CLUB CLASSROOM ISN’T exactly a speakeasy, but it helps to know people who know people, even just to find the joint.

First you have to locate a door on the southwest corner of Red Square, at the University of Washington. Ride a drab elevator to the upper level of Meany Hall. Walk down an unprepossessing, fluorescent-lit hallway, with its drinking fountains and bulletin boards, following the thumping bass and happy hollering. Find the darkened doorway. Pass through its curtain of gold streamers and onto — a red carpet? Yes.

Where to do the hustle around Seattle — and music to inspire you

Let your eyes adjust.

A large, high-ceilinged dance studio by day, the room is now nightclub-dark, with multicolored sidelights and silver tinsel wrapped around the ballet barres. To your left: a live DJ. Up above: a twinkling mirror ball. Dead ahead: maybe 75 dancers, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, others in their 30s and 40s, sweating it out in this mayfly, once-every-five-weeks discothèque. They’ve come to hustle, a partner dance their parents (or even grandparents) might remember dimly, if at all.

But hustle, a dance form created by Puerto Rican gang members in the South Bronx that spread and peaked during the days of disco, is having a comeback — and carries more political, historical and emotional weight than you might expect.

OUT OF THE glittering darkness swims Abdiel Jacobsen: a UW dance instructor, hustle evangelist and host for the evening, looking effervescent in a silver, shiny, spaghetti-strap dress with matching trousers and 3.5-inch heels. “Welcome to Club Classroom!” they shout over the bumping house music, opening their arms for a hug while qualifying: “Sorry! I’m a little sweaty!”


Abdiel, who is known professionally by their first name and uses they/them pronouns, has dance roots stretching deep and broad. Born in Côte d’Ivoire, they performed in a West African-dance group as a child; held down a high-school job teaching ballroom at an Arthur Murray dance studio in Silver Spring, Maryland; and, in 2011, joined the legendary Martha Graham Dance Company in New York — where they discovered hustle in a nightclub and promptly fell in love.

They conjure Club Classroom twice each term for their students, who are learning hustle history and technique, but all hustlers are welcome. Abdiel had to campaign a bit to get the university’s permission, but they strongly believe hustle — which migrated from Bronx house parties to queer clubs before going national — doesn’t fully come alive, can’t be properly taught, without experiencing the nightclub version.

They also have a sidebar motivation. Early, safe, dance-club experiences, Abdiel argues, are invaluable for learning how to share space, navigate fluid social interactions with strangers, and better understand one’s body and its autonomy — key lessons for fledgling adults.

“That’s my closet,” they say, pointing across the dance floor to a free-standing rack stocked with bright, feathered, vivacious-looking clubwear. “You’re welcome to it! Go crazy; put on whatever!”

Abdiel turns and strides back into the crowd. Most are students. Others are members-at-large of the growing hustle community, some who’ve traveled from around the country for Hustle & Soul, a hustle and house-dance competition the following evening. Many are accomplished street and club dancers — breakers, voguers, waackers — but newly hustle-curious. (A quick primer: Breakers, or b-boys and b-girls, used to be called breakdancers. Voguing, originally from the 1980s Harlem ballroom scene, was popularized by the 1990 Madonna song “Vogue” and the 1991 documentary “Paris Is Burning.” Waacking is an exuberant, arm-whirling club dance that leapt from the LGBTQ community in 1970s Los Angeles.)

To watch them is to envy them — all of them, even the shy students tentatively trying out new steps.


The hustlers hold each other lightly, springing together and apart in a six-step pattern punctuated with turns, twirls and whatever else they want to throw into the mix. Hustle has Latin origins, but (unlike much ballroom-style partner dancing) it’s extremely malleable, danceable to almost any kind of music, fast or slow, leaving plenty of room for individual flourishes: Afro-Cuban, breaking, salsa, waacking, etc.

You can even catch a hint of Martha Graham-style modern in Abdiel’s long, strong, sometimes-languorous arm and leg extensions.

It’s gorgeous. Maybe because they’re all having such obvious, undeniable fun.

BUT WHY IS this happening? Why are dancers from Seattle; New York; Los Angeles; Vancouver, B.C.; and beyond traveling to each other’s cities to hustle? And why is it having such a resurgence, especially among younger street and club dancers?

The question has several answers, depending on whom you ask (it’s adaptable; it’s fun; it’s historically been a very diverse scene in terms of race, sexual identity and gender), but almost everyone emphasizes the potency of connecting with a partner.

“Street-style dancing can be the most amazing feeling, so outward and expressive, but it’s also very solo, very internal,” says Janu Sung, a co-organizer of Hustle & Soul. Sung came from the house scene and got hooked on hustle after watching dancers at Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown International District.


“But when you’re partner dancing, holding hands, that’s so powerful — just on a chemical level, you’re releasing dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin,” he says. “It pulls out a lot of the joy that may be trapped in you sometimes. Hustle is like an antidote for all the isolation.”

BORN IN 1972, the early hustle was an antidote for something else: murder.

Pioneer hustle dancer Willie Estrada, who was there at the beginning and still lives in New York, remembers its cradle as an extraordinarily tough place.

That year, New York was breaking homicide records. Young people in the heavily Puerto Rican South Bronx were often forced to choose between joining a gang or becoming a target. Estrada chose the former, falling in with the Imperial Bachelors and working his way up the ranks to “warlord, first division.” It was a time of economic collapse — though the heroin trade was booming — and the decade of the Bronx Burning, when buildings were regularly abandoned or torched, sometimes by landlords for insurance money. During the 1970s, in seven Bronx census tracts, fire destroyed 97% of the buildings. That’s right: 97%.

“We were dirt poor, surrounded by gang violence and fires — you could always smell the smoke,” Estrada says. “The hustle was born in, and helped bring peace to, one of the most violent places on the Eastern Seaboard.”

But hustle’s earliest origins — which he documented in his 2016 memoir, “The Dancing Gangsters of the South Bronx” — are a little less dire.


“We were gang members, but we were also a bunch of horny teenagers,” Estrada says. He and his friends would sometimes dress up, without gang colors, to crash “nice” parties (his word) and dance with young women — but they knew only how to grind. Community elders, seeing young men rubbing up against their nieces and daughters, were not pleased.

“ ‘Why don’t you guys create something more respectable?’ ” Estrada remembers being asked. “ ‘The older generation won’t tolerate this kind of stuff.’ ”

The young men had grown up in households with Caribbean dance, so began experimenting — in their apartments, at unchaperoned house parties — with a simple, mambo-inflected five-step. They gradually added new steps, moves, turns, whatever felt right, sometimes drawing inspiration from late-night movies on TV with Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth. Estrada laughingly recalls staying up to study “Ziegfeld Follies” — a 1945 movie-musical starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Lucille Ball — and dancing so hard, his mother scolded him: “Keep it down, m’hijo! The whole house shakes when you do that!”

They called it “hustle.”

Why? Because, Estrada writes in an email, they were “teens from the South Bronx during the early 1970s, and it literally means, Every Day We’re Hustling to stay alive!”

The dance caught on and became a kind of gang mediator. A recurring hustle party started at the St. Mary’s Recreation Center, in Imperial Bachelors territory, with one hitch: Nobody was allowed to wear gang colors. The hustle was forming a zone of neutrality.

“People started being on their best behavior,” Estrada says. “And they started dressing better: nice jackets, nice shoes. Some guys wore rabbit coats to impress. Everybody fell in love with the hustle, and everybody cooperated.”


The hustle wasn’t a cure-all — violence didn’t evaporate entirely, and one of Estrada’s friends was killed in an argument at St. Mary’s over a loose joint — but he credits the young men’s newfound passion for hustle with easing tensions, and giving them something else to obsess over. It’s a little harder to hate somebody when you’ve peaceably shared a dance floor.

“This dance saved my life, saved our lives,” Estrada says. “It brings everybody together, man. And once it gets its hooks in you — you’re done, brother. For life.”

HUSTLE WAS TOO good to hide. After sprouting in a tough neighborhood, it migrated to queer clubs in Manhattan, then more mixed, mainstream clubs, where people called it “the Latin hustle” and “the New York hustle.” The dance surged as 1970s youth culture rediscovered the joys of partner dancing after a decade or so of solo dance: the twist, the go-go, the jerk, the hippie twirl. Clubs started hosting cash-prize competitions for $100 or $200 (roughly $500 to $1,000 in 2023 money).

Dancing with another person — once dismissed as your parents’ fusty ballroom — was cool again. And, as Estrada says, hustle brought people together.

“It was Black, white, Latin, gay, straight, always a mixed atmosphere,” says first-generation New York hustle dancer Louis (pronounced “Louie”) Orlando. “We weren’t making a big thing out of it. If you were good, people wanted to dance with you. A lot of us kids were from broken homes, bad things, but hustle was a way out — it gave us a drive to do something.”

Then came “Saturday Night Fever.” The 1977 hit launched John Travolta and the Bee Gees into immortality, but was a mixed blessing for hustle. It planted the idea in mass consciousness, but also pegged it to disco, which would be its undoing.


The movie’s “hustle” dances were largely inventions by choreographer Deney Terrio, but it didn’t matter. Hustle, in one form or another, marched across the nation. Taken up by the social-dance industry, it was codified, taught in handbooks and neighborhood studios — and, unlike its early years, slotted into the strictly gendered roles of traditional ballroom dancing. Men led. Women followed.

On a macro-cultural level, hustle became a fad that rose and fell with disco. Never mind that its original soundtrack was a spectrum: Latin, soul, R&B. By 1979, “disco sucks” had become a slogan.

Hustle historians, such as Seattle-based Rosendo Ayala — who co-organizes Hustle & Soul — say the AIDS epidemic also ripped away a huge portion of the community. “A lot of the pioneer dancers were gay men who died in those years,” he says. “And the dance kind of died.”

Keepers of the flame still danced in pockets around the country, including Seattle. Local fitness and dance instructor Vicki Gabrielle remembers seeing hustle at a Red Lion lounge in Bellevue during the 1980s. She loved it, eventually co-founding the Seattle Hustle Club in 2000, which still meets on the first Friday of every month at Juanita Community Club in Kirkland.

But the club, Gabrielle says, didn’t attract many young people — until recently. “In the last six to eight months, there have been more of them coming in,” she says. “I think they’re craving community, that connection.”

Elsewhere, national stalwarts did what they could to keep hustle alive: 1970s pioneer Maria Torres organized the first Hustle USA competition in 1995. Instructors such as Alex Kim and Jeff Selby (who helped popularize the dance but, somewhat controversially, registered a trademark for what he called New Style Hustle, with some b-boy and b-girl flavor) taught in the United States, then overseas. By the early 2010s, hustle was waking up and gaining momentum with a new generation.


What happened during the ’70s could be coming back around. Maybe, after a long stretch of alone-together street and club dance, holding a partner on the floor is gaining traction once again.

THAT FRIDAY NIGHT edition of Club Classroom is the beginning of a long weekend.

Saturday brings Hustle & Soul at The Woods, a cozy nightclub on Capitol Hill, and packs in an enthusiastic, extraordinarily friendly crowd that cheers every couple as it takes the floor. 

Louis Orlando and his partner, Beth Darchi — a renowned, old-school hustle duo — have flown in to judge the contest, bringing a little New York edge to the happy-go-lucky scene. Orlando wears a dark fedora and sunglasses everywhere, even on darkened dance floors, while Darchi balances friendly with tart, occasionally following a slightly sharp comment with, “Sorry — was that too Brooklyn for you?” before breaking into a wide smile.

But they spend the weekend generously dancing with new-generation hustlers eager to learn. On Sunday, they’ll teach a class, followed by a weekend-wrap-up dance party in the big pavilion at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

When asked why she thought hustle was having a resurgence, Darchi shrugs. “I don’t know, but it’s growing,” she says, jerking her head toward the dance floor. “Young brings young.”


TO A PERSON, the younger dancers say they fell for hustle suddenly, in the wild — a nightclub, a party, a park — and thought some version of: “Whoa. What is that? I want it.”

Ayala’s conversion experience came in 2017, while watching a couple in the corner of a Los Angeles dance party. For McKendon LaFleur, who’d been studying a little salsa, it was a 2016 afternoon at Hing Hay Park. He now co-hosts In the Groove, a hustle-heavy dance night at Century Ballroom. Nathalie Scott-Hsiung, who’d dabbled in hip-hop, had a similar experience in 2016 at Robson Square in Vancouver, B.C. This weekend, she’s a top competitor at Hustle & Soul. (Vancouver has a thriving hustle community — Seattle dancers say those teachers’ willingness to cross the border and show them some basics was an important boost.)

For Abdiel, the revelation happened at a New York nightclub, during their time with the Martha Graham company.

“It had this dynamic, expansive fire to it,” they say. “Everybody was intermingling: gay, straight, queer, Asian, white, Black, brown. And there was a gender fluidity: men with men, women with women, women leading men.” And, to Abdiel’s great surprise, they saw people in their 60s — original hustle dancers — going strong while youngsters flopped to the sidelines. “I was getting tired, and they were outlasting me! Serious! I was like: ‘Who are these people, and where did they come from?’ ”

The more Abdiel learned, the more they loved it, and kept dancing late into the night, even after grueling, nine-hour days rehearsing with one of the world’s most famous dance companies. “People thought I was nuts,” they say. “I thought I was nuts! But it gave me energy, sustained me.”

Abdiel, Ayala and the others with a newfound passion for the dance were being pulled in — not just by what hustle is, but what hustle means.


It’s tricky to describe any one thing as American. Whose America? But maybe something about hustle, from its 1972 origins in the resilient youth of the battered South Bronx to the omnium-gatherum dance floors of 2023, deserves the title.

Abdiel thinks so.

“Hustle comes from civil rights, women’s rights, gay liberation, economic hardship and devastation,” they say. “It’s a fusion, a hybrid of so many influences. It expresses a very American identity.”

IN THE FADING hours of the weekend, after the sun has set over Puget Sound, blazing gold across the Olympic Sculpture Park pavilion, the faithful are still at it: hustle, house, voguing, whatever they favor. Someone on a microphone announces, “This is the last dance.”

One of the final couples on the floor: Orlando and Abdiel, the old-schooler dancing lead, the new-schooler dancing follow. It’s Club Classroom again, but the Friday night teacher has become the Sunday evening student. Orlando’s hustle looks beautifully confident, assertive, with decades of accumulated experience. Abdiel’s is more fluid, polychromatic, drawing from other dance wells, a different set of accumulated experience.

It’s like watching two essences in deep conversation: Orlando, the Jersey kid who’d come from “bad things” and found solace in the hustle clubs of New York; Abdiel, once a child from Côte d’Ivoire, who worked their way into a legendary dance company.

They’re so different, but so connected. Both dancing hustle, both being their singular selves — with a partner.