Nothing like dancing cheek to cheek

Ruth Ellen, 74, is old enough to remember when swing was king the first time around. It was what she and her girlfriends did on a Saturday night in Depression-era Toronto. When her marriage of 25 years disintegrated, she found herself revisiting old memories. “I started dancing alone in my living room. And so I decided to do something about it. I had been passing a dance studio in my neighbourhood for 20 years, but I was afraid to walk through the door. Well, recently I forced myself, and now I’m dancing at least twice a week,” she says.

Trying rumba
Since swing is something she already knows, Ellen is concentrating these days on mastering the rumba. Leading her around the dance floor is her teacher, Arpad Raymond, a 40-something ballroom competitor who lets out a loud whoop each time his white-haired partner nails a turn.

“I’m amazed at the level of determination the older students bring to dancing,” Raymond says during a teaching break. “Hard to believe, but they’re better than the younger ones because they have a goal in mind and they want to achieve it.”

In Ellen’s case, the goal is a richer social life. Instead of twirlingn the flickering light of her television set, she heads out regularly to ballroom clubs and never goes home without a dance.

Social foreplay
Partner dancing, in any configuration, is erotic, a sort of socially acceptable foreplay. Many boomers came of age gyrating to Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist,’ which sounded the death knell for dancing cheek to cheek. Dancing became more self-centred. The new moves were freelance and solo. Skill and sensuality went up in smoke, along with draft cards.

Now, as aging boomers are discovering, couple dancing is the ultimate kiss-off to the ‘me generation.’ The focus is being a good partner, coming up with pleasing moves. It takes two, as they say, to tango.

Numbers increasing
Peter Renzland, a 51-year-old swing dance aficionado in Toronto, teaches dance to Cotton Club wannabes at various nightclubs that attract young and old alike. Swing, he says, is the alternative to the alternative.

“It’s the antigrunge,” he says.

Lois Bradshaw of Toronto teaches fine dancing to about 400 aspiring hoofers who range in age from 55 to 80. When she started her classes in 1992, she had 30 participants. The numbers continue to swell, she says, and today her dancing group is more like a social club.

There are monthly line-dance dinners, and every August a three-week sojourn at a Muskoka lodge where the dancers do the hustle — three steps forward and back with a kick in between — twice, sometimes three times a day.