Harry Reese ministers to his students, one dance step at a time

06/16/2013 5:32 PM

06/16/2013 5:37 PM

It’s dusk on a Sunday night, and the parking lot outside Harry Reese’s south Wichita dance studio is packed.

The studio takes up about a third of a ’60s-style strip mall on George Washington Boulevard, next to a violin shop and across from a drive-through liquor store. If you’re lucky enough to find a parking spot, you’ll hear the thump of the bass spilling from the studio before you open your car door and set foot on the cracked blacktop.

The lights are low, and a dozen couples dance to Vitamin C’s “Me, Myself and I” while 30 or so others sip punch and chat at banquet tables sheathed in plastic tablecloths and topped with balloons. Reese glides from table to table, graceful despite his 6-foot frame, dispensing handshakes and smiles.

At 70, Reese says it’s been a long and winding road – with plenty of bumps – to where he is today: championship West Coast Swing dancer, business owner and member of the World Swing Dance Hall of Fame.

“He has amazing dedication,” Annie Hirsch, founding member of the World Swing Dance Council, says of Reese. She says he played a large role in bringing West Coast Swing to this part of the country.

“Harry views dance as a ministry,” says his wife, Amy Reese.

“A lot of people who come in here are wounded. They’re really going through something, and dance is a way for them to deal with it.”

Wiped out

Thirty-six years ago, Reese was in a similar situation.

He had just gotten divorced and was living in Tulsa, far from his family in Hawaii and California.

“I was wiped out, just trying to get back on my feet,” Reese says of that period.

He was at a bar, watching some patrons dance the Lindy Hop, a swing dance born of the black communities in Harlem, N.Y.

“I’d really like to learn how to do that,” Reese said aloud, to no one in particular.

A woman sitting nearby turned toward him and said, “I know someone who teaches it. Let’s take the class.”

At that moment, Reese says, he entered an entirely new world, one in which he felt welcomed, accepted and at home. He fell in love with dance, even though he says many people looked down on it.

He served multiple terms as president of the Tulsa Swing Club and organized clubs and competitions in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, many of which he won.

Reese was inducted into the World Swing Dance Hall of Fame in 1994. He opened his own studio in Wichita that same year and has been teaching there at least three nights a week ever since.

Risks worth taking

Reese’s foray into competitive swing dancing is just one in a series of risks he said he’s glad he’s taken.

“Most entrepreneurs are risk-takers,” Reese says. “You know you can fall flat on your face. I knew it when I started this business.”

Reese showed a knack for entrepreneurship early on. When he was 11, he says, he delivered the San Francisco Call-Bulletin on his bike, an old Schwinn. One of the women whose paper he delivered asked whether he was interested in making a little extra money mowing her lawn.

His business grew, lawn by lawn, until he had to hire some of his fellow paperboys to keep up with demand. A few years later, Reese and his crew had a steady rotation of 45 lawns, plus some car washing and detailing on the side.

Reese says he made enough money that the IRS came after him for back taxes when he was 16.

Reese took another risk in 1968, when he returned to California and to his old job in electronics after the Vietnam War.

“There were so many hassles for Vietnam vets,” Reese says. “So many people were against you. I just wanted to get away from it.”

So when an ex-lieutenant colonel came to visit and asked him whether he wanted a different job, Reese said, “I’ll take it.”

He didn’t know what the job was, where it was or how much it paid. He just knew he was ready for a change.

The job took him to the Marshall Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean. He helped U.S. companies computerize their supply chains, and in his free time he played soccer with German soldiers and traveled the world: Amsterdam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Paris.

He went back to college at the University of Hawaii, 10 years after a failed first attempt immediately after high school. Reese earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in interpersonal communication and taught undergraduates. He got married, and he and his new bride moved to her hometown, Tulsa, in search of greater economic opportunity.

Two years later, Reese was divorced, broke and alone in a city where he had no roots. That’s when he found swing dance – and faith. He says a friend let him stay in his apartment and took Reese to an all-black church led by famed Tulsa pastor the Rev. L.L. Tisdale.

“That’s where I was baptized, that’s where I found God,” Reese says.

Reese says he treats the dance floor as his pulpit, helping his students find joy in everyday life.

“People ask me, ‘Harry, how is it that I come here so tired, so stressed out, and when I leave, I have all this energy?’

“I say to them, ‘Have you thought about any of your problems since you got here? Are you moving around? Are you having fun?’

“They’re amazed.”

A place to call home

At a recent Tuesday night West Coast Swing class, the dance floor had an uneven split: more men than women.

Rather than leave anyone out, Reese had the women form a circle in the center of the dance floor, facing outward, while the men formed a larger circle around the dance floor’s perimeter, facing the women. Every few bars, Reese called out “Ladies, rotate,” or “Gentlemen, rotate.” No one spent more than five minutes without a partner.

Reese says it’s important to him to maintain that kind of welcoming, inclusive environment.

“There aren’t enough places where you can walk in and people will give you a hug and say, ‘Hi,’ make you feel welcome.”

Reese’s wife, Amy, is a familiar face at the studio, where she was a student of Reese’s before they married two years ago.

Amy Reese says that when someone comes to the studio for the first time, she likes to immediately lead him or her onto the floor for a dance, chatting in between spins and dips.

“Before they know it, they’re dancing!” she says.

Kristina Finley says she has been coming to Reese’s studio for about a year-and-a-half. She says his relentless focus on proper technique is his greatest strength as an instructor.

“He’ll tell you exactly what you need to do to get it right,” Finley says. “Harry can seem a little gruff at first – maybe it’s his military background – but when you get to know him, you see that he’s just like a big teddy bear.”

Reese says he’s grateful for all the twists and turns his life has taken.

“I threw the dice without thinking about it,” he says. “I won’t call it luck because that’s what happens when something good falls in your lap. I was looking for something to happen.

“If somebody had told me when I was teaching at the University of Hawaii that someday I’d be a dance teacher, I would have been rolling on the floor with laughter. We can make our plans all we want, but our plan is not God’s; it’s that simple.”

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