By: Shadan Larki, Marisa Martinez, and Brianna Walker
From Palm-Heels to Pirouettes: How one man’s passion for dance transformed his life — and a local dance club.
The Ben Hur Shrine serves as the Austin headquarters for the Shriners Fraternity. A centuries-old brotherhood, The Shriners are known for their namesake Shriners Hospitals for Children and have called the locale home for the past decade.
However, the brown brick building on Rockwood Lane houses much more than just the Shriners. On Tuesday evenings, the Shriners office closes and the reception room next door becomes the Austin City Dance Club, a non-profit, social dancing organization that offers lessons in West Coast Swing, Country Two-Step, Cha Cha, Nightclub Two-Step, and Hustle.
“Austin City Dance Club follows a model that is different from some other clubs and studios: we pay our talent well. Our bottom line is non-profit, so we don’t worry about being wealthy,” said club ACDC instructor President and Co-Founder Mike Topel.
Austin City Dance Club doesn’t require a membership to get “in the swing,” but signing on does boast some perks. The ACDC offers membership discounts and a special rate for students.
“Our classes skew younger than some of the cities I visit. Its appeal is that younger people have lots of puppy-like exuberance. Older crowds tend to have more money, though…so we trade cash for energy sometimes,” Topel said.
The organization attracts high-level talent instructors to lead their group classes.
“All of our instructors are internationally recognized superstars. Believe it or not, that’s a big deal,” Topel said. “Our instructors visit the rest of the world on a nearly weekly basis; they’re constantly perfecting themselves for an international audience, and constantly experimenting on our local students with some of their freshest stuff.”
Topel is no stranger to life on the road either, so far his 2015 docket has included roughly 20 national competitions, and appearances.
But it hasn’t always been international stages and standing ovations for the Swing, Latin, Country, and American Social dance instructor.
“I danced for the first time at a high school sock hop. I was horrible,” said Topel. “But I got significantly better at a pre-college getaway in 1984 when Prince and Michael Jackson were big and I had a little more inspiration to draw from.”
Topel also counts James Brown and Bob Fosse among his influences. But not all the dancers he watched were pop stars.
“My earliest dance memory is the Lawrence Welk show, and watching my grandparents Foxtrot, Waltz & Polka to some happening bands,” Topel said. “I graduated to [watching] American Bandstand in the 1970s, then eventually Soul Train.”
By the 90s, Topel found himself no longer just a bystander to dance, but practicing the craft as well.
“By 1991, country line-dancing became the thing, and friends and I jumped on that,” Topel said. “Things went downhill from there. As in now I had an addiction I couldn’t control”.
Seven years later, Topel traded his cubicle for a studio and was dancing and teaching full time.
“The best part of teaching is directing the emotions and memories of the students in a class,” Topel said. “Everything learned is reinforced with humor and constructive positivity.”
Topel also holds a second-degree black belt in martial arts and brings that discipline to the dance floor.
“I learned movement control in the martial arts. Learning a routine, basically. That set me up for learning dance sequences,” Topel said. “Plus, a good amount of time was spent on flexibility, strength, stamina and balance.”
Martial arts training also gave Topel an unexpected dose of teaching experience.
“My head instructor insisted on having the black belts teach and trained us in teaching techniques. Also [it taught me] how to learn with an open mind and to take criticism well.”
While being able to take criticism is something Topel values, he says his best students are the ones who aren’t afraid to push back.
“No students stick out unless they heckle me,” Topel says. “And then it’s game on. Really, the only thing that sticks out to me is if the student is engaged or annoyed enough to see me as a punching bag and take a couple of pokes. That person will be somebody someday.”
On any given Tuesday night Topel can be seen greeting people at the front desk in the beginning of the evening, DJing the open dance at the end of the night and even out on the dance floor with the other dancers.
For more information visit austincitydanceclub.com.
Look & Listen: Texas Tricking Offers A Unique Way to Express Oneself
The Austin City Dance Club isn’t the only organization trying to get Austin moving.
Texas Tricking is a University of Texas at Austin organization with one mission: practice tricking in a welcoming environment. Founding member Justin Park describes what is tricking, and how people can get involved.
Find out what style of dance you should try with our quiz here, and test out your moves at these Austin dance locations:
Use this chart to decipher your results: https://magic.piktochart.com/output/8949866-dance-flow-chart