Back to school

Pub date January 14, 2009


Let’s face it: 2008 was not great. Two wars, lots of political BS, and an economy that’s seen better days. But if our president-elect is to be believed, things are about to change. Why not bring some of that change to your personal life by learning a new skill? Here are some of my favorite offerings in our fair city by the Bay.


Perhaps you love those old Robin Hood movies or actually know the names of all three Musketeers. Or maybe you just think it’d be fun to hit someone with a steel stick. Whatever your attraction to fencing, Golden Gate Fencing Center is the place for you.

On the day I visited, a number of young fencers were working out. Some were junior national champions; some were just out to have fun. And that is the vibe that permeates the place, which has been serving fencers of all ages and levels since 1997. Although the sport is physical, coach Paul Soter says strategy is equally important. In fact, some fencers have been known to compete and train well into their 70s.

As for gear, the expense is minimal. Aside from the cost of the class, the only thing you have to buy is a glove that will run you about $20. Golden Gate will provide the rest.

Golden Gate Fencing Center, 2417 Harrison, SF. (415) 626-7910,


More of an artist than an athlete? Get yourself down to Public Glass in the Bayview. Founded 12 years ago as "the Disneyland of glassblowing," this organization is the only one in the city that teaches novice glassblowers. The space is ample, as is the curriculum. But classes are small, with a ratio of three students to one carefully screened instructor.

The experience of making glass is magical, and almost spooky. The heat coming off the glory holes — the giant furnaces that heat glass into liquid — reminds you that the beautiful orange glow is powerfully dangerous. But it might be the danger that keeps people coming to Public Glass. "It’s a primordial rush," says Manigeh Bridget Khalaji, the operational manager.

But another part of glassblowing’s appeal seems to be that it requires teamwork. Though glass in liquid form shifts shape easily, it only stays malleable for a few moments. Thus, it takes more than one set of hands to perform all the tasks necessary to shape a glass piece.

When I was there, I saw two men working in tandem — almost as if they were one person with four hands — sculpting, cutting, blow-torching the glass before it hardened. One of the artists called the process "controlled chaos," and he wasn’t exaggerating.

Glassblowing isn’t cheap, and learning the skills necessary to make a decent piece requires a real time commitment. The staff recommends four four-week classes to get you up and running, and the classes are a little on the expensive side. But if you can get the money together, and if you want to experience something truly unique, creating glass objects fits the bill — and then some.

Public Glass, 1750 Armstrong, SF. (415) 671-4916,


Take a trip to Buenos Aires — via Potrero Hill — on the first three Fridays of each month, when Gary Weinberg and his partner teach two walk-in tango classes — one for beginners and the other for more advanced dancers. Afterward, he hosts a milonga (or dance social) where you can practice what you learned. And you get all of that for $15.

The Monte Cristo is just one of many places in the city where you can learn tango, but there are few places as friendly to newbies. During the week, it’s a social club for Italian Americans, and it’s been around for more than 100 years. As you might imagine, the vibe there is old-school, with an emphasis on old. There’s a lot of fake wood panels, black-and-white photos on the wall, and plastic tablecloths like you see in North Beach’s older, "locals only" cafés. That said, tango at the Monte Cristo attracts dancers of all ages.

Unlike other styles of dance, there is no basic step to the tango; you just walk. So beginners can get a real taste for what the dance is like after one lesson. Still, tango ain’t easy. If you’re leading, this means walking without stepping on your partner’s toes; if you’re the follower, then you’re walking backward, often in heels. From there, things get increasingly complicated. Think mobile, upright Twister and you start to get a feel for how difficult the dance becomes.

Maybe because of its complexity, tango lends itself to overachiever types. Gary is a retired English professor, and many of the people I met at his class were engineers, doctors, and teachers. That said, tango is not only an intellectual exercise. If you like a physical challenge, and if you like to surround yourself with interesting, passionate people, you won’t go wrong spending a Friday night at the Monte Cristo.

Monte Cristo Club, 136 Missouri, SF.


One of the things people tend to lose as they get older is the ability to play. So imagine a place for adults where the whole point is to rediscover that part of you that’s been buried under all the worries you carry around. That place exists right here in San Francisco, at the Clown Conservatory.

When you enter the building, which was once a boy’s gymnasium for a now-defunct high school, you forget the world outside. It’s a bit like Willy Wonka’s factory, without the calories. There are rainbow-colored lockers and some of the students do wear clownlike clothing. Most notable, though, is that everyone brings a real earnestness to what they do.

The biggest surprise to me was this: clowning is not only fun, but an art. Jeff Raz, the Clown Conservatory’s founder and a professional clown, has developed a curriculum that trains every level of performer, from the recreational trapeze student to people who want to go on to careers in Cirque du Soleil.

But it’s the students who work tirelessly at their craft that make the space come alive. The cost is a few hundred bucks for a 12-week class, but learning to be a clown might just be the thing to make your 2009 a year of wonder. *

The Clown Conservatory, Circus Center, 755 Frederick, SF. (415) 759-8123,