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That festival feeling: Young and old dance for the joy of it, with an assist from the band


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Marillie Rodriguez, at right in hat, dances with other festival regulars to lead singer Cynthia Larson, on stage, and Tsunami Band in Mountain View.

There’s a magnetic feeling to that moment when you let a song and an open stretch of grass or pavement pull you into the dance.

Behind the scenes, event organizers and musicians have planned for this moment, picking show times and set lists designed to invite you in and keep you moving. Your fellow dancers in Mountain View and Los Altos help, too - a few dozen public festival superfans in the area are known for logging hours in motion, starting the dance and seeing it through to the end. They’re the brightly dressed people with the quirky style that you’ll spot at special events up and down the Peninsula most every weekend.

"We dance from heart," Mountain View resident Marillie Rodriguez explained.

Mood and music

The smell of vanilla wafts around Rodriguez, 72, whose self-designed jewelry of feathers and clay beads swings as she demonstrates the moves that keep her young. With pink hair, buzzed on the sides, a fanciful octopus scrawled across her cheek in purple eyeliner, a pirate skull belt, wolf shirt, cut-off shorts over electric blue patterned leggings, a self-made jacket lined with shells and brocade and boots made for dancing, you can see the party coming with Rodriguez.

The Filipino-American dance lover was a "rebellious child from the beginning," she reminisced while chronicling an unconventional life punctuated with Latin, Mediterranean and entirely invented modes of dance. She’s been known to last five hours on the dance floor at events like Mountain View’s A La Carte & Art. She finds the experience part artistic expression, part pure exercise.

"You just stand straight and be yourself," she said of her hybrid style that draws from traditions ranging from cha-cha to contemporary. "It depends on my mood and the music."

Rodriguez finds that her diminutive size (and, perhaps, puckish look) attracts young dancers who think she’s a kid herself.

"I’m small and not a threat to them. I really enjoy pleasing people, especially kids," she observed.

Reflecting on a very modest life she lives on a small budget, she related the idea that "poor is a state of mind" to why people ask her about her perpetual smile and presence at public events.

"It’s free, it’s contagious and people remember you," she said of her ebullient persona. "People don’t dance because they’re ashamed. I don’t care - laugh at me!"

If you take a visual survey of who’s standing up and moving at local events, you spot people who are willing to stand out in a sea of still bodies because they love the way dancing changes the experience of live music.

At the last of the Los Altos Outdoor Summer Concerts, resident Bruce Devert swayed with his picnic companion Clare Angle to Rick Torres’ Elvis cover band, reviving the traditional clinch of couples dancing that has faded in the decades since the King reigned. For long stretches, they danced alone among the families picnicking passively. Their moves attracted a stray toddler for a brief circle dance and then, a duo again, they swayed against the twilight sky of Grant Park.

The power of just one or two charismatic dancers can change the tone of an entire dance floor - Cynthia Larson, the lead singer for the Santa Cruz-based Tsunami Band that plays at local events, said she recognizes certain people as powerhouses. If a crowd is slow to warm up, or rebound after a break, she’ll calculate - "Nobody’s dancing, we’re going to do a song I know is Karen’s song, she’ll get out there when nobody is and they’ll get started. OK - we’ll play to you, and your energy will draw everybody else in. Lots of times people want to see somebody else on the dance floor. They want permission."

The power of the familiar

Read Zaro, who produces music events through his company T.E.C. Productions, said festivals along the Peninsula tend to have relatively commercial musical tastes - which is to say, an audience interest in contemporary, radio-oriented rock. The Top-40 hits get interspersed with a little soul, funk or R&B, but large local public events like the art and wine festivals in Los Altos and Mountain View don’t stray much further, musically, than Latin music (particularly popular at Mountain View’s September event) and, occasionally, cutting-edge country.

"We’re not seeing a bunch of swing dancers out there. You might see a little line dancing. Otherwise it’s get out there and do your thing and have a good time - when it’s slow, you dance slow; when it’s fast, you dance fast," he said, noting that structured dancing like the Electric Slide - or ballroom - is long gone, replaced by a free-for-all.

Janet Pennee’s purple hair and comfy, flowing clothing also stand out as a regular sight at local art and wine festivals and other music events. She said that over the past decade, she’s developed a list of favorite local bands such as The Houserockers and Caravanserai, a Santana tribute band.

"When we dance, it’s not the Twist or anything, it’s just moving - I don’t know what they’d call it, we just move," she said of the free-form dancing that aggregates in front of the main stage at local events. "There’s a bit of ’60s dancing, and of course when you go to country and western, there’s line-dancing steps."

She has a friend who joins her at festivals - but only to eat and observe. Pennee is comfortable dancing alone, or with the companions she’s met on the dance floor.

"I don’t talk a lot at these events - I go there to dance," she said. "It makes you feel good, because a lot of us sing along to the songs, and it makes you feel good after a two-hour dance. It’s two hours of exercise, and it’s really good for me - I’m a diabetic and I have to move."

Moving and grooving

Pennee loves the atmosphere of a participatory crowd, but she said she’s always willing to be the one to get up and take the first steps that start a dance party. As she’s gotten to know the other regulars on the festival dancers circuit, she’s seen the whole range - from those with classical training to enthusiasts who gyrate to a beat in their own heads, independent of the band.

"They’re having such a good time, why correct them?" she asked philosophically. "As long as they’re enjoying themselves."

"I truly believe that if the band is good enough, people will move - unless it’s ungodly hot. If it’s got a good dance groove and it’s music people identify (with) and like, they will get up and dance," Zaro said.

In addition to the regulars such as Rodriguez and Pennee, Zaro sees a cadre of Zumba types chasing a rhythm to move to. Many bands maintain mailing lists of regulars who will follow an act from event to event.

The Houserockers are a "sure bet," Zaro said, as an exemplar local act, because "their formula works" - and they’ve got a great mailing list of supporters who will turn out and buoy the party. The 10-piece "rock & soul" band, based in Los Gatos, covers the music of everyone from Earth, Wind & Fire to Van Morrison. Over the course of 50-60 shows in a year, they’ve honed a knack for reading audience chemistry at festivals and marrying their set list to a given event’s vibe.

"When people are a little bit relaxed and locals mesh well with the fan base of the band, that’s when you have all the elements that you need for an exciting and fun party," Houserockers bandleader Paul Kent said. "We’re a dance band - we typically play later in the day - and we’re known for a high-energy approach that gets people up out of their seats."

His job as bandleader is to read the crowd and adapt accordingly. Warming up a crowd might require mid-tempo songs that convey the dancing atmosphere without being "full in your face as fast you can go," Kent said. Think Van Morrison’s "Domino" or Steely Dan’s "Peg."

The eclectic range of The Houserockers’ set list, which might swing from the Rolling Stones to Bruno Mars, reflects the individual interests musicians bring to the collaboration.

"We are bringing in songs we love, that we think we can interpret really well, what we would love to play and love to sing. That creates an infectious party vibe," Kent said.

Fun with the festicrew

After a decade of observing local festivals, Kent characterizes Mountain View’s Art & Wine Festival as having "vibrant intensity" and Los Altos’ event as more "joyful silliness that defines the party" - conga lines sometimes included.

"Music really gets to people," Pennee reflected on the reactions she sees around her on the dance floor. "People get up, especially if you have some of the golden oldies - people remember all the lines and verses; it’s like a sing-along."

Larson said that for Tsunami Band, its focus on ’60s, ’70s and ’80s rock has evolved to include some "surprises" ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Aretha Franklin. The band throws the occasional ballad, like a Beatles love song, into the middle of a set, but only as a "showstopper" - something that leaves people standing on the dance floor, maybe not dancing, but still transfixed.

"A lot of stuff that we do is familiar to people of all ages, it’s some of the most famous music recorded and it just becomes a communal, collaborative thing," Kent said of The Houserockers’ approach. "That’s how we know we’re successful - if everyone is really feeling it together, not just the person you came with."

He calls the devoted cadre of local live-music fans the "festicrew" - and said they don’t just make the musicians feel supported, but are "really the lifeblood of outdoor summer live music in the Bay Area."

"In this valley, we all work so hard in our day jobs, and at least for our band, our goal is to give people a couple of hours to put Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., aside and just enjoy," Kent said. "That’s what music is there for - just to take you away." r

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