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Folk Dancers Fight For Right to Party

Party host says although his physical prowess may be waning, it is not unreasonable to hope that human feeling and artistic nuance are worth preserving.

The City of Menlo Park may pull the plug on its monthly international folk dance parties this summer, because more money can be generated hosting anniversary parties.

The department is analyzing the recreational services it provides to the community to identify ways to raise revenue that would help recover the costs of the recent Arrillaga Family Recreation Center renovation

Marcel Vinokur’s international dance parties and folk dance classes generate the least amount of money for the city, according to public records.

“The bottom line is that folk dancing takes in about a third of the revenue and it services the greatest number of non residents,” said Cherise Brandell, community services manager for the city of Menlo Park. “Even at that rate, it’s not meeting the baseline costs,” she said.

The folk dance classes generate $11.08 per hour, assuming that the Arillaga Family Recreation Center is open 12 hours a day and that all the rooms inside are filled, according to public documents. In comparison, Belly Dance classes generate $53.79 an hour for the city. Folk dance classes run two to three hours long. 

One of the reasons this analysis is being done now is that the department is in “cost recovery mode,” after completing an almost $14 million renovation in 2010. Although the remodeling initiative was done to improve the environmental quality of the recreation center, some dance instructors say the new space is less than ideal.

Four instructors were called into a meeting January 13 to discuss the contract they have with the Recreational Center within the context of the facility’s operating costs. 12 attended.

Marcel Vinokur’s dance parties were one of the main topics of conversation. Vinokur, who is also a mathematics researcher for NASA, has hosted dance parties every month in Menlo Park for almost 50 years. 

“Though smaller than activities in the East Bay or San Francisco, Menlo Park is known throughout the country for its diversity of dance classes,” Vinokur said. “We provide opportunities that don’t exist except in Menlo Park; that’s something that the city should be proud of,” he added.

The Folk Dance Federation of California, Inc. lists 35 places where people can find similar dancing opportunities in the northern region of the state.  Three of those are in Menlo Park, while one is in Atherton.

Vinokur says his attention to detail and aesthetics distinguish him from the pack and are worth preservation.

"Taken in quite by chance," he said, Menlo Park is about to relinquish a legacy in favor of practical considerations such as profitability and competing activities “at the expense of human feeling and artistic nuance.”

This wouldn’t be the first time the city has done so, said Todd Wagner, who dances in the Balkan and Hungarian style.

About a year and a half ago his class was bumped from the city’s recreational programming lineup to make room for a teen Jazzercize class. A season later, the teen’s class was discontinued. His 14 students faithfully continue to drive from Redwood City, San Francisco and San Jose to socialize, hang out and dance.

“It is a source of pride for me that people drive that far to take my class,” Wagner said. “The city needs to make sure it has someone who can sustain revenue,” he said.  

City staff are wrangling with the fact that many of the people who take these classes enroll as “drop in” students, which exempts them from paying a non-resident fee for a full season pass to the class.  Only one person in the room that day was a Menlo Park resident, aside from Vinokur.

“To be clear, we love to have non residents take our classes," Brandell said. “But City Council has told us that it’s important that Menlo Park residents’ tax dollars aren’t subsidizing non-residents’ social activities,” she added. 

In 2011, the city made $13,723 from Palomanian, Folkdance, Balkan, and Hungarian dance classes. It paid class instructors about $7,233, according to public records. It gained $805.65 from the dance parties.

The current revenue share stucture is 60/40 for dance class instructors. But, in light of the possibility that their classes and parties may be eliminated altogether, they say they are willing to push it to 80/20 or even give 100 percent of any money they make from the activities to the city.

“We’re not in it for the money,” Wagner said. “We just want to dance; we have history here,” he added.

City staff is crunching the numbers to determine if they can reach an acceptable compromise, and expect to present potential solutions to instructors by February 21st.

Barbara Wilcox February 17, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Profit should NOT be the primary consideration in any of Menlo Park's recreation offerings. That said, Vinokur appears to be charging people much less per class than other dance providers. If they can afford to drive from San Jose, they can afford to chip in another $1 or $2 a night to save the program. Also, he needs more students. I had never heard of these classes, and since I work three blocks away I'm going to check them out!
Vanessa Castañeda (Editor) February 17, 2012 at 11:57 PM
The place is a treasure trove.

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