‘If You Can Move, You Can Dance’
Wed, 12/11/2013
Culture Editor
Lauren Faustini with her husband, Gus Faustini.
Lauren Faustini with her husband, Gus Faustini.

Weeknights in Teaneck, a high school gym is transformed into a make-believe ballroom, as couples circle around the floor, waltzing or doing the tango or a fox trot to Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon.” The instructor, a magical dancer named Lauren Faustini, gently guides them, adjusting their stance, and sometimes preventing them from colliding.

While Faustini’s classes are usually a mix of people from every background — secular and religious Jews, blacks and whites, gay couples, a blind couple, Latin-Americans, Asians and many others, young and old — the Wednesday Intermediate class is by coincidence filled with couples active in the Jewish community, and most of the men wear kippot. One man is a jokester, but he and the others take on the task at hand, whether a cha-cha crossover or a swing back pass, with earnestness.

Faustini, who is 55, teaches the way she leads, with enthusiasm and grace. Demonstrating a new step or variation, she’ll grab a partner from the group. Those who dance with her sometimes get the feeling that they really can dance well, but then come back to reality when they dance again with their own partners, and she is no longer leading.

With infinite patience, Faustini goes over the stylish yet basic combinations of slow and quick steps, underarm turns and promenades, counting beats, even as some students tend to step on their own feet. Once everyone gets it, she turns on the music and lets them fly.

“If you can move, you can dance,” she says. Faustini believes that she can teach anyone to dance.

She once had a student, an 80-year-old Jewish gentleman in Teaneck, who signed up and asked her to find him a partner. She did find someone who was 50, who after three lessons said that she could no longer make it, but that her 78-year-old neighbor would take her place. The 78-year-old and 80-year-old became great partners, dancing together for four years and also going out to dinner and parties together, until he died.

Faustini has been dancing since she was seven. Growing up in Brooklyn, she remembers sitting on the stairs leading to the basement of their East Flatlands home and watching her parents and other couples from the block dancing during their ballroom get-togethers. Her parents loved to dance and went out dancing a lot in the 1960s and ’70s. At weekend getaways at Catskills resorts, they’d win the dance contests.

She learned dancing from her father. Their first dance together was at an older cousin’s bar mitzvah, when her dad taught her the rhumba, guiding her through the box steps and some complex breaks and turns. Before the Viennese table was wheeled out, she was hooked.

She followed her parents to Florida during her college years and took lessons for the first time to learn the dance of the moment —the hustle. Wednesday nights, she’d attend dance competitions at discos and would usually win. She was soon offered a teaching job at Arthur Murray. Known as Miss Motion (her maiden name is Moshen), she worked for Murray for six years, first in the Fort Lauderdale area, then on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and then in Great Neck. In those years, she danced competitively and won the Northeast championship for all of the Arthur Murray studios.

When her daughter was born, she stopped working for Arthur Murray, and then began teaching in the township of Teaneck’s Adult Education program. She has been teaching there steadily for 24 years. This season, she’s teaching four levels of ballroom dance in Teaneck.

Faustini also teaches in Glen Rock, N.J., and offers private lessons in the basement of her Franklin Lakes home, where she has a dance floor, mirrored walls and a hanging mirrored ball. She teaches a lot of couples in preparation for their weddings, and sometimes teaches their parents too — and often gets invited to the weddings.

“I love watching students learn, to see them get a step and have fun, to see improvement. I love the e-mails when people say that they were complimented for their dancing,” she says. “I kvell over them.”

Every semester, she also hosts dance parties for her students in local clubs, where they dine and dance, and some students perform. The kosher students organize their own catered food.

Back in Brooklyn, her family was active in a neighborhood shul, and while she and her middle brother went to public school, her oldest brother went to yeshiva and became Orthodox. Her parents built a separate kitchen for him in their basement, adjacent to their makeshift dance studio. Her brother is now haredi and she frequently goes to family celebrations, so she’s familiar with the usual dancing in the Orthodox world.

“When I go, I’m dancing with the women — I don’t lead, I just follow along,” she says.

Her view of the men at these weddings is that things “sometimes get a little wild. I have been at two weddings where guys have had heart attacks from so much jumping around and practically break dancing. My brother had black and blue marks up and down his shins the day after his wedding.”

She’s pleased that a number of Orthodox people regularly sign up for her Teaneck classes. Usually, when she teaches in other places, she has couples switch partners from time to time, which helps them learn to dance, but she understands that would make the Orthodox uncomfortable. When she tried, several would sit out.

“I guess it’s hard enough for them to show up,” she says. “To change partners is not acceptable.”

When she goes to non-Orthodox weddings, she notices that only few people can dance — “Not as many as I would love to see. But the music is usually not that conducive to ballroom. But I have no problem dancing a cha-cha to hip-hop.”

What makes a good dancer?

“Control. Not going wild. For a follower, it’s waiting to be led into the steps, knowing what to do but not overdoing it. For a leader, no pulling or pushing; just indicate what you want to do. Nice and neat.”

“I love dancing, “ Faustini says. “It’s creative, it’s fun, it’s exercise. At Arthur Murray there was a sign on the wall that said ‘2 ½ minutes of Samba is the equivalent of jogging a quarter of a mile.’”

Her 11-year-old son Rocco also loves to dance. He has been known to fill in at her Teaneck classes when someone needs a partner. Rocco learned to dance in much the way she did — by sitting on the basement steps and watching. Once, while they were at a restaurant in Florida, he surprised her by asking for her hand and led her to the dance floor to do a rhumba. It was their first dance.

“My favorite thing in the world,” she says, “was to dance with my dad.” She used to fly down to Florida, when her parents’ condo community, Lauderdale West, had dinner dances. During the day, the former Miss Motion sometimes helped the retired 80something Rockette who taught dancing at the community’s club. 

editor@jewishweek.org