kennedy Center.

Anyone can learn a language, build a telescope, or even play a round or two of bridge, all just a block or two away from where they live.

As unique as the neighborhoods they serve, the District’s 71 recreation and community centers are primed to provide what its people need.

“We like to say we take care of you from the womb to the tomb,” says Roslyn Johnson, director of programs for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, which has programs for toddlers, teens, and adults.

Classes are added all the time, says Miss Johnson, who is excited about a new series of activities geared to teens. But whether you are a teen or 20 — or 90 — the atmosphere at a neighborhood center is always conducive to community.

“It’s more of a personal setting,” says Miss Johnson. “The people you’re with are your neighbors. Whatever the community likes is what we try to provide.”

• • •

At the new state-of-the-art pool at the Takoma Community Center in Northwest, shallow-water aerobics classes are increasingly popular, with morning classes for seniors and evening sessions for working adults.

Just don’t expect that health-club grimace from the participants here. They’re too busy having fun.

“Keep moving,” calls out instructor Karen Richburg, leading a class of nearly 30 people, all 55 or older, during a biweekly morning session recently. “Get ready for the soul train exercise.”

You’ve got to be a bit brave to do the soul train exercise, which means making your way down the length of the pool past a gantlet of loudly supportive classmates, arms waving, blue and yellow weights held high.

Brave too, are the three or four males in the group, who take more than their fair share of ribbing from their female counterparts.

“We laugh a lot,” says Bessie Berry, who enrolled in the class on the day the renovated center opened in February 2004. “We really enjoy each other. It’s kind of our own special social hour.”

The music helps, with ‘70s classics like “The Hustle” and “Freak Out.” Everyone joins in for the chorus of “Boogie-Oogie-Oogie.” It’s a bit like being at a high school reunion, although the action is in the water and everyone is in a bathing suit.

But serious strides are being made here too. Mrs. Berry says she’s lost more than 40 pounds since joining the group.

“It’s the best thing that’s happened to the neighborhood for a long time,” says Mrs. Berry, who has lived in Takoma Park for 47 years. “It gets you started off into a good day.”

Meanwhile, Patricia Cauley Hamilton of Takoma Park decided that after years of watching her husband and children enjoy the water, she would finally learn to swim.

“I’m 55, but I wanted to conquer my fear,” she says. “And I’m swimming. The instructors here really have a lot of patience with senior people. I’m ready to try the yoga classes now.”

• • •

Pushing past one’s comfort zone — while remaining comfortable — is a hallmark of the community center idea, which began as an outgrowth of the Progressive movement in the late 19th century, when new anxieties fueled a sentiment for re-establishing “community.”

Beginning in 1907, the community center movement took hold quickly nationwide, with centers in 48 cities just four years later, writes Ronald M. Johnson in “Black and White Apart: The Community Center in the District of Columbia 1915-1930.”

Many centers in the District initially held classes after hours in public school buildings, thanks to the efforts of Margaret Woodrow Wilson, the president’s eldest daughter, who personally lobbied Congress to support their use.

Such centers quickly proved popular for both the black and white communities, Mr. Johnson writes. At the Garnet Phelps Community Center near the corner of Vermont and U streets, for example, black residents of the neighborhood could take courses in music, child study, civics, legal jurisprudence and household economics, among others. By 1920, yearly attendance at Garnet-Phelps was 12,343.

Today, of course, the numbers are not nearly as high. But the following is just as strong.

“I like the idea of doing something in my neighborhood with my neighbors,” says Ruth Uhlmann, who attends class at Chevy Chase with her husband, Craig Mathews. “It’s not slick and fancy, but it’s us. We really look forward to it.”

• • •

Today, neighbors often sign up for classes they first enrolled in 40 years ago.

“We try to offer classes with consistency so that people sign up again and again,” says Lesley Stracks, site manager at the Chevy Chase Community Center.

One such is the slimnastics class taught at Chevy Chase every spring and summer by Julia Bay, a supple Romanian-born instructor who has been teaching exercise classes at the community center for almost 50 years and is esteemed as much for her agility as for her age, 81.

Participants from senior citizens to new mothers swear by Mrs. Bay’s methods, an amalgam of training she received in Hungary, where she lived as a teenager during World War II. She and her husband, the celebrated physicist Zoltan Bay, who died in 1992, fled a newly communist Hungary in 1948 and settled in Chevy Chase.

And her instruction is Old World austere.

“Modern life is against the nature of what God intended you to do,” Mrs. Bay tells her classes. “You get your bananas from Safeway and not from the tree, so you don’t use the muscles you were intended to use.”

Her students lap it up.

“We’ve been coming here for 30 years,” Mrs. Uhlmann says. “It’s the teacher that makes the class, you know.”

• • •

D.C. Parks and Recreation negotiates its contracts with instructors individually, which gives teachers much leeway in determining their courses’ fees. Instructor Lawrence Bradford, for example, who teaches hand dancing at the Fort Stevens Community Center, purposely keeps his classes affordable so people in the neighborhood can take them.

Mr. Bradford co-founded the Smooth & Easy Hand Dance Institute in 1992 and has performed at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.

So it’s no wonder his classes at Fort Stevens — in this variant of swing dance that puts a premium on the partners’ holding hands — have been packing folks in, both singly and in couples, since he began teaching there about three years ago.

Even before the class starts, couples are up and moving around the dance floor, while the bridge ladies in the next room look on approvingly.

“I came to take computer class, but I ended up dancing,” says Dorothy Johnson, who lives just a few minutes from the Fort Stevens center. “It’s great physical exercise.”

It’s also a great mental exercise, as couples create a series of dance steps and choreographed moves, all without letting go.

Hand dancing requires mental concentration along with the ability to move, says Mr. Bradford, who also teaches classes in other venues, including the Department of Labor.

“You’ve got to continue to think,” he says. “And you’ve got to make your partner look good.”

When it comes time to partner with Mr. Bradford, just about every woman in the place dances better than she’s ever danced before.

“It’s all about the relationship between the male and the female,” he says. “You have to have the ability to lead without pushing, pulling or tugging. It’s a dance, not a confrontation.”

Mr. Bradford, 61, has been dancing since he was 12 years old back in Adams Morgan, which he and his young friends called “Happy Hollow” after the playground by the old Morgan school where they spent their summer days.

“We didn’t call it hand dancing, though,” he recalls. “It was just fast dancing.”

This type of fast dancing fell out of favor in the 1960s, but when it came back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, observers were struck by the fact that the dancers were holding hands. Thus the name.

Now hand dancing classes are everywhere.

“It’s the dance of choice among mature people from their late twenties on up,” Mr. Bradford says.

Today, hand dancing students range from folks who remember doing it the first time around, to 12-year-old Aaron King, a student at Paul Public Charter School at Eighth and Nicholson streets Northwest who accompanies his mother to class — and manages to squire around all of the women in the class during the 90-minute sessions twice a week.

“It’s old school, but children my age will get into it one day, so I figured I might as well start now,” Aaron says. “Then by that time I can be professional caliber.”

• • •

Professional is the word for the telescopes produced by classes at the Chevy Chase Community Center, under the guidance of instructor Guy Brandenburg and the National Capital Astronomers, a volunteer-run but scientifically rigorous organization.

“The tolerances that we get to are absolutely phenomenal,” says Mr. Brandenburg, meaning his students — who grind and polish their telescopes’ mirrors by hand — allow themselves very little margin for error.

A math teacher by day at the District’s Alice Deal Junior High School, Mr. Brandenburg offers an example: “I brought the first telescope I made to a star party and it had the best images of them all, including the ones that cost $3,000,” he says. “People were flabbergasted.”

The hand-ground telescopes take at least 30 to 40 hours to produce, depending on the size of the lens, says Mr. Brandenburg, 56, who grew up on a Montgomery County farm and spent his summers staring at the stars.

“I saw Sputnik in 1957, when it first came out,” he says. “But these days there’s so much light pollution it’s hard to see anything.”

• • •

Just a floor up from the telescope makers, the International Folk Dancers fill the floor on Friday nights at Chevy Chase. Led by Ruth Toxey of Bethesda, who started the group with her husband some 40 years ago, the group makes its way through the intricacies of a Scottish dance called “St. John River,” without missing more than a step or two.

“It’s a sort of choreographed square dance,” says Mrs. Toxey, who these days leads the group with Frank McCrackin, who took over after her husband’s death a few years ago.

Mr. McCrackin does a great Swedish Hambo, Mrs. Toxey says. That’s in keeping with the group’s mission to introduce people to dances from around the world, along with the appropriate music.

Mrs. Toxey’s classes are open to all — among the participants is a piano instructor from Sri Lanka — and, unlike some other classes, are free, so neighbors of regulars frequently drop in for a session or two.

“I’m tripping over myself,” says first-timer Carolyn Harris. “I’d have to be here awhile before I can keep up with them.”

Down the hall, the “U.S. Department of Juggling” club attracts folks from as far away as Olney for a chance to hone skills in ball bouncing, pin throwing and rings.

At 15, Sean Muldawer, an eighth-grader at Rosa Parks Middle School in Olney, is the only teenager in the high-energy group. But he’s a pretty good juggler in his own right and relishes the chance to work out with some of the best.

“I’ve learned so much,” he says. “I just hope that one day I can be as good as the people here.”

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