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In step with life

[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
Manuel dos Santos and his wife, Theresa, second from right, own the Suncoast Ballroom and teach lessons there. The two fell in love with dance on different timetables: he as a teenager, she in recent years.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 28, 2003

Nightly they come, in dresses of chiffon and shoes of soft kid. Their goal is to dance the night away, but they also find something else: camaraderie.

Middle-aged women bustle back and forth carrying chips and salad. The spaghetti is on its way. Here and there men cluster, slap each other on the back, then reposition tiny tables for better conversation.

This could be the bustle of a large neighborhood house party or a church social -- if it weren't for the quiet throb of a merengue in the background. The difference is, after the spaghetti, there will be ballroom dancing until neighbors and churchgoers are long in bed.

It's Saturday night at the Suncoast Ballroom in Largo, and a palpable buzz fills the air. Everyone is dressed up. Women in black sparkly dresses, men in sports shirts and slacks. Theresa dos Santos, 63, a Connie Francis look-alike, is wearing white lace. Theresa and her husband, Manuel, owners of the Suncoast Ballroom, are assigning tables and welcoming dancers like doting relatives at a family reunion. Theresa fusses over the apple pie. "People come here because they love to dance," she says, laughing, "but after we started having spaghetti and dessert on Saturdays, business doubled!"

In a corner, Gino Moretti and Jim Lewellen, both of whom appear to be older than 60 but feel "too young to tell their age," are changing their shoes. The ballroom, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in April, boasts a 3,300-square-foot maple floor made for the soft kid of special ballroom slippers. Ladies spend upwards of $150 for delicate-looking, steel-reinforced high-heeled shoes. Men sometimes wear two pairs a night, because the leather becomes soggy and stretched.
The dos Santoses, both 63, lead their International Tango Class through the basic steps during a lesson at the Largo ballroom.

For Gino and Jim and the 100 or so other dancers who come to the Suncoast Ballroom nearly four nights a week, dancing is a serious business -- in fact, they will tell you it's their life.

"It's warm feeling here. How do you say, we are all like family," explains Gino, slim and tanned, his Italian accent rising above the rhumba. He looks out over the crowd. Women from 30 years old to 70 are arriving.

Men of similar age -- salesmen, dentists, mechanics or retirees -- come alone or with a partner, sometimes their wives, more often a dancer they find compatible on the floor.

Lee Daigle, 56, is a regular who, along with Gino, spent a Saturday helping one of the female dancers move into a new house. "It's nice to be able to help out," he says. "We spend so much time dancing together at night, the least we can do is carry it over to daytime when somebody needs a little assist."

A lifelong love

Introduced to dancing by a former girlfriend, Lee dances most nights, at times muttering, "ONE and TWO" as he teaches a samba riff to a new partner.

At another table, Gino is leaning over two women with champagne-colored hair. "Bella!" he says, sighing. He offers his hand to one with a little bow and, glowing, she joins him in a romping quick-step -- the one Lee says could cause serious injury if anybody misses a beat. Gino shrugs when asked if he goes out for dinners or movies like nondancing single men. "No, not really," he says with a wave of his hand. "Sitting down for hours in movies is not for me. I must be active."

In the center of the floor, women have lined up on one side of the room, men on the other. In the middle, the ballroom's heart and soul, Manuel dos Santos is swaying his hips slightly and cajoling the dancers to learn a new step. With a twinkle in his eye, he twirls a heavyset woman so fast her feet do things she never dreamed possible. She squeals with delight, and Manuel takes a bow. "Okay, take a partner," Manuel says. He grabs a man next to him. "Just in case nobody wants to choose you," he says, laughing and spinning him away.

Manuel, a 63-year-old originally from Portugal, fell in love with ballroom dancing at 17. After immigrating with his parents to Canada, the teenager worked at his father's tool and die shop six months of the year. The rest of the time he spent his savings in England learning to dance from the "masters." Manuel eventually left the metal workshop and taught for more than 25 years privately and in public schools in Canada, where his weekly television dance show made him something of a celebrity.

Now, he is one of a handful of Florida dance teachers to hold a coveted International Dance School Teacher's Certification. "But I thought I was coming to Florida to retire," he says. "That was in 1983."

More people are arriving, and Theresa jokes that they'll just have to dance all night because table space is filling up. "Everybody loves Theresa," says a woman in turquoise sequins. "She used to be a preacher's wife, you know."

Theresa is the first to agree that she's surprised to be loving the life of a dance school owner. Formerly married to a pastor in a conservative denomination, she taught Sunday school and directed choirs for 36 years but never, never was allowed to dance. It was only after relocating from Michigan and divorcing that she ventured into a dance studio.

"I wasn't particularly quick. After two months on one dance, I was still tangling my feet," she says. Manuel was a patient teacher. The couple celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary in November.
Couples practice the basic steps of the tango during the hourlong class.

Providing an escape

On the dance floor, the action has become a blur. Under a low ceiling, draped tulle bunting ripples as dancers spin by. Some partners try exotic dips, and others are content to rotate like planets in a steady circuit of the room. The one constant is the smile on every face.

Thanks to half-hourly mixers, every woman has a chance to dance with a random lineup of men. Eighty-year-old men waltz with 30-something women; towering women mambo with short men; and, often, experienced dancers pull beginners over for a quick practice of a tricky step. Democracy is the rule here, and things are done with manners that would make a cotillion teacher beam.

Sitting at a table overlooking the dance floor, a quiet couple haven't left their chairs. Nearby, Orestes Diaz, 69, who calls himself "Papa," has just spun a young woman so fast she collapsed in wide-eyed laughter at the older couple's table. Orestes wags his finger at the pretty woman, then moves on to another partner who can match his energy. The quiet couple haven't moved.

"I'm so glad that Angelo and Adele (Narvaez) continue to come," Theresa says. She explains that for 13 years the pair were regulars, until Adele developed Alzheimer's. "Now Angelo says just coming and listening to the music calms her. They drive 30 miles each way."

Adele taps her fingers, raptly watching the dancing. "She loves every minute of it," says Angelo, 85. "We come four nights a week."

Whirling, twirling workout

Across town at the Pinellas Park Crystal Blue Ballroom is Nancy Welch, a dancer for 17 years and president of the Treasure Coast Chapter of the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancer's Association, simply known as "u-sab-da." She says the large number of social dancing venues in this part of the state led her to call Pinellas Park home.

"There are at least 15 dancing clubs in the area. Right now, I'd estimate that 400 to 500 people go out weekly to ballroom dance."

Nancy, who declines to tell her age, is a top-notch dancer noted for her long strides and smooth style. She and her partner, Sam Moses, 71, dart in and out of slower couples like Ginger and Fred.

Her week includes two lessons, three two-hour practice sessions and going out dancing three times. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

"USABDA's goal is to get more young people on college campuses interested in dancing. We already have a chapter at USF," she says. But more importantly, "We'd like to encourage people to shop around first before choosing a dance teacher. Then, call USABDA. If we've heard of any unethical practices, or know of anything even hinting at a scam, we could alert you."

Back at the Suncoast Ballroom, the music has taken on a deep, seductive beat; it's a tango, and couples are dancing closely, sometimes executing the peculiar jerks of head and torso seen in Tango Argentino. The tango is sultry and dramatic as feet and legs entwine, but when the music stops, these intensely concentrating pairs break apart, say their thank-yous and sit down, more interested in iced tea and wilted chips than each other. But do relationships develop out of this kind of social dancing? Are ballrooms places for people to come and hook up?

"Sometimes it happens," says dancer Vince Chavez, 47. "But 95 percent of the people who come here are interested in the high they get from the dancing."

Vince and his partner go out dancing "at least four nights a week." Maybe it's the endorphin rush from three to four hours of nonstop exercise. "I think what we get hooked on is the mix of friendly people and sweat," he says, smiling and wiping his brow.

Nancy, of USABDA, agrees. "It's safe to mingle here. For me, these people have become more like another family."

It's 11:30 p.m. at the Suncoast Ballroom. Most of the dancers have gone. The lights have been turned up, yet a cha-cha bleats on. Lee is running a vacuum while three women in chiffon chat over the buffet dishes. Gino is wiping tables. Out on the floor, there is but one dancer left. It's Jim Lewellen. "Jim's our most faithful," Teresa says.

Jim, who lives alone, lives to dance. He is moving by himself in a kind of happy trance. He swings this way, three little steps that way, a little stiff because his joints have been well-used. He seems reluctant to let the evening end as he moves in tiny circles, gazing at the spangles and letting the music wash over him.

And then, noticing Jim, and without a word, one of the women with a dish in her hand lays it aside and joins him on the dance floor. At first surprised, Jim takes only a moment and then, straightening himself, he sweeps her into his arms and smiles as for one last time tonight, they feel themselves being young.

- Marina Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Treasure Island.

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