The idea was to go dancing some night. The subject of swing dancing had come up one evening with Zelda, a friend who likes to dance. (NOTE: Zelda is not her real name, not even close, but it keeps my friend at a respectable distance from this story. The only Zelda I’ve ever known was Aunt Zelda - my dad’s sister - who was a most unhappy woman whose default attitude was complaining.) I told her I thought it would be fun. At the time I assumed swing dancing was the same as jitterbugging. Which I used to be fairly decent at, but hadn’t attempted in a couple of years. No telling if my knees could still handle my inspired moves. Ballroom dancing, however, is an entirely different animal. I had seen that on TV, and even in person at a hotel in Louisville several years ago, where they were having regional finals. The men and women were dressed as though in an MGM musical, and their choreography was precise, inventive, and thoroughly unlike anything I was capable of. I was awed not only by their dance routine, but also by how much they must have spent on wardrobe.
So Zelda and I headed to Kirkwood Station Brewing Company one Sunday night recently. There’s a large room on the left where young people go to hear blues and rock and whatever else is on tap, including their beers. Twice a month, the Southside Imperial Dance Club takes over. Neither Zelda nor I knew anything about them, or what kind of dancing they did. But from looking at their logo on their website, it sure looked like a jitterbug group to me. Talk about cutting a rug, this had to be the time and place, right?
A sparse crowd was in attendance. By sparse I mean there were more empty chairs than occupied ones. Maybe 40 or 50 people. The place holds a couple of hundred. I felt uncomfortable even before we sat down at a table next to a man who didn't dance the entire night, nor did he even smile or talk to anyone or acknowledge us. I know he was alive because I saw him blink. It wasn’t the sparseness of the venue that got to me, although that helped. It was a combination of the lighting and the music. To say the place was over-lit is like saying Forest Park has trees. Bright lightbulbs glowed overhead. Random spotlights beamed down from the ceiling. A stage up front was lit from behind by two blinding floodlights that could have provided security for a Walmart parking lot. How can you dance with so much light?, I wondered. It was worse than dancing outside. At least outside there are shadows. Here there were none.
Then I noticed one of those mirrored balls hanging from the ceiling over the middle of the dance floor. I think they are called disco balls nowadays. This one wasn’t turning. There were no lights shining on it. It just hung there, dark and still, like a bat. The waitress came by in one of her infrequent trips to the tables. I asked her why the ball wasn’t being used.
“It makes them dizzy,” she said.
I wasn’t sure I heard right and asked her to repeat her answer. “It makes them dizzy. The little light reflections on the floor, going around and around, makes the dancers dizzy. They don’t like it.” She took a quick swipe at our table with a musty cloth and moved on. Zelda and I looked at each other and began laughing.
But as bad as the lighting was, the music was worse. I don’t know what genre it was, or what decade it came from, or who the artists were. Neither one of us recognized any of the songs. The source of the music was from an old guy who sat on the stage with a laptop in front of him. All the music was on there. I had hoped for “live” music. I could have stayed home and listened to Spotify if I wanted unfamiliar tunes. We asked the music man to play something older, so we could swing dance. Like something by Benny Goodman, Chuck Berry, Count Basie, Bill Haley and the Comets, or even some decent rock we recognized.
“Don’t have any of that,” he said. “Got some on my other computer but that’s at home. Don’t think I got Benny Goodman though.”
In the meantime other couples got up on the floor, even women dancing with women. Shades of the Casa Loma Ballroom. And there were some good dancers. But with a few exceptions, they weren’t dressed like they were at a dance. More like they were going to dinner at Applebee’s or shopping at Sam’s Club. I was glad I hadn’t agonized over my wardrobe. But it all seemed to work, especially when just about everyone in the place got up on the floor to do one of those country dances where they all are in a line and do intricate steps and clap their hands. Zelda and I sat that one out. I tried it once, many years ago, and never did catch on.
We did get some dancing in. Pretty smooth, if you ask me. Especially Zelda. She was even able to follow my thoroughly original and unpredictable moves. Jitterbugging kind of steps, turning and twirling and laughing and enjoying, if not the lights and music, just the idea of dancing.
Dancing is one of those ancient and eternal activities that is its own fun and reward. I grew up with an affinity for MGM musicals, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Donald O’Connor, Judy and Mickey, and big bands. I love Broadway musicals like “42nd Street” with lots of tap-dancing. I loved “LaLa Land,” saw it twice just for the dancing. Which means swing dancing is in my DNA, and one of these nights we will find that special place with real “live” musicians and recognizable songs and a crowd that dresses up and, yes, even a mirrored ball that won’t make anyone dizzy.
And who knows, we may get all dressed up, just like they did at MGM.