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Dance hall's last turn on memory lane

As Cafe Danssa makes way for Westside office space, owners throw a party to celebrate its 40 years as a folk haven.

February 05, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles' famed Cafe Danssa, a venerable vest pocket of folk dance for decades, is closing to make way for office space. But before turning in the keys to the landlord, the club owner celebrated the good times Saturday night with one last dance.

"This was a spiritual place," said owner Carolyn Hester, reflecting on the years of joy that filled the second-floor hall. "People were made happy here. If music can heal, then healing really happened here."

Cafe Danssa, on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, weathered the years in typical L.A. fashion, adapting to the ripples caused by successive waves of immigrants. Four decades ago, it opened as a center for Israeli folk dance and later offered dances from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary and Greece. And then, when folk dancing became passe, a bouncy Brazilian samba dance night took over and kept the joint jumping.

But in the end, the club was unable to survive the rising rents and the death last year of Hester's husband, David Blume. The jazz pianist and former Times copy editor shouldered much of the burden of keeping the dance hall afloat after the couple purchased it in the mid-1970s.

"Closing was inevitable," said Hester, who had been running the dance hall with her daughters, Amy and Karla Blume.

To savor the memories, Hester asked noted Israeli-born choreographer Dani Dassa -- who opened the club in 1966, sold it and came back to sponsor dance nights for more than a decade -- to offer one final night of Israeli folk dance. And he agreed.

"We shake hands to say hello and goodbye, but it's so hard saying goodbye," the dance instructor said.

Dassa, 78, whose dream was to unite people through their hands and feet, frowned on political discord. He celebrated the closing with the popular Hebrew folk song "Hava Nagila," or "Let us rejoice."

In its heyday, Cafe Danssa -- known initially as a popular hangout for American and Israeli Jews -- was often packed, with a line of customers stretching from the second-floor entrance, down the narrow steps to the street. For the closing, Dassa charged $1 admission, the same price as when he first opened the club. And he invited many of the old regulars, some of whom married after meeting at the club.

"Not everybody got married," he said. "A few got divorced, but they came back anyway."

Inside, little had changed in 40 years. The light fixtures Dassa fashioned decades ago from ceramic strawberry pots still hung from the walls. Hester's faded crocheted "Shalom" rested above the counter. The design of the hall was always simple -- standing room around the dance floor, a few scattered chairs and a few booths with tables. Decor was never the draw.

An hour after the doors opened at 8 p.m., the club was standing room only. Music blared and the floor vibrated from the traditional Israeli folk dance stomps to songs that told stories -- about the Egyptian city Sharm el Sheikh; Rachel, the biblical wife of Jacob; and a cowboy in the Israeli desert.

The club quickly exceeded its posted 125-person capacity and longtime Danssa patrons were turned away but encouraged to come back after the crowd thinned out.

Inside, many reminisced about the past.

"We didn't have any money, but we knew how to have a good time," said Yoni Boujo, a 55-year-old Israel native who owns an auto repair shop. "We would sweat and dance and kiss and hug, and Sunday morning we would have bagels and lox and feta cheese."

Boujo met his wife at the club. He wasn't the only one to find a future spouse there.

"It was full of people in their 20s who were all folk dancing," recalled Lisa Wanamaker Lebowski, who met her husband at the club in 1978. "He was wearing a big leather biker jacket, and I wasn't very interested at first."

Neither was her husband, Dow, until one night he saw her take a sip of his beer.

"I thought: 'Hey she's kind of cute,' " he recalled, indicating the rest was history.

Within a few years, the folk dancing changed. More space was needed for increasingly complex steps -- and the crowds moved on for other reasons as well.

"We got married, moved to houses in the [San Fernando] Valley, and we had kids," Lebowski said. "You can't go out Thursday nights with a 2-year-old."

In the early 1990s, Blume encouraged a Brazilian samba school band to use the club for its practices, a handshake relationship that lasted 17 years and returned the club to profitability. Last month, the club held its final samba night.

"It's a sad time," said Israel Ferreira, 29, a musician whose father brought samba night to the club. "It is carnival time and we don't have a home."

Eddie Piazza, who plays a Brazilian instrument called a cuica, lamented the club's loss. "I'm going to really miss this place," said the architect, who has missed only a handful of samba nights in more than a decade. "It's more than a love; it's a gig."

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