Posted on Mon, Sept. 24, 2007

Dancing his way to a better world

By Lynn Carey


Adrian Flores was a gang member before he became a dancer. In fact, he belonged to several Richmond gangs, including one that rode with the Hells Angels in their heyday.

"When I was in grammar school, you had to belong to a gang or you didn't survive," he says matter-of-factly.

It was the '60s, and sex and drugs were everywhere. The sex, in particular, proved life-altering. By 17 he was a high school dropout, a husband and a father.

"I'm a Ph.D. in how to do it wrong," he says wryly.

Now, he's dedicated to doing it right. At 56 he is devoting all his energy -- and a big chunk of money -- to developing a dance program that keeps other kids from making the same mistakes he did.

His participation in the Walnut Creek Civic Arts benefit "Viva Arts!" Saturday is just part of his plan to bring attention to his greater goal, "Building Respect Through Dance." It's a program he'd like to have in high schools in every Bay Area county.

"The kids will learn how to dance and be part of a great dance team, but more important, they learn the skills of how to have a relationship," Flores says.

Bob Rezak, an advocate for several local arts programs, became a fan during a casual chat with Flores.

"I heard about the work he's been doing in the trenches. He's an unsung hero," Rezak says. "He's not only an accomplished dancer, but he does this work on behalf of the community. He's obviously identified a need, and knows how he can be of assistance."
Flores can easily identify the needs of the at-risk kids because he was one of them. His two tattoos covered by casual clothes, his feet clad in elegant dance shoes, Flores spoke about his life and dreams last week at a dance rehearsal space in Pleasant Hill. There's a twinkle in his eye as he speaks, but his overall demeanor is one of a suave ladies' man, a Latin lover type, if you will.

And Flores' story is a familiar one. His father and mother had split up by the time he was born. One of seven children, he was raised by his rigid mother, a strict Baptist who was easily enraged.

"The belt was prevalent," he said.

His first gang gave him a sense of acceptance. But by the time he was married, he knew he wanted to achieve something better in his life; he threw himself into work, wherever he could find jobs. Eventually the young couple attended Contra Costa College. Flores' wife became a nurse, and he went to UC-Berkeley. They bought a house.

"But the relationship had no foundation," Flores says. They divorced before their second child was 2.

That is why he's so eager to teach the skills to kids on how to have a relationship that lasts. He can do that through dance, he says. Flores says he has 13 steps to being a great dance team, the first being "No criticism," the last "Be real."

"But it goes beyond dance. It's the same rules for being a great boss, being a great parent ..."

Aside from a mambo demonstration when he was 8, Flores never considered himself a dancer. But when John Travolta's movie, "Saturday Night Fever," was sweeping the country, phones at the dance studios were ringing off the hook. A friend told Flores, at the time a vacuum salesman, he should try to teach dance.

The morning of his interview at a Walnut Creek studio, he got down on his knees at home and prayed. . "I said, 'Thy will be done.' (At the studio) they asked if I could begin teaching that week. In the back of my head I'm thinking, 'You don't understand. I don't know what I'm doing here, God sent me!' "

That was a Tuesday. By Friday he was, indeed, teaching dance. "I didn't know what I was doing, but the students knew less," he says with a laugh.

A few years later, Flores, by then a competitive dancer, was in the right place at the right time when "Tango Argentina" was all the rage, and he began doing tango workshops. He became friends with world-renowned dancers.

But at age 42, he quit dancing competitively. He taught occasionally, and lived off real estate investments. And then: "I started noticing kids disrespecting each other," he says.

That's when he came up with his idea of teaching teens to respect each other through dance.

But it's not that simple. "The difference between a dance class and what I have to offer is, I've shifted my life. And what we need to do is shift these kids, the way they're thinking. The objective is for them to be successful in life, not only in the financial world, but in relationships so as mothers and fathers, they'll stay together."

And it all starts with respect. His mission statement reads, "If family values are to be an admirable objective, a training ground for respectful behavior between boys and girls needs to be showcased."

Flores tried out his complete "Building Respect Through Dance" program at East San Jose's Andrew Hill High School for six months last year. He funded it mostly himself, selling some property to get the $50,000 he needed.

Andrew Hill is a school where the kids have to wear black or white -- two colors not associated with gangs. Flores doesn't know if any gang members took his dance program. "There were some smart alecks in the class. But by the end, there were no smart alecks."

It's all about attention-getting, Flores says. A kid might be a smart aleck for the same reason he wears pants around his knees, or has multiple piercings.

"They're doing it for attention. OK? So I give them this program which gives them attention and recognition. When I put them on stage at the end and they have this knowledge, etiquette training, team building skills, and the dancing, they now feel better about themselves. And when they get the recognition, they're even that much better. It secures them, so they don't want that other life."

Flores, who has a home in Walnut Creek but spends most of his time in San Jose, has already been in talks with schools in Contra Costa County about bringing his program to them. But he'd especially like to take "Building Respect Through Dance" back to his old stomping grounds.

"If I can get kids in Richmond to do ballroom dancing, I really do believe I can transform Richmond to be one of the safest cities in the country," he says.

But, that requires money, and he has no more real estate to sell to fund it himself.

"That's why I launch things like 'Viva Arts!'" he says. "I'm getting the word out."

Reach Lynn Carey at or 925-943-8112


NAME: Adrian Flores


RESIDENCE: San Jose and Walnut Creek

ACHIEVEMENTS: Teaching teenagers how to learn relationship skills as well as dance in his program, "Building Respect Through Dance"

EVENT: Flores is teaching the audience to dance from 6:30 p.m. Saturday at "Viva Arts!" a Walnut Creek Civic Arts benefit, 111 Wiget Lane, Walnut Creek; 925-939-2787

QUOTABLE: "I was in Cub Scouts, at age 8, and they needed someone to do the mambo. They looked around, and I looked like mambo!"