If you walk by the church at 24th and Valencia at the right time, you might catch the sounds of salsa echoing down to the sidewalk. If you look up, you might see the people dancing.
Aimee Zawitz, an instructor with Dance Mission and other local studios, had to put her performance art on hold and focus on teaching this past year, but she loves some of the changes she’s seen since her dance community was forced outdoors due to pandemic restrictions.
“It’s such a joy. It’s such a joy to … ” Zawitz trails off and ruminates. A bird sings and her eyes light up. “ … listen to the birds sing as you dance, it’s such a joy to have the sun coming down on you.”
She believes the dancers’ presence on the church patio on Valencia Street or at the park is also having a positive impact on the neighborhood. “I think it really brings a vibe to the community, you know? They have live drumming, and music that’s playing … and that, in and of itself, is uplifting,” Zawitz said.
“I think our energy and our joy is being transmitted to all those people, too. I hope in all the silliness and the loud singing that I do … people are laughing, or being like, ‘that bitch is getting her life right now!’”
It seems like Zawitz, 38, makes a point of “getting” her life: before she started teaching dance seven years ago, she worked a wide array of jobs ranging from security to sales. In 2004, she rediscovered dance after taking an Afro-Haitian dance class with Valerie Watson at City College.
“I took her class for three semesters before they wouldn’t let me take her class anymore,” Zawitz says, laughing. “They had to let other students take her class.”
Since those initial courses at City College, Zawitz has been dancing in the Mission. She remembers when there was a dance studio at the back of the Little Baobab restaurant on 19th Street, where she says many dancers of her generation cut their teeth.
Zawitz describes herself as a “cultural dancer.” Since her Afro-Haitian beginnings, she’s done a lot: she went through an Indian bhangra phase and danced samba professionally. She attributes her ability to be fluid through different cultures to her upbringing: her mother is Thai and her father is an Eastern European Jew and, attending San Francisco public schools, she was exposed to a wide range of cultural influences.
Today, Zawitz works at different dance studios around the neighborhood, and also as a stilt dancer with Daring Arts Movement in Oakland.
She hopes her dance work has a positive effect on people. “And even if they’re making fun of me, at least they get to laugh for a second.”