Business Monday: Finding human connection at the Big Island Social Dance Club

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Denise Westbrook teaches a class at the Big Island Social Dance Club in Kona. (Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

Denise Westbrookʻs elegant dancing and storied career has taken her to many states and countries.

The former World West Rising Star Professional Champion performed numbers from the film “Dirty Dancing” around the country for a production company at corporate events. She was one of four featured couples who danced with Tony Bennett during his performance at the Super Bowl XXIX half-time show in 1995. And, she “slow danced” with former President Richard Nixon while hired as a dance performer in the Bahamas for an event in the 1980s.

“He stared at the ground the entire time and rocked back and forth,” she said with a laugh.

Now, at age 68, instead of enjoying retirement, Westbrook owns and operates the Big Island Social Dance Club, which she opened last May. The upcoming grand opening is Jan. 20.

She wants to continue to pass along her decades of dance experience and knowledge to people on the Big Island, some of whom have never danced — before she forgets.


She watched her mother suffer from dementia in the 1990s, and a few years ago she started recognizing early signs of the disease in herself. She has not been officially diagnosed but is concerned.

Denise Westbrook shows past photos of herself throughout her decades-long dance career. (Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

“One of the first [early signs] that happened to me that’s not typical is I started to stutter,” she said. “I never stuttered.”

Just last week, Westbrook opened her laptop to email flyers for dance classes and couldn’t remember how to do it.

She hopes continuing to dance will keep her mind active.

“Don’t ever underestimate the hands-on approach sometimes to healing, or to stave off something that’s advancing,” said Jack Crobaugh, a 68-year-old instructor at the club and an associate of Westbrook’s.


He said dancing sharpens a person mentally.

Over the years, Westbrook had owned or had partial ownership of dance studios in Georgia, Miami and Colorado; and she has been awarded Top Instructor and Top Studio internationally five times by the largest dance corporation in the world, Arthur Murray Studios.

She had been offering dance lessons to community members around the island, but recognized she needed a more permanent space to bring people together: “Instead of trying to teach on the lanai, this driveway, or this garage, I decided to set down roots again.”

Westwood opened Big Island Social Dance Club at 74-5583 Luhia St. Suite A-1 in Kona for dancers of all ages and skill levels to get together.

“I think everybody wants that [human connection], but I don’t know that everybody knows how to find that,” Westbrook said.


Westbrook said the 1,800-square-foot studio she’s renting is perfect, with air conditioning, a dance floor and parking. Looking more like a nightclub than a studio, she’s been thrifty with the remodeling. Everything from the chairs to the mirrors was either free, found on Facebook Marketplace or donated by club members.

“The reception desk is two king-size headboards that we melded together,” Westbrook said with a smile.

Dance student David Spencer is painting the 18-foot walls — floor to ceiling — with images depicting the elements: fire, earth, water and wind. One wall depicts Kīlauea erupting, another the ocean with a breaching Humpback whale. Colors of blue, purple, pink and red reflect throughout the room.

The 46-year-old Spencer also is building a banyan tree with branches that stretch to the ceiling.

“When people come in there they feel immersed,” Westbrook said. “It really feels fabulous. I’m never feeling like I’m at work. I listen to the music and I get swept off.”

She started dancing in Peoria, Ill., at age 5.

“I loved it and stayed with it,” she said. “I needed to earn money in college and went to a training to teach and that was the beginning. I love making relationships blossom, building confidence in my student body.

“They don’t know how to do anything gracefully and I teach them to move with rhythm. By giving that to them it gives back to me many times over. I love turning these people into these wonderful works of art.”

Everyone gets a first lesson free. After that, it’s just $15 per group lesson. The club also offers private lessons, master classes, workshops and monthly themed dance parties.

During one class, club member Terri Zolk, clad in a black top and fringe skirt, slowly walked across the dance floor to the song “Come Unto Me” by the Mavericks. She beckoned four women to join her for a cha-cha.

Westbrook watched from the sideline, mimicking the dance steps and yelling out instructions. At one point the world-class ballroom dance champion jumped in with the ladies to show them exactly how the moves are done.

The women will perform the sassy number for the grand opening.

Crobaugh, who prefers to go by Jack, met Westbrook eight months ago when she came to teach the Kona Ballroom Club hosted at the Elk’s Lodge. During that lesson, she showed she could teach any level of any dance.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic shattered the dance community, forcing dance places to shut down.

“We had two years of not getting out and really dancing,” he said. “We’re dancing by ourselves or with really small groups that you could associate with.”

Jack said the Big Island Social Dance Club brought the community back together. It offers 14 different styles of dance including classic ballroom styles like the waltz and foxtrot, Latin dance salsa and bachata, swing styles and nightclub dance and Westbrook brings in expert dance instructors to share their knowledge.

“We can take them from a ballroom to a bar room,” Westbrook said.

“It’s not about any one person now,” said dance instructor Marlina Shirley. “It’s about the community, which is huge.”

Shirley said more people are feeling drawn to the club because it doesn’t feel like a clique: “Everybody’s welcome. All levels are welcome.”

While he’s only been part of the dance community for less than a year, Spencer said it’s changed his life for the better.

“I was not going in a good direction,” he said. “And this opened the whole dance community up to me. The people are very welcoming, and they’re really non-judgmental.”

Jack said Westbrook makes the lessons fun. He recalled one class he was in where Westbrook could not get the song to play.

“So, we all did the lesson while Denise sang the song,” he said. “That’s how she is, just free and open.”

With the opening of the studio, Westbrook plans to hold an annual fundraiser where money is donated to the Alzheimer’s Association, an organization dedicated to the support and research of all forms of dementia that affect memory loss.

For more information about the dance club or the grand opening, click here. Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

To attend the grand opening, which will feature dance performances, general dancing and food, visit the website to purchase a ticket.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with corrected information.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a full-time reporter for Pacific Media Group. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.

Tiffany can be reached at [email protected].
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