The Joy of Dance
Carlton Thompson and the Phoenix Heatwave want to get everyone on the dance floor. PLUS: Dance lessons at Cash Inn Country.
By Glenn Gullickson - June 5, 2014
It's Saturday night at Charlie's, and Carlton Thompson is shaking his booty as he faces the mirror that covers the wall at one end of the dance floor.
The slim man with a toothy smile is teaching his weekly line dancing lesson at the gay country bar to a group of about a dozen mostly 20-something men.
Thompson teaches a dance called Broken Heels in segments, calling the steps non-stop through a headset.
"Left, right, turn, Monterey slide, heel down, heel, heel, heel, 4-5-6-7. Add airplane arms," he calls out as the group moves across the floor.
After they get the basics down, DJ Urban is called on to add the music. If the dancers aren't exactly moving in unison, they sure look like they're having fun.
On this evening, the dance students will see how it's done as the lesson is followed by a performance by the Phoenix Heatwave, a dance group of men and women that Thompson leads and choreographs.
There's a "let's put on a show" quality to it, and the six numbers they perform — complete with props, mist and costume changes — include line dancing, but also an interpretive piece featuring Thompson and another man.
When the show is over, Thompson invites everyone who's gathered to watch to get on the dance floor to do the electric slide to a Cher song.
That's really the mission of Thompson and the Heatwave — to get everyone dancing.
"The drive that makes me do this is seeing the audience's reaction and changing lives," Thompson said. "That is our core value, to inspire others to want to line dance, to change someone's life in a positive direction."
Thompson started Phoenix Heatwave in January 2012 after an earlier dance group he'd been part of was discontinued and Charlie's encouraged him to get the dancing going again.
"I had to go to the drawing board," Thompson remembered. "What would be the purpose of this group?"
He decided the answer was to get the audience engaged by performing shows and offering lessons. "They can look and say, ‘I want to be just like them,'" Thompson said. "We try to show them it's possible. We're here to inspire others."
You don't need a date to go line dancing, but you do need a group of people to dance with, and Thompson said that's part of the appeal — "the ability to dance simultaneously, the same step, the same rhythm as those around me."
The Phoenix Heavwave crew in performance.
It's also a workout. "It keeps everything in check," Thompson said. "Dancing is good for the mind, body and spirit. We have the ability to move, so let's take advantage of that."
Besides bi-annual shows at Charlie's, the group has performed at Phoenix Pride and the Arizona Gay Rodeo. They've also done fundraising and corporate events and hit the road for shows in Albuquerque, N.M., and Wickenberg. This year they hope to perform at Pride festivals in Flagstaff and Tucson.
Six of the 10 current members of the group have been with Phoenix Heatwave since the beginning. When the rare openings occur, new members are selected through a process that includes an interview and audition. Sometimes new members are drafted from the line-dancing classes.
Thompson said he calls members of the group "Heatwavers." They include gays and allies ranging in age from the 20s to the 50s.
"That's all part of our goal, to have different ages out there," said Sherri Franklin, who identified herself as the oldest member of the group. She said she was attracted to the group as a way to get out after her husband died.
For Heatwaver Rocky Camin, the dancing is "a distraction from my life."
Dena Covey, an ally who joined the group late last year after seeing the Heatwave do a flash dance at the Rainbows Festival, said she enjoys how the group connects to other community groups.
"I like the group. It's so diverse," she said, using a word that comes up often when talking to Heatwavers.
That diversity includes the music — which can include pop and hip-hop as well as all styles of country — and choreography.
"People think line dancing is all country, but it's so diverse," Thompson said.
For the shows, Thompson works in other dance styles, including two-step, West Coast swing, shuffles and modern and contemporary steps. "If it's all line dancing the audience will get bored," he said.
Thompson, 27, has been teaching for seven years. He said he started dancing at age 16, taught by a family friend in his hometown of Napa, Calif.
"It all started in my parents' living room," he said, remembering that the song he started dancing to was Jennifer Lopez's "Let's Get Loud."
As Thompson has developed as a choreographer, inspirations might come from anywhere, including YouTube videos that he studies.
Members of the group also bring their ideas to weekly practice sessions. "That's where the collaboration comes in," Thompson said. "Everybody contributes to the success of the choreography."
Travis Morris, a Heatwaver since the beginning, said Thompson has a big vision. "He's constantly pushing us to do bigger, better and different things. Best of all, he's our friend," Morris said.
On lesson nights, Thompson said the Heatwavers act as ambassadors, demonstrating steps and encouraging students.
Philip Pama, the Heatwaver who teaches the beginning line-dancing class, said dancers fill the floor for his lessons. He said he teaches three songs a week, but stresses repetition by using two songs taught the week before.
He said dancers "take off" after two or three lessons, graduating to Thompson's more advanced class.
"We definitely have a following of consistent students who come in week after week," Thompson said. "Seeing people grow is amazing."
Other members of the group are Chris Taylor, Tracy Thomason, Jason Errington and Elvin Dioquino. -E
(Top image: Heatwavers, left to right, Sherri Franklin, Rocky Camin, Carlton Thompson, Travis Morris, Philip Pama and Dena Covey. Photo by Fernando Hernández.)
Dance lessons at Charlie's
- 8-9:30 p.m. Tuesday: Latin
- 8-9:30 p.m. Wednesday:
Two-step and shuffle
- 8-10 p.m. Thursday: Beginner to intermediate line dancing
- 8-9 p.m. Saturday: Intermediate to advanced line dancing
Lessons are free.
For more information, visit www.phoenixheatwave.com.
Cash Inn Country offers dance lessons
Over at Cash Inn Country, Chandelle Porter has been putting her "everyone can dance" philosophy to work while teaching weekly line dancing lessons for about a year.
"We get a good crowd that hangs out and dances the night away, people who are looking to party it up during the weekdays," Porter said.
The classes attract beginners to more advanced dancers, but Porter said she understands not everyone learns the same way.
"I always try to teach something that's middle of the road," she said. "I really just try to promote a good time."
The sessions start with a warm-up, then a lesson in line dancing, with a two-step worked in, followed by general dancing.
Tunes provided by DJ Cat combine country with club music for classes that Porter said are attended by women and men, gays and straights.
Dancing provides a workout and a chance to socialize, but for Porter it's also a stress reliever. "For me, it's my one night a week that I just dance it all out," she said. "Dancing is my release."
The dance lessons have gotten noticed. Porter said Phoenix New Times listed the Cash Inn lessons on a recent "100 things to do before you die" list.
Porter, who was with the Phoenix Heatwave for two seasons, is also a member of the Sisterzz Twisted drag performance group.
Also at Cash Inn, Todd Donahue teaches weekly two-step lessons.