February 1, 2007
Time for the last dance at folk dancing venue
This week marks the closing of Café Danssa, a mecca for folk dancers in Los Angeles for 41 years. For much of that time, Danssa was a slice of Israel, or on some nights a slice of Greece, the Balkans or Brazil. In its early years, it was a pilgrimage point for dance aficionados and amateurs alike; in later years, it was a pickup joint for singles or a destination for anyone who just wanted to pick up their feet and move for joy.
Danssa's founder, Dani Dassa, envisioned the business as an international meeting place, where people could enjoy each other's culture without thinking about their differences.
"Through dance, people of differing cultures and politics were united with their hands and feet," Dassa, 78, said in an interview this week.
The renowned Israeli folk dance teacher and choreographer moved to Los Angeles with an entrepreneurial spirit to get others involved in the medium he cherished.
But the Dassas are but half the story. My family, the Blumes, have run Café Danssa for the last 31 years -- a decent span by any reckoning. And our family place of business has been Los Angeles' most prominent and, by far, the longest lasting folk dance cafe.
For most of this time, Danssa's formula for success was the product of the dynamic relationship between the club's founder and its later owner, my father, Dave Blume. Dassa used his charm, dance talent and dark, lean and handsome looks to make folk enthusiasts clamor for a dancing place they could call their own.
Dad was his complement, with his Buddha-like placidity and hostility to any form of physical exertion. Dassa instantly recognized the virtues of Dad's solid business sense and ever-present sense of humor. The two remained close until Dad's death last March.
Café Danssa opened for business in December 1965 on a nondescript block of West Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard. The name of the business was a morphing of the first three letters of Dani Dassa's first name and the last three letters of his last name.
Dassa, a native Israeli who'd fought in the War for Independence and the 1956 Sinai campaign, and who was at heart a dancer, aspired to bring the art of dance to the masses, especially to Jews in America.
A front page story in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times proclaimed Café Danssa's arrival, and soon after, the entire second-floor space was packed to the brim with elaborately clad traditionalist folk dancers and a bunch of out-of-place Beverly Hills socialites in fur coats.
The ethnic music blared and bounced off the cinder-block walls, one of which was painted with three shadow-like images of Dassa line dancing and the other depicting the biblical scene of Rachel at the well. The décor never got complicated; Dassa hung strawberry pots upside-down as light fixtures. They're still there.
Dassa offered Israeli, international and Greek nights, occasionally working with other teachers/partners. Because the kitchen was unable to keep up with the demand for the homemade falafel and hummus, he bought property less than two blocks from Café Danssa in hopes of opening a space that could house both an Israeli nightclub for live music acts and a restaurant.
But his new partner backed out of the deal, leaving the Dassas with the burden of keeping two businesses going. It was too much, so Dassa sold Café Danssa to a customer named Lori Anderson to pay off the debt accrued from the construction of the new building. Then his new business, Jericho, was gravely undermined by the 1973 war in Israel, which dried up much of the cross-cultural commerce.
The new Café Danssa owners did not last, and soon the business was up for sale again. On Dec. 31, 1975, my parents, Dave Blume and Carolyn Hester, became the new owners. They had plans to turn it into a nightclub to feature their own musical endeavors.
Dad was a jazz pianist and Grammy-nominated composer, best known for writing the hit pop tune, "Turn Down Day." My mother was a central figure among the folk music scenesters who emerged from Greenwich Village in New York in the late '50s and early '60s. She's also known for helping launch Bob Dylan's career by hiring him to play harmonica on one of her albums.
The Blumes were not folk dancers. But then, as my mother said, they also never had it in them to make people feel bad: "David kept saying, we'll make the change in six weeks, but then that became six months, then a year."
The customers warmed to the new ownership, and business began to pick up. Dad quickly concluded that Dassa should be invited back to Danssa. The Israeli dance equivalent of a rock star, Dassa to this day still has the magnetism to make women swoon.
Dad on the other hand, was a master of puns and a formidable manager of egos, and he took a laid-back approach to handling the desires of the customers, as well as the competitive squabbles among dance instructors. Dad would tell us not to take it personally when people would try to get in without paying admission, because as customers, "it was their duty to try to sneak in as much as it was our duty not to let them."
My brother, Howard Blume, recalls that, "on some nights, people would literally be lined up outside the back office waiting for an audience with Dad either to seek his advice, tell him their troubles or just commune."
Dad, a nondrinker otherwise, kept a bottle of cognac in his desk, which was consumed only as part of a friendship ritual between him and Dassa. The cognac bottle is still there today, only now Dassa has inscribed his own name as well as, Dad's, Mom's, mine and my sister Amy's on the bottle in Hebrew.
For years, Dassa and two of his children, David and Dorite, each taught Israeli dance at Café Danssa. Although Israeli dancing remained the breadwinner for the nightclub, Balkan and Greek nights continued through the early '80s. Café Danssa continued its reputation as "the first stop for Israeli immigrants when they land at LAX," and the crowd was a mix of tan, Israeli men in tight pants trying to woo beautiful California girls. Dad made it a point to have all his family involved in some way with the business. I made my first appearance at Café Danssa as a baby. Mom laughs every time she tells me the story of how she'd greet the customers while I sat on the counter in my nipper nap.
My earliest memory of Café Danssa is of running away from the scary black silhouettes of Dassa on the wall. Later, I stood at the wall outside the DJ booth for a month and watched until I knew all the dances by heart.
And then there was our home away from home -- Dad's office. To this day, it is a shrine to our childhood. Dad even had bunk beds built in that room so that we could sleep while they finished cleaning up each night, that is, when we weren't dancing to Madonna out on the dance floor after the crowd had left.
In the late '80s, the folk dance scene began to dwindle. The immigrants had now married their dancing partners and were starting families. By 1986, Café Danssa was already the only remaining folk dance venue in Los Angeles. By the late '80s, Dassa had mostly retired from Danssa, and soon David Dassa's Israeli night was the only profitable night.
Eventually, David Dassa opted for a larger venue in the San Fernando Valley that was better suited to larger crowds and to dances that required more space. And suddenly, for the first time since the Blumes' purchase, Café Danssa had an absence of Dassas.
In the first post-Dassa year, Dad had to subsidize Danssa with the salary he earned as a copy editor at the L.A. Times. A few months later, Dad was introduced to a group of spirited Brazilians who needed a place to practice their samba parade music.
The savvy entrepreneur in Dad revived, and he invited the Brazilians to play on Friday nights and encouraged them, at first, not to charge admission. The Blumes sold beer and wine, and within months, Brazilians throughout the region were checking out this growing scene.
Amy and I, now teenagers, were only sure of two things, that the Brazilians really liked to drink beer and that they desperately wanted our phone numbers. The vibration from the 30-drum ensemble ricocheted like mad off the cinder-block walls. When Dad and I walked down Pico to see how loud it was getting, their soccer chants could be heard six blocks away.
The beer swilling, the Portuguese ranting, the girls in sequined bikinis, the beating drums, the shaking hips, the sweat dripping, the sleazy come-ons -- Café Danssa was happening again. And it stayed that way for another 17 years.
With Dad's death and the children pursuing other careers, Mom recently lined up a buyer for Café Danssa. But the family that owns the building -- who kept the rent low over the years -- decided they wanted to remodel the space for offices.
The only thing that Mom regrets is that the people who will inherit the space from us will not understand the great beauty of what happened here. Like the poet Rumi and his Whirling Dervishes, Dassa has always believed that dancing is a form of prayer, and along these same lines, Mom and Dad always thought of Dani Dassa as the Rabbi of Café Danssa.
For all intents and purposes, Café Danssa has served as a synagogue for all walks of life. It served as a meeting place for Israelis, Greeks, Brazilians and those from the Balkans; a venue for Amy's wedding and reception, the place where my band rehearsed its pop music and the place we celebrated Dad's life after he died.
In keeping with the Dassa-Blume legacy of partnership, Dassa will conduct the very last Israeli dance event at Café Danssa, 11533 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, this Saturday night at 8 p.m. The admission will be $1, just like it was on its first day. After that, the music will stop, the lights will dim and Café Danssa will pass from a place of folk dance to its place in the city's folklore.
A college student created this video of the last night at the club.
Click on the BIG ARROW to view