Atlas, a Miami native, knows well the perils of living in this town for the rhythmically impaired. Growing up as the lone Anglo among Hispanic friends proved tough for the kid who couldn't salsa. "All my Cuban friends could dance and I couldn't. I was a social outcast, a wallflower, rejected, thrown into the pool by my Cuban cohorts, and humiliated until I was shamed into learning how to dance," he deadpans. Atlas took some lessons during high school, but a few years later he got the last laugh. In the mid-Seventies, while attending graduate school at the University of Illinois, he chose ballroom dancing as an elective and began to excel in all sorts of styles. "It was the biggest class on campus," he recalls. "Three thousand people a semester would take that class, in three different levels, and twenty-two different sections."
These days instead of taking the classes, Atlas teaches them. Although he holds a Ph.D. in criminology and a master's degree in architecture, he is best known as one Miami's most popular dance instructors and party DJs. On Tuesday nights at Surfside's retro stomping ground the Dezerland Hotel (which is loaded with vintage cars and jukeboxes), he fittingly teaches a class combining lindy swing (the more athletic style incorporating flips and lifts) and disco hustle. This Thursday he'll begin leading the same course at Sunny Isles Beach's Ocean Ballroom. In 1992 he founded the South Florida Swing Society, which boasts more than 200 members today. He also runs A Sound Trek, a company that provides energetic tunes for all occasions.
While swing's prominence wanes, Atlas figures the best way to keep it alive is to dance on its proverbial grave. On Sunday he throws a huge End of Summer Swing Dance Party at the Dezerland. Dancers of all ages are invited and those without a partner need not be shy. "There will be plenty of men there," Atlas says. "There's been times where I've had extra men, which is unheard of in the dance world."
If the shift toward disco continues full force, Atlas knows he'll go from being called the swing king to Dr. Disco. He doesn't mind. He admits the dance nearest and dearest to his heart is the hustle. ("I was a first-generation hustle dancer," he exclaims.) Nevertheless he finds it quite easy to understand the lasting appeal swing has for people of every generation, from hypersuburban Kendall kids to laid-back elderly condo commandos. "It's a contact dance you do as a couple, and the music is really good. A lot of contemporary music is not suitable for couples' dancing," he notes slightly exasperated. "As a DJ sometimes I go do a quince or a teenager's birthday party where they're playing booty music. Dad's in the backroom and has no idea that his daughter is dancing to "Pop That Coochie! But that's another story!"