BY LIZA STROUT - Dennis Domres first came to Florida on a whim. He and a group of friends were sitting around in the cold and snow of a New York winter, and they were less than pleased with their surroundings.
“We looked in the paper, and there was an ad for a driveaway car that needed to be delivered to Florida,” Dennis said. “We thought about it for a few minutes and decided that it sounded like a good idea. There were six of us altogether. I hung out with a pretty eclectic group back then. We ended up in Coconut Grove that winter. It was wonderful.”
That was 40 years ago, and while Dennis gradually made his way around the tip of Florida, he has adopted the state as his home.
After spending time in Coconut Grove, Dennis moved south to Key West.
“I was a lobster fisherman for my first year down there,” he said. “After that, I worked renovating old Conch houses. I was in Key West in the mid-70s. Duval Street, the main street downtown, was boarded up.The Navy had been a huge part of the island, and when they closed their bases, especially the submarine base, the island had a hard time.”
Things eventually turned around for the island, and by the time Dennis moved on in 1980, money from tourists and entrepreneurs had started a building boom and the revitalization of Key West.
While living on the key, Dennis took up sailing. He became a crew member on a racing team, and even made a trip to embargoed Cuba.
“The captain of the boat I worked on was an architect who was friends with the mayor of Key West,” Dennis explained. “He also had a connection in Cuba, another architect. They decided to resurrect an old annual tradition, the Key West to Varadero Beach in Cuba race. They reconvened the first race in 1979, then another in 1980. After that, Reagan was in office, and he shut it down again.”
Dennis’ one sailing trip to Cuba was an interesting one, in the sense of the old Chinese proverb.
“It was the worst trip of my life,” he said. “We were hit by a norther’ in the middle of the night while we were in the middle of the Gulf Stream. It was a very wild night.”
They eventually made port in Cuba, and were able to spend a few days exploring Cuba because of the storm, something not many Americans have done, at least not openly.
“We got to go to the famous Tropicana Club in Havana,” said Dennis. “There were plenty of Canadians and Europeans there, so we didn't really stand out, but we were the only Americans we saw the whole time we were there.”
In 1980, Dennis bought his own sailboat and decided that it was time to go exploring. He sailed through the Keys and began to explore the west coast of Florida. The areas that he discovered are much the same today as he found them back then.
“The metropolitan areas have grown a lot,” he said. “But I was mostly exploring back in the boondocks. When you get into the Withlacoochee and Homasassa, things are pretty much the same now as they always have been. They are isolated spots.”
Dennis has also had another sailing adventure that many people only dream about.
“A few friends and myself sailed across the Atlantic,” he said. “It took us about 27 days of sailing to make it across.”
Dennis finally weighed anchor in Boca Grande in 1981.
“I sailed in to visit a friend, and I’ve been stuck here ever since,” he laughed. “Really, Boca Grande is a very nice place to be.”
Most people on the island who know Dennis know him as a yoga and t’ai chi instructor. His interest in the two disciplines began before he ever came to Florida.
“I got started with yoga 40 years ago when I found a book on the subject for a dollar at a rummage sale,” he said. “I went on a road trip from New York to San Fransisco with three Italian sisters. We hopped in a car and set out. We didn’t stay in hotels along the way, we just found places to camp out each night. I read the book and I would go off into the woods alone when we stopped. I practiced the asanas, the postures.”
By the time they reached San Fransisco, he was hooked.
“I jumped ship in San Fransisco,” said Dennis. “I kept travelling on my own, and ended up at a campground in Flagstaff in Arizona. I was still practicing, and one day I came across someone else in the woods doing postures. We started talking, and it turned out that he had been in jail as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He told me that yoga was the only thing that kept him sane. That really piqued my interest.”
His introduction to t’ai chi was even more serendipitous than finding a book at a rummage sale.
“I spent the night in Toronto,” Dennis said. “I was out going for coffee the next morning, and I looked into a courtyard. There were around 12 robed Asian guys going through the movements in unison. They looked like a flock of birds flying. I was fascinated. I have a deep interest in Eastern thought and philosophy, and the meditation through movement of t’ai chi drew my interest.”
For a long time, Dennis was a self-taught yoga practitioner.
“For 16 years, I learned from books and just by practicing,” he said. “I had the discipline to do that, and there weren’t a lot of classes teaching yoga when I got started.”
Eventually, he traveled to the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts to begin taking classes.
“I enrolled in teacher certification classes,” he said. “For the next five summers, I attended retreats and workshops. I received my certification in 1987.”
Dennis has learned a lot about the histories of his chosen practices, not just the nuts and bolts practicalities.
“In the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, there is no mention of the asanas, or postures, that are associated with the practice,” he explained. “Instead, yoga is primarily written of as a means to deal with and overcome the agitations of the mind.”
T’ai chi ch’uan actually started as a martial art, used for self defense by those who were not permitted to own weapons or who chose not to use them. Modern t’ai chi tends to focus more on the health and meditative aspects of the art, and less on the martial.
“They come from different cultures, but both yoga and t’ai chi are intimately involved with meditation,” explained Dennis.
Dennis began teaching yoga on Gasparilla island in 1990, and has continued through the present day.
“I teach at the Crowninshield Community House every Monday at 5 p.m.,” he said. “I have a men’s group at the Pass Club on Saturday mornings. And starting later this month, I will be teaching a Thursday afternoon class at Banyan Tree Pilates.”
Dennis will also be starting an eight-week t’ai chi program in January. It will be held in the Woman’s Club Room at the Community Center.
“Over the years, the people at the Community Center have always been very supportive of my yoga and t’ai chi programs,” he said.
This summer, he discovered the sunrise and sunset classes held on Englewood Beach, and met a whole new community of yoga practitioners.
Though he has taught on Gasparilla Island for 22 years and has even been an instructor at the Chautauqua Institution’s Special Studies program, Dennis is still learning new things all the time.
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