Shall we dance?

Cortez studio draws folks of all types out on the floor

It’s a Friday night in mid-winter in downtown Cortez and the sound of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” is wafting out the door of the Millennium Center at 20 W. Main St. and down the sidewalk. Inside, there is a happy group of people gliding around the large, high-ceilinged and dimly lit room.


Sue Tompkins and Larry Leighton practice their moves at Come Dance Tonight in downtown Cortez recently. Photo by Janneli F. Miller

Most of the women are wearing high heels and skirts, some sequined, some short and sassy, some long with a split revealing a bit of leg.

“Imagine something like this in Cortez!” says Richard Talbot, co-owner of Come Dance Tonight, and husband of Denise Westbrook, the studio’s energetic and passionate creator.

The music fades, and Westbrook’s voice comes up over the sound system. “How about a salsa?” she grins from behind the podium, and a Latin tune takes over. On the hardwood dance floor, the couples switch partners and begin moving in rhythm to the pulsing beat, their sparkling figures reflected in the mirrored wall on one entire side of the room.

Metal palm trees are interspersed along the mirrors, and a large beaded light fixture provides enough light for the few dancers seated at the back watching, sipping water and quietly chatting around cocktail tables A row of high-heeled dance sandals, ranging in color from pink and gold to leopard-spotted, are displayed on the counter of the bar, and some comfy chairs and couches are placed around a cozy carpeted seating area on the side.

Welcome to the party practice session at Come Dance Tonight, the “epicenter” of dance in the Four Corners region. With classes and private instruction daily in four types of popular social dance – ballroom, nightclub, Latin and country-Western – Come Dance Tonight is responsible for igniting the local dance fever.

Tonight some of the couples are practicing for Cortez’s version of “Dancing with the Stars.” A father-daughter duo hops around the floor to “Love Shack.” A young married couple performs a synchronized two-step, while another couple exudes tangible and sensuous heat as they ooze across the room in love and unison, to the great appreciation of their audience, who hoot, holler and clap when the dancers perform a special move.

Another pair dazzles everyone with their dramatic tango, and the audience erupts in spontaneous and rhythmic clapping to a couple doing a snazzy country routine.

When all the couples have practiced, Westbrook steps forward to address her student performers. “Congratulations,” she says, “you all are absolutely fantastic!” Later she tells me that tonight the dancers have the “heebie jeebies” because of the upcoming event. “It’s different, to have the audience right there in front of you,” she says. The couples have been practicing since August for their upcoming performance at the high school.

It was 20 years ago that the film “Strictly Ballroom” came out, and then in 2004 Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez dazzled audiences with “Shall We Dance.” Ten years ago the popular “Dancing with the Stars” premiered in the U.S. on ABC television, and the television dance show has gone worldwide.

Here in Cortez, Westbrook’s local version, “Dancing with the Cortez Stars,” is in its second year. Held this year on March 2 at the Montezuma- Cortez High School auditorium, the event draws a sizeable crowd – over 200 attended in 2013 – and provides an evening of entertainment for all ages.

Westbrook has been dancing since 1973, and when she arrived in Cortez in 2005 for a three-month visit, she realized there was nothing going on with dance, apparently. “You could go out to the Appleshed, or travel to the Wild Horse,” notes Sandy Lauzon, one of the instructors at Come Dance Tonight. “Al and Faye Vestal started dancing at the Senior Center in Cortez, and that’s where I first took lessons,” continues Lauzon, a petite and agile women “of a certain age.” Westbrook hadn’t planned on opening a dance studio, but when she saw the need, she came out of retirement. “Now John Vestal [their son] is one of our ‘Dancing with the Cortez Stars’ competitors,” says Lauzon with a big grin.

Westbrook, a nationally certified dance judge and master examiner for the American Ballroom Company, isn’t prone to bragging, but during a career spanning more than 40 years, she’s danced with more than just “the stars.”

Ask her about her whirl around the floor with President Nixon on a private island in the Bahamas, her 1995 featured half-time Superbowl performance with Tony Bennett, or her experience training contestants for the Miss America Pageant.

Besides spending five years as the top inter national instructor for Arthur Murray Dance Centers – the largest professional dance corporation in the world – she has worked with movie production companies, musicians, and in television. In 1983 she was the World West Professional Rising Star, and in 1989 she was a preliminary judge in the Miss World Pageant.

Now residents of Cortez have access to Westbrook’s plethora of experience, skill and fun. The fact that Westbrook loves what she does is obvious the minute you come into contact with her.

“Mixer,” she says, as the salsa music dies out. “What do you want to hear? A little rock ’n’ roll? Some two-step?”

Couples switch partners again, and this time, after they dance from one end of the ballroom to the other, they separate. Women walk down one side of the room, while the men head for the other. Down by the seating area, short lines form, as the dancers wait their turn for a new partner. A 14-yearold girl in a satin dress and large pink ribbon smiles as her grey-haired partner takes her out on the floor. Couple by couple, new combinations of partners whirl and spin, laugh and move through the room. And the music is also mixed – dancers are as adept at finding the rhythm to a Bob Dylan tune, as they are to Johnny Cash, Susan Tedeschi, or a violin concerto.

For Westbrook, Come Dance Tonight and the Millennium Center for the Performing Arts are the realization of a lifelong dream. Clearly, she is not interested in talking about herself. What lights her up is watching her students master the moves.

She is excited about the second annual Dancing with the Cortez Stars, not only because of the expertise of the contestants, but because of the community involvement. She explains that since the Dancing with the Stars format is familiar to people, it’s a fun challenge. Local “celebrities” with no dancing experience are chosen, partnered with an experienced dancer, and then challenged to perform a 1½-minute routine in front of a panel of judges and the audience. They learn lifts, drops, and how to stay in character, among other things like strength, grace and rhythm. Three judges score the students, looking at how well they stay in character, if they are dancing in time with the music, and if the choreography and storyline match the music.

The other aspect is audience feedback. A decibel meter donated by carbon-dioxide giant Kinder Morgan is used to rank the peak amount of applause.

“I used to be a reclusive type,” notes Richard Talbot, who was frightened to dance for 51 years. But dance has expanded his confidence and world, literally. “Dancing has helped me with my social skills – because when you are dancing, you and another person are the only ones sharing that same exact moment. It’s an intimate space, and the kind of negotiation you need to do to dance, the leading and the following, helps you get along better with people outside of the dance floor.”

Lauzon continues, “It’s a safe place to go. It’s friendly and fun, and great exercise.” Indeed, Talbot emphasizes a fact that is also listed on the Come Dance Tonight website: three hours of dancing is the equivalent of walking 17 miles.

Classes in all levels are held early evenings Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays for $10 a class, and discounts available for regular attendance during the week. All ages are welcome, and the groups include singles as well as married couples, so there’s need to line up a partner if you don’t already have one.

Participants learn a multitude of dances, including swing dance, the hustle, jitterbug, fox trot and waltz, the salsa, tango, bolero, rumba and cha cha.

Westbrook explains that it’s wonderful for students of all ages to realize their own athletic and creative capacities. “Dancing gives people an ability to do something they always wanted to do but never thought they could. It gives them a freedom of expression they don’t usually get in their regular lives.”

For the Dancing with the Cortez Stars event, the top couple receives a “coveted” mirror ball trophy just like on TV.

“It’s very cool,” says Westbrook. “By the time the event is over, it’s not about the competition any more – it’s about their achievement. They’re all happy, because they did it!” She is thrilled that her students did what they did not think they could ever do.

Come Dance Tonight is not just about star-studded nights, however. There are eight dance instructors besides Westbrook, each bringing their own experience and joy to the floor, whether it be ballet, tango or country-western. Beginning students are paired with experienced instructors, as they learn the new steps and dances.

Most of the instructors have had other jobs, whether in physical therapy, teaching, writing and editing, orthodontics or IT systems engineering. However, what they share is a love for fun and movement, evidenced by the enthusiastic attendance at their classes, which run throughout the year.

Anne Corrine, founder of Troupe Verde, who holds a M.A. in dance choreography and teaches belly dance in Durango and Cortez, teaches and performs occasionally for some of Come Dance Tonight’s events.

When asked about Westbrook, she replied, “I am in awe of her. She is on a pedestal, way up there, and we are so lucky to have her here.”

Cortez residents are not the only ones who are lucky. “We have students coming up from Farmington, Durango, and even Moab,” says Talbot. Truly, Westbrook’s dream of creating a regional center for dance and the performing arts is coming true.

Besides the social dances offered through Come Dance Tonight, other classes are offered through the Millennium Center, including “Performance and Theatre” with Holly Janes, “Music in Motion” for children with Katya Chorover, “Tumbling, Acrobatics and Cheer” with Randy Quillen, tai chi with Susan Matthews, Zumba with Rayna Hale, and “Monday Morning Line Dance” with Lauzon.

The dancing fever is not limited to Cortez. Over in Durango, things with a Latin flavor have recently taken off. Harold Welty has been active in the “Tango Community” as he calls it. Dancers meet once a week on Sunday evenings at Durango Dance for “practica,” hold a once a month dance in the community and occasionally bring in instructors. They’ve even brought in a live tango orchestra for two of their dances, and sponsor workshops with regional tango instructors. In February Mike Malixi & Carrie Field from Taos, N.M. gave a workshop, and in October there was a weekend workshop with Liz Height & Masami Hirokawa from Santa Fe.

On the second Tuesday of the month Durango Tango sponsors a “Milonga,” also known as Social Argentine Tango Dancing, for free. As in Cortez, everyone is welcome, singles and couples, beginners and experienced dancers. The Milongas are held at the Four Leaves Winery, 528 Main Ave., Durango.

For more information on Tango in Durango, contact Harold Welty, 533-7231, or visit

From March 2014. Read similar stories about , .