Dressing up and showing off at annual Valentine's 'Sweetheart Dance'

About 75 people with developmental disabilities descend on Burbank for the annual 'Sweetheart Dance'

It took all of about four songs for the deejay to set the tone. In a matter of hours, the calendar would turn to Valentine's Day, so this dance would have no shortage of slow songs.

"Keep your eyes open for that handsome young man or pretty young woman," DJ Ken Barnes said. "We're going to play one more song, then we're going to slow it down."

With that, Mark Aguilar put aside his air guitar and tickled Zamira Becerra's chin. He leaned in and kissed her quickly.

They both grinned.

Armed with blue invitations and a $3 entry fee, about 75 people with developmental disabilities descended on Burbank on Friday night for the annual "Sweetheart Dance." Some came in T-shirts, others in tank tops . A few had their parents in tow.

"Who's excited about a three-day weekend?" Barnes said. The rec center exploded with cheers as Rebecca Black's "Friday" boomed through the speakers and the dancers threw their hands wildly into the air.

The monthly dances are the brainchild of BCR "a place to grow," a nonprofit that offers day programming to dozens of developmentally disabled clients. For more than 40 years, the dance has given its fun-seekers and other locals a chance to dress up, go out and show off their moves.

One month they come in Halloween costumes; the next, Santa arrives at the rec center with gifts. A handful of BCR clients have made a ritual out of eating a pre-dance meal at the nearby Carl's Jr. Over the years, volunteers say, a few have confided that they plan to propose to their sweethearts on site — though they don't always follow through.

The dancers always get snacks and drinks, courtesy of service clubs and set up by L.A. Works volunteers. Many of the volunteers said they get as much out of the evening as anyone and, for that reason, keep coming back. All they have to do is show up — and dance.

"My first time I was a little nervous, a little shy, but then by the second time you come, it's your thing," said volunteer Eric Skorten, 32, of Glendale. "It really tunes you into the different ways in which humans can connect. I have built relationships there."

The closest one, Skorten said, "is with someone who doesn't speak." Many months ago, when Skorten first started volunteering, he bonded with the guy by making the funny faces he said his father used to make at him. Then there's the older gentleman who loves to talk about movies, and the lady who "grabs your hand and wants to dance."

"Later in the song she may walk off and do her own thing," Skorten said. "Sometimes people are a little more reserved; others wear their hearts on their sleeve."

On the walk from Carl's Jr. to the dance, more than a dozen BCR friends and staffers paired up and locked arms. When trees got in the way, some silently moved to the more treacherous outside part of the sidewalk. When Becerra got caught up in a bush, Aguilar was quick to extend an arm and steady her.

He extended his arm again hours later, when the night's first slow song finally arrived. Becerra took him by the wrist, and the sweethearts began to sway.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattStevensLAT

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