"People keep telling me, 'It's about time,' " says Gloria Paternostro, dance instructor and founder of Shall We Dance?, a program that offers the first series of ballroom dance classes for the San Fernando Valley's gay and lesbian community.
Paternostro, who was a competition dancer in England and has been teaching in the States for the last 10 years, said she started Shall We Dance? because she "got the feeling that two cultured, charming, intelligent young men in one of my straight classes would rather have been dancing with each other" than with their female partners.
After conversations with students and friends who assured her there was a market for such a program, she placed advertisements in magazines such as Lesbian News, Edge and The L. A. Weekly, found a dance floor in the Burbank Board of Realtors Auditorium and started her first session of classes with 10 students.
Now teaching her third series, she has more than 30 students regularly attending classes.
"We've been dancing all weekend, nonstop," says student Larry Rose, 36, of Burbank, who takes time out from country-western dancing with the Tinseltown Squares to practice his ballroom steps. "You could say it really is a passion."
Rose and his partner, Paul Sternhagen, also 36, say Shall We Dance? provides the only place they know of where same-sex couples can comfortably ballroom dance. While there are several country bars catering to the gay and lesbian community, they have only heard rumors of establishments featuring both rumba and respect for their sexuality.
"We only go into gay cowboy bars," Sternhagen says.
"So it's great being able to dance with each other here," Rose says.
Rose and Sternhagen have attended all three of the Shall We Dance? class series so far, and it shows. Despite their cowboy get-up of boots, jeans and western belts at the classes' "Monday Mixer," they waltz smoothly in each other's arms, slowly working their way around to all four corners of the dance floor.
While Rose and Sternhagen dance, Paternostro reminds her students that the mixer, held at the end of each six-week session, is the place to strut their stuff.
"My philosophy is that dancing should be fun," she tells them. "We're not going to go on PBS with fancy $2,000 gowns and fancy glitter on our faces. Social dancing should be the goal."
Diahanne Payne, 40, agrees with that principal.
"It's elegant. It's great," says Payne, who comes from Venice to attend class. "You get to touch your partner instead of being a mile away."
As she gets older, Payne believes ballroom offers an appealing alternative to the frenzied gyrations that usually accompany the house music played at most discotheques. She predicts renewed interest in the cha-cha and the waltz among younger generations.
"We are sort of the cutting edge," she says.
Some of Paternostro's students are clearly more experienced than others. While two men fox-trot together, it is clear that one of them is mapping out the dance in his head while his partner glides gracefully through the steps of a rumba.
One woman tells her dance partner, "You're supposed to dip."
"I'd probably drop you," her partner responds.
But Paternostro uses her exuberant charm to coax inexperienced dancers into relaxing. Often, her coaching comes out as good-natured bullying.
"I want to see you on the dance floor," she shouts over the microphone. "I know you can waltz. . . . David, why are you sitting out?"
Carol, 63, of Westlake Village, says she appreciates Paternostro's enthusiasm.
"She could be Auntie Mame, she's so damn funny," Carol says. "You're just rolling on the floor."
Also important to Carol, who requested that only her first name be used, is Paternostro's policy of confidentiality. Many in the class have decided not to make their sexuality public.
"I'm discovering that it's not that comfortable to be gay," says Paternostro, who is heterosexual. "To me that's appalling. The quality of people I've had in here has been outstanding. That's been a rather fun aspect of it, because they're educating me in some ways."
When it's time for the second mixer of the evening, Paternostro calls on Rose and Sternhagen to begin a "snowball mixer," which starts with one couple and, after several changes of partners, soon involves the entire class.
Paternostro also acts as the mixer's deejay, playing Benny Goodman's "Wang Wang Blues" to accompany some East Coast swing and "Tenderly" for a waltz. Some of her choices, however, aren't quite the standards usually associated with ballroom dancing.
"We're more concerned with tempo than anything else," says Paternostro, rummaging through a pile of home-recorded cassettes scattered around her cassette player. "Lets get something with a better beat. You know what I could do is play you my Elton John cha-cha!"
After another half an hour of fox-trots, rumbas and waltzes, the dancers, perspiring but smiling broadly, head for the snack table, where homemade fudge, coffee and cookies await.
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WHERE AND WHEN
What: Shall We Dance? ballroom dance lessons for the gay and lesbian community.
Location: Burbank Board of Realtors Auditorium, 2006 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.
Hours: Classes every Monday evening at 7 p.m. (beginning) and 8:45 p.m. (intermediate).
Price: $10 per class, or $50 for six-week series.
Call: (818) 545-3933.