The Daily Dance

Photo by Jeff Fitlow

On Jan. 1, 2014, José Figueroa ’90 resolved to dance to live music every single day for a year. He accomplished that feat — and kept dancing. In fact, he’s showing no sign of slowing down, so we sent freelancer Amanda Swennes on assignment to find out why.

To say that José Figueroa loves to move would be an understatement. For the past two years, the teacher, runner and former Marching Owl Band (MOB) member has gone dancing to live music — every day. And he wants you to join him.

On day No. 739, I met up with Figueroa at The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, a blues and zydeco club near Rice Village, where the owner has a rule — the dance floor is for dancing. Figueroa considers it his mission to help enforce that policy.

“People are here, but they’re not out there dancing,” he shouted at me over the sound of a blaring saxophone. A few couples — and, strikingly, one dancer on Rollerblades — hit the dance floor now and again, but for the most part everyone was sitting back with their drinks and dates, just listening. The empty dance floor was driving Figueroa nuts.

“People get too uptight about the steps or worry that people are looking at them,” he said, right before asking me to dance. That’s exactly what I was thinking as he led me onto the empty dance floor: I don’t know how to dance! All these people are watching us, and I’m going to look ridiculous.

Blues harmonica player Paul Oscher, on set that night, played what felt like the longest song of my life, riffing on chords and getting lost in the music. Thankfully, my dance partner was patient and nonjudgmental.

“You have to learn to be flexible and dance to the music you’re hearing — you have to feel it,” Figueroa said. I nodded politely while the voice in my head repeated: Left, right, left, right. Oh goodness, he’s spinning me again. 

When the song ended, and we got back to our table, I asked Figueroa what kept him motivated. “I want to create community,” he said, “to bring dancers to musicians and vice versa. You don’t have to go to Austin for live music. There’s a vibrant live music scene right here in Houston.”

Now his 2014 New Year’s resolution is a daily routine. That first year, Figueroa set up a Facebook page, “Dance to Live Music 365,” to both document his challenge and let other people in the Houston area know where they could find live music every day. In 2016, the challenge is less about him dancing every day and more about getting people to join him in supporting musicians and the venues that host them.

During the week, Figueroa also tries to incorporate his commitment to dancing and live music at his day job as a special education teacher at Channelview High School, east of Houston. 

Drawing on his experience as a five-year member of the MOB, Figueroa said he sometimes brings his flügelhorn to class and plays for his students. He’ll also have them sing along to songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which has a simple melody and which he said can increase his students’ confidence.

“Many of my students are intellectually disabled and, although they’re teenagers, are at the reading level of a 5- or 6-year-old. Common words like ‘over,’ ‘the,’ ‘fly’ or ‘high’ are simple for normal learners to recognize, but for my students they take repetition and relearning,” he said.

Not every special education teacher uses music or dancing in the classroom, but for Figueroa they’re just extra tools in his teaching toolbox. 

After work and on the weekends, you’ll find Figueroa dancing. On day No. 700, he danced at seven different venues. “It took me five hours,” he said. “And it was a Tuesday! Yes, I was able to find at least seven different places in Houston playing live music on a Tuesday night. And I am not talking about karaoke!”

And the personal benefits? “I feel like dancing to live music has made me a more confident dancer. I’m not out there trying to do anything fancy or show off something I learned in a class or workshop. I’m just about connecting and making conversation and having fun.”