Juneau's loss is Bellingham's gain

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2010

The residents of Bellingham, Wash. don't yet know how lucky they are. They're about to inherit what many Juneauites consider a local treasure: the powerhouse duo of Heather Haugland and Antonio Diaz.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire File
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire File

Every week for the past seven years, the couple has led Juneau's clumsy and fleet-of-foot in learning salsa, rueda, merengue, bachata and other Latin dances. In the process they've kickstarted marriages, given new meaning to the term "physical" therapy and helped foster a solid social network of local dancers.

Diaz, originally from Peru, said forming relationships is part of what dance is all about.

"Salsa or any dance is a tool for making connections," he said.

"We've kept (the classes) very socially oriented, as opposed to serious and structured," he said. "It's nothing to get too serious about. Enjoy the music, move to the steps and you'll have fun."

Bart Watson, who taught a few salsa classes with Haughland before Diaz moved to town, said the couple has been entirely successful at communicating that sense of fun to their students.

"They've been terrific sparkplug for the dance community," he said. "They have an infectious enthusiasm for dance and they've really created a dance scene unlike one that existed here before."

The couple decided to relocate to Bellingham after the birth of their son, Diego, now 7 months. Both have family in Seattle. A going-away party is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday at Sandy Beach.

Though the couple's dance instruction has been geared toward fun, their classes have led to serious changes in the lives of some of their students.

Cristina Gregory said that she started Haugland and Diaz' beginning salsa class on a whim in 2007 while she was going through a tough time. When she attended the first class, she said, she was shaking so hard she could hardly stand up. But by the end, she felt like she was flying. Soon she was taking three classes a week, and says the activity changed her life.

"I was going through some pretty traumatic life changes, and to be able to connect with other people (through the classes) has been very rewarding," she said. "I had no idea it would affect me this much."

Gregory said the connections she made through the class were strengthened by the weekly salsa nights Haugland and Diaz organized at various night spots around town, and that the activity has given her a new attitude toward life.

"I really feel that I've found my passion," she said. "I've never had anything that made me feel so alive. It really brings me so much joy aside from my kids."

Cheryl Levitt also found her passion in class, in the form of her future husband, Darren Snyder. Haugland had spotted Snyder in class without a partner and gave Levitt the tip. She starting coming to class and the pair soon partnered up.

"The romance bloomed from there," Levitt said.

At least one other student in that same class, Joann Birt, also met her husband, Timothy, through dancing. Diaz said he has been asked more than once to perform marriage ceremonies.

Not surprisingly, dancing was also central to the formation of Haugland and Diaz' romance. Diaz said he remembers his first dance with his future wife "like it was yesterday."

"We've had great chemistry dancing from the very beginning," Haugland said. "On our first date we went to a club in Seattle and we were the only couple in the whole place. I think we danced to every song."

Haugland moved to Juneau in 1998, after living in Sitka near her sister. She quickly became involved in the local dance scene here, and, after a couple salsa classes with Pat Belec, was inspired to find out more about Cuban culture. Rob Cohen from the former downtown store Capitol Records played an important role in her exploration by steering her toward the Afro Cuban All Stars' CD. She loved it so much she decided to trace the music to its source.

"I said 'I want to go where this music was created.'" Haugland said. "So I looked up Cuba on Google and found a cultural visa program, and went for a two-week dance workshop."

The trip cemented her love of Cuban salsa, an affection she couldn't keep to herself. As a member of the Alaska Folk Festival Board in 2002, she pitched the idea of a guest dance band. After being given the go-ahead, she invited Seattle salsa band Cambalache to come perform. Diaz, a former band member, was good friends with the musicians, and came along to teach classes. He'd been living in Seattle for eight years and had become involved in the salsa scene there. Though he hadn't done much salsa dancing in Peru, he was raised in a family of dancers and had a natural affinity for Latin rhythms.

After meeting Haugland through Cambalache, Diaz kept in touch with her and ended up moving to Juneau in 2003. The couple started teaching right away. Their first class, held at the Capital School gym, attracted 60 people.

"I couldn't even speak I was so nervous," Haugland said.

The two soon established a demanding schedule of classes several times a week and salsa nights once a week. In addition to salsa, the couple kept adding new dance styles as they learned them.

While they were leading classes and hosting salsa night, both also held down full-time jobs: Haugland at the McDowell group and Diaz at the Baranof Hotel as a chef. Diaz also is a musician and singer, and played with local band Salsa Borealis. He's also been very involved in the local schools, teaching kids to dance.

In spite of all this activity, the couple still found energy to continue another facet of their musical contributions: getting good bands to come to Juneau. In addition to hosting a Cuban band and Cambalache, they organized Dance Fest in 2006 with Tim Adair. Dance Fest, held for four years, featured multiple guest artists from all kinds of genres and intensive instruction in everything from swing to tango.

The couple also had new demands on their time beginning last year: their son Diego. His parents said he is already starting to pick up Latin rhythm through dancing with his mom in the baby carrier and hearing both his parents sing.

The dance community in Bellingham will soon be aware of their good fortune: The couple said they plan to get started on classes as soon as they can, and Diaz has already talked to the local schools.

"From what people have told us so far, it sounds like there's a really strong dance scene but not necessarily as strong a Latin dance scene, so we're hoping we can introduce that a bit there," Haugland said.

Both said they are enormously grateful for all the support the Juneau community has shown them, and that they've been constantly amazed by Juneauites' willingness to try new things.

"Juneau's been so great to us," Haugland said. "It's let us learn how to teach."

The couple's going away party begins at 4 p.m. Sunday at Sandy Beach. All are welcome.

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