Ethnic Express group’s passion for folk dancing spans decades

Hundreds of years of dance history from around the world can be found in a small dance studio at the East Las Vegas Community Center.

Ethnic Express, a group that studies traditional folk dances, meets Wednesdays to practice and perform. The group will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.

Las Vegas slot machinist Richard Killian founded Ethnic Express in 1978 after dancing for years with groups at UNLV. After a decade and a half in the valley, Killian and his wife, Donna, had made friends who shared a passion for folk dancing.

“We gathered up everybody with all the records they had … and we said, ‘Let’s start a club,’” Killian said. They started meeting at the now-closed Marliza’s Belly Dance Studio on West Charleston Boulevard and moved through a few locations until they landed at the Charleston Heights Arts Center.

They’ve met there regularly for 20 years, though renovations have displaced them for the past year and a half. They hope to return by early next year, Killian said.

That hasn’t slowed them down. They’ll dance anywhere, Killian said, including restaurants and each other’s homes.

The group originally called itself “The Orijent Express,” after the international express train route that ran from Paris through Eastern Europe to Istanbul. “Orijent” is a Serbian men’s dance the group performs.

Many of the group’s dances come from the regions the Express traveled through, or near, such as Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia. Group members have other favorite dances, from Israel, Ireland, China and Japan.

Between 15 and 25 members arrive at 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday in comfortable clothes and ready to dance. Many already know the steps to the numbers; some are simple, others complicated. The group runs through about 30 dances every meeting.

Several members of the club have been coming for decades.

“I’ve been dancing since I was a teenager,” said Bob Shapiro, a member since 1980. “I went to Israel when I was 18, and we folk danced near the Sea of Galilee. If you got too hot, you just jumped in the water.”

New members of all skill levels are welcome, Killian said. At a recent meeting, the group moved through Ajšino Oro (a Macedonian and Albanian dance); several people watched or shadowed behind dancers who knew the steps.

Killian said the group lacks younger members, since most members of Ethnic Express are retirees.

“That’s what keeps your body moving in sync with your mind,” Killian said, watching as the group made its way through a fast-paced Israeli dance. “I’m 85, if that gives you an idea of why I like this.”

It’s also a way to learn about different cultures and ways of life, Killian said. The group regularly brings in guest teachers, such as Turkish dance instructor Ahmet Luleci and Israeli instructor Ira Weisburd.

“People say there’s no culture in Las Vegas,” Killian said. “Look at us!”

Contact Madelyn Reese at mreese@viewnews.com or 702-383-0497. Follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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