On Sunday mornings in the Castro neighborhood, there’s a place where rhythm reigns. Dancers pull out their leg warmers, spandex, and fluorescent headbands for Sunday Skool — and with the right accessories and a lot of attitude, their dreams of being a backup dancer for a day come true.
“Sunday Skool is a body-positive, sex-positive, age-positive dance class that’s open to all levels,” explains D’Arcy Drollinger, who’s the instructor and founder. “At first I was gonna call it Church. But I was a little afraid that the word ‘church’ might somehow scare people off. But Sunday Skool with a 'K' sounds a little 'Electric Boogaloo — street savvy.' Well, the name seems to be working.”
At 11 a.m. on a recent Sunday there are a couple dozen people gathered at the Academy of Ballet. And while it looks like a standard dance studio — with wall-to-wall mirrors up front and ballet bars in the back — it’s clear this is not your average dance class.
For starters, there’s the students.
“We have people who are 60. People who are obese. People who’ve had HIV for decades,” notes longtime student Stephany Wilkes, who works in technology. There are also doctors, drag queens, teachers, and investment managers.
Movin' toward a dream
Many come to the class as an antidote to their vanilla day jobs.
“I work at a place that’s pretty stodgy,” explains Michael Ciarleglio, who helps figure out the logistics at ports. “It’s fun to be able to dress up once a week and live the dream.”
The dream is backup dancing. And their dream maker is D’Arcy Drollinger. \
You can’t miss D'Arcy as he leads the warmup in fluorescent blue spandex with hot pink socks and a headband. Many people have clearly followed his sartorial lead. One woman is wearing star-studded fishnet stockings with sparkly panties. There’s lots of skimpy tops, gold lame, neon colors, fringe, and leopard prints.
But don’t be fooled by the outfits: this class is physically challenging and the warmup is no joke.
“I’m not kidding: The first time I went I could not really walk that well ‘til Thursday,” says Timmy Spence, 60, a high school math teacher.
Jennifer Schulze, a.k.a. Gurleen, considered quitting after her first class. “I told D’arcy, ‘I can’t do this.’ He just said, ‘Come back next week. Just keep coming back.’ And I did. And it got easier.”
Work it out
So, here’s how the class works: D’Arcy creates a new routine each month. He teaches it in bite-size sections, adding new bits each week. This month they’re working on a routine set to “Work, Bitch,” by Britney Spears.
“This little beginning part is the most complicated part of the whole thing,” says D’Arcy, as the lesson begins. Not only is the routine complicated, it also seems to be in code: “Face, face, face, shoulder, smooth skin, pom pom.”
D’Arcy demonstrates as he goes. The laser-focused students watch him in the mirror and mimic his moves. Some nail it. There’s also some awkwardness and a few questions. Once everybody’s got it, D’Arcy moves on.
“It’s not about getting every move right every single time,” says Jennifer. “He pushes us to have an attitude. To be fierce.”
“He will often say in class, ‘Give me sexy. Or give me attitude.’ I choose attitude,” adds Stephany, who says such words are "still so tied up with my Catholic upbringing, that sexy meant slutty.”
For some, Sunday Skool is a great way to unwind and get some exercise. But, for many, it is much more.
“The class definitely changed my life,” says Jennifer. “I think I struggle with not being comfortable in my own skin. I know this sounds kinda cliche, but he’s kinda taught me how to love myself. To love who I am. To embrace who I am. And to show off who I am.”
“I would go crazy if I didn’t have the chance to dance at least once a week. I don’t get to have that type of expression anywhere else,” explains Michael.
And Stephany has noticed something curious: “It seems like a lot of people in class have gotten up the courage to quit their crappy jobs after being in dance class for a while. You feel almost rebellious and you begin to get more impatient with things that don’t make you feel positive about yourself. I think I understand more now why people go to church.”
For D’Arcy, their passion is his reward. “What is so satisfying is to watch these people when they give it their all. And they may not be perfect and they’re probably not gonna be perfect. But there’s something so joyous when they are just going for it in this kind of raw, enthusiastic way, purely for the joy of doing it.”
D’Arcy Drollinger is starring in The Rocky Horror Show at San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre through November 15, 2017.
This story originally aired in May of 2014.