When dance instructor Anna Kellam began her class Sunday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Cary, she started with something that might have sounded a little familiar to her students.
“Left, two, three – tap! Left, two, three – tap!”
The dancers, a combination of volunteers from the nonprofit Soldiers Who Salsa and members of the Cary VFW, shuffle from side to side, practicing the steps. It’s not a huge leap to imagine them in neat rows and columns, marching in time to the bark of a drill sergeant.
But for some veterans, dance nurtures a part of them that might have been left dormant in the military culture.
Veteran Warren Fuson, a volunteer with Soldiers Who Salsa, said he’d always hoped to learn how to dance as a young man but never quite got around to it. He spent 1968 in Vietnam as part of the Army’s Signal Corps.
“I sat out in the middle of nowhere baby-sitting radios,” he said.
Fuson has been dancing for about a year and a half now, and it shows. He glides across the floor as gracefully as anyone else.
“We now recognize that what used to be called battle fatigue – you weren’t manly if you couldn’t handle it – is actually post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “People who have been damaged, they need outlets like this.”
Upon close inspection, dance begins to bear some striking similarities to the military experience. Both require teamwork and intimacy, for starters. Fuson points out that all branches have choruses and bands, too. Artistic expression, he said, is far from from absent from military life.
Still, the kind of intimacy ballroom dance requires can be difficult for veterans once they return to civilian life. Kellam, who teaches part time at a dance studio in Raleigh, said she and her fellow instructors try to take their time getting participants used to that. Her father and brother were both in the Air Force, she said, so she’s not new to the culture.
People who have been damaged, they need outlets like this.
“Last time we had several guys who kind of lurked around at the door, didn’t want to come in and weren’t very sure,” said Robin McCall, a Navy veteran and a volunteer with Soldiers Who Salsa. She takes classes with Kellam and convinced her to volunteer as well.
“But we try to keep it really nonthreatening and try to make it fun.”
David Watts, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, is the post commander of Cary’s Post 7383, which donates its space to Soldiers Who Salsa. He is quick to describe himself as having “two left feet.” This is his second lesson.
“You say ‘VFW,’ and people think of a dimly lit, smoke-filled bar – you probably smell a lot of smoke here,” Watts said. “When Robin and I sat down and talked about dance, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how well that was going to work.”
Post 7383’s main hall does smell like cigarette smoke. Some of the men are a bit stiff at first, but most of them start smiling and loosen up as they get the hang of the steps. Kellam starts them off with the cha cha and moves on to the rumba.
Fuson acknowledges that dance won’t cure PTSD for most veterans. But he hopes that the outgoing, friendly people who tend to enjoy dance are the kind of folks who can provide the social framework recovering veterans need to express themselves and reintegrate.
“It’s giving people an opportunity to do something different that will give them the environment that’s conducive to them coming out of their shells,” Fuson said. “Part of what I bring to the table here is that I can talk to them. I spent a year in a combat zone. I know what that’s like.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan
Soldiers Who Salsa is holding a six-class series for military veterans and their significant others.
Where: The Cary VFW, 522 Reedy Creek Rd., Cary, NC 27513.
When: Each Sunday between Sept. 18 and Oct. 23 from 3 to 4:30 p.m.
Visit the post’s website for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 919-539-3797.