Tag Archives: Pasadena

Poetic Interlude: Fractured Futures, née YWCA

Light aqua arch surrounding an inset wooden door of the same color

refracted reflections

bourgeois boutique

peeling possibilities

embattled emblem


May, 2017

April, 2017

August, 2016

June, 2013

Atlas Obscura

City of Pasadena, Planning & Community Development

Pasadena Heritage



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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia, Power, Wordplay

The International Appeal of a Hyper-Local Dance

A gentleman in his eighties hands off his walker, embracing his partner as they shuffle to a jaunty tune. Couples of all ages emanate from the inter-generational pair, filling the hall with waves of subtle movement. It’s 11:00 p.m., midway through the 6-piece band’s second set. At least five more hours of dancing await those with the stamina to carry on.

Men sport straw hats and knickerbockers while ladies with elaborate hairstyles keep rhythm in reproduction vintage shoes. Russian, French, and whiffs of hand sanitizer float by on an endorphin-powered breeze. A speakeasy appears in a waiting room and people snap bootlegger selfies before a mugshot backdrop. Parents take turns tending to children so each enjoys the dance floor. The drummer swigs from a green bottle as the MC introduces the next song. Hand-carved art deco borders frame the stage. Invocations of the storied past consist entirely of names: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Benny Goodman. Nostalgia has been reborn.

Welcome to California Balboa Classic.

Modern Revival

California Balboa Classic (Cal Bal), a weekend of workshops, social dances, and contests drawing dancers from around the world, puts the typical conference to shame. Because attendees must engage their bodies to absorb the knowledge presented, exhaustion is physically exhilarating rather than mentally draining. Not only does Cal Bal know how to keep their attendees awake, its instructors are in such high demand that there is often a waiting list to register.

Founded in 2013 by Laura Keat, Cal Bal took up the mantle laid down by Balboa Rendezvous, an event that for ten years gathered new generations of dancers “where it all began”–the Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach. Though Cal Bal has moved the festivities inland, dancers continue to flock to Southern California in mid-January for the chance to be close to balboa’s historic roots.

How does a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract a modern international following that rivals that of the Rose Parade?

Balboa is a social dance that originated on the Balboa Peninsula in the 1920’s and 30’s as teenagers interpreted popular jazz and swing music in crowded dance halls. In its “pure” form, balboa can be danced to extremely fast music in as small a space as two people holding each other close can occupy.

Over the years, balboa evolved to incorporate more exuberant movements from various styles of swing dancing. Modern balboa dancers delight in combining vintage and innovative stylings. Jodi Daynard, a dancer visiting from Boston, said balboa appeals to her for many reasons, but that “the creativity is the part I kind of live for.”

Global Appeal

Now in its fifth year, Cal Bal has become the premier event among dancers who want to enhance their knowledge of this vintage social dance. Hosted at the Pasadena Masonic Temple and nearby hotels, the event attracts people from almost as many countries as the Rose Parade does just a few weeks before. “This is bal heaven!” declared one dancer from the Bay Area.

Our neighbors to the north aren’t the only ones who travel to the City of Roses specifically for Cal Bal. People from Seattle, Denver, New York, Honolulu–not to mention Australia, Korea, Japan, and Germany–all gather in Pasadena to share their affinity for the vintage Southern California pastime. For one couple from the Netherlands, Cal Bal served as the capstone of their week-long trip to Los Angeles, a tour that included The Huntington Library and The Getty Center. 

How did a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract such an international following? The key could be the authenticity that the locale provides.

Stephan Wuthe, a Berlin DJ and jazz historian, was attending Cal Bal for the second time. “It’s the real thing here,” he said. Most modern balboa dancers can trace their knowledge to Cal Bal instructor Sylvia Sykes, who learned from the original dancers in the 80’s and 90’s and introduced the dance worldwide. Stephan noted that European instructors teach similar material to that featured at Cal Bal, but it’s important for him to attend an event in “the area where the dance was created.”

Lifelong Learning, International Community

Cal Bal’s world-class instructors are also a major draw. For three days, attendees spend hours mastering new techniques. “You can’t fake bal,” said Cal Bal instructor Augie Freeman. “You have to have a base knowledge to dance with somebody.” Often, friends enroll in different workshop levels so they can share what they learn afterwards.

Instructors and participants alike are diligent students, constantly seeking ways to elevate their dancing. This commitment to excellence is rivaled only by a commitment to fun. By Sunday morning, class sizes are noticeably smaller; many people stay out dancing and socializing until 4:00 a.m.

One of the notable things about balboa’s modern resurgence is the cross-cultural community that has arisen around it. “You can dance with anybody,” said Stephan. “For those three minutes, we are a beautiful couple.”

2017 California Balboa Classic takes place January 6-8 in Pasadena, CA


Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia

Reconstructing Nature

Witness the playground remade, reborn for a new generation. Nestled in an unassuming hillside of a NW Pasadena neighborhood, it looks to be full of realized dreams. It is the epitome of modern sensibilities, of enlightened oneness with its surroundings. It encourages climbing, risk-taking, exploration, imagination. It is high on its own smug progressiveness. It is restful, peaceful. It beckons to children of all ages with visions of infinite possibility!

That log is not a teeter-totter. I was disappointed, as well.

That log is not a teeter-totter. I was disappointed, as well.

Hang on (but not to the non-existent monkeybars). Let’s back up.

How much time, how much work and sweat, how much money and planning was spent to level that area, to carve out the space in that hill–not just for this particular playground, but for all its previous iterations? And for what? To simulate the nature that can be found a few miles to the north, up in the mountains and canyons of the San Gabriels.

Children in NW Pasadena should have access to that natural splendor. Many do not, for various reasons closely tied to socio-economic stratification. This playground provides at least a representation of the natural pleasures they may not have a chance to discover until they are free of this segregated city.

But so too should these children have access to the natural, native splendor of the non-built environment surrounding their suburban dwellings. What did that area look like before it was razed and built and rebuilt to resemble a not-too-distant nature? What possibilities for play did their neighborhood possess before city officials (and hopefully the neighborhood associations) remade it in the image of en vogue recreation?

By remaking, by simplifying and decontextualizing and re-ordering the parts to ensure a finely tuned balance of muscular engagement as dictated by the latest research, this bourgeois playground equipment implies that the real thing is unsafe. “Ignore those living trees over there, kids, and climb on these fake rocks!”

Nature pristine, sanitized, fit for innocence.

A simulacrum of wildness, of yesterday’s childhood.

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Filed under Childhood, Contemporary

Freeway Soundwalls as Markers of Affluence

Riding the Metro Goldline along the 210 and 110 freeways of LA, through the many communities it borders and cuts through, it struck me that rich neighborhoods get soundwalls. Poorer neighborhoods get traffic noises. To illustrate this (obvious) point, contrast the route the metro takes through South Pasadena (soundwall! slowing to a crawl!) with that it takes through Highland Park (chain-link fence if you’re lucky!). It is the richer neighborhoods that have the resources to devote to noise complaints. To getting their petitions recognized. These resources can be withheld from the city, the state, by those wealthy citizens if their demands are not met.

To be sure, communities who are not affluent can get soundwalls built, too, given the drive to get organized and a sympathetic power structure. Money is not the only resource–time is another valuable one when it comes to making voices heard. And sense of community ownership, civic pride, etc. But I’d venture that the vast majority of soundwalls are lobbied for by those communities with the financial resources to have leverage against the powers-that-be. Give us that soundwall, or we’re not underwriting anything. You can forget our endorsements during election season. You can kiss our donations goodbye. We want our acoustic insulation, and you’re going to give it to us. We have property values to think about.*

So the noises get shifted to the monetarily voiceless. The disenfranchised without the time or money to devote to standing up for the sanctity of their neighborhoods. And they get even more run down, comparatively, as a result. The gap widens with rows of cinderblock…or lack thereof. The acoustic insulations mirrors the social stratification, the physical isolation of certain classes of citizens from others. From Others.

Who speaks for the poor? And who has the right to?


*Maybe it has something to do with the ratio of renters to owners.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Sweeping Generalizations