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Gotta Dance, Seniors Make Ballroom Dancing an Integral Part of Staying Young

Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational




I don’t dance.  I mean, I’ve tried, and let’s just say it hasn’t taken with me.  At least not in public.  I sometimes do my own version of dancing, either alone or with my partner, in the privacy of our home.  More for the exercise, I must admit, than anything else, though I do enjoy the intimacy of slow dancing when we’re by ourselves.  I appreciate those who can move gracefully and unselfconsciously on the dance floor.  And so it was that I observed with admiration and some envy a group of seniors doing their ballroom dancing thing for the following story I did eight or nine years ago.  Who knows, maybe my dancing years are still ahead of me?


Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational
Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational




Gotta Dance, Seniors Make Ballroom Dancing an Integral Part of Staying Young 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


By 9:30 on a fine October night, a downtown dance hall is abuzz with the revelry of senior couples bobbing to the sweet notes of a swinging big band. It is dim inside save for lights strung overhead to cast a warm golden glow over the scene.

Everything — from the bouncy tunes to the jitterbug moves to the elegant couples dressed-to-the-nines — hearkens back to the 1940s, when juke joints like these ruled. The only difference now is these dancers move a tad slower than they did then. No matter, this is one hideaway where numerical age means little as long as you are still young at heart. Here, where time stands still, romantic asides and whispered sweet nothings continue to be shared by gray-haired partners for whom holding hands and sneaking smooches never grows old. In the rich ambience of this jumping night spot, nostalgia reigns supreme.

Elaine McMullin, 84, and Bernie McKernan, 76, are two regulars here. As usual, their dance card is filled. These smartly turned-out partners will sweep the rest of the night away to the melodious strains of the Ron Nadherny Band at the North Omaha Eagles Club, 24th & Douglas, where every Thursday evening ballroom dancing takes center stage courtesy of Joe Mimmick’s 40s Dance Club. A different band plays every week. More than a mere dance venue, this ballroom — along with others like it in the area catering to the senior population — offers a veritable fountain of youth for participants, many of whom arrive lame yet somehow turn spry once the music starts. Yes, some magic is at work in these In-the-Mood places where age is merely a state of mind.

“No matter how you feel, music will bolster your spirit and will really make you feel young again,” said 40s Dance Clubber Gloria Gordon of Omaha. “Sometimes you can hardly walk, but when you get on the dance floor it seems like for some reason you have no problem at all dancing. It is a real tonic. It’s give you kind of a high.”

Retired local school teacher Elaine McMullin, who dances with Bernie McKernan three nights a week, could not agree more. “You forget how old you are,” she said. “You forget how many aches and pains you might have. A lot of nights I’m kind of tired and I think, ‘Oh, I should stay home,’ and then I realize I’d just be alone feeling sorry for myself and I figure I’m a whole lot better off going out, and so I go. It’s certainly an enjoyable way to spend the evening. Plus, it’s good exercise.”

Bill Yambor, 76, can attest to the health benefits of dance. The Omaha resident said he has lost weight, stabilized his blood pressure and increased his energy level through a steady diet of hoofing. “It’s good aerobics and it’s good for the legs too. I’m in good shape,” said the slim Yambor. He goes ballrooming every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon at Bluffs Run Casino and every Thursday night at the Eagles Club. He works in an occasional Tuesday night at the Millard Legion Post 374. He puts in as many as nine hours of dancing a day — rarely sitting out a turn. “If there are 15 dances, I dance every one of them. I don’t miss one. I like them all.” The only concession to age he makes is not dipping his partners anymore.

A typical ballroom program offers a wide variety of musical numbers and dance styles — from swing to the foxtrot to the polka to the rumba to the waltz. “I like to do them all, but personally the waltz is my favorite dance, especially the Viennese Waltz,” said Elaine. “It’s the smooth, even, gliding, free flowing movement I like. And when I dance I like to close my eyes and block out everything except to listen to the beat and to the shuffle of the feet on the floor. You hear the music, you feel the movement and you glide around. It’s like your floating. It’s a wonderful feeling.”



Swept away by the thrill of it all, ballroom dancing enthusiast Jerrie Kraniewski of Omaha said she sometimes feels transported on the dance floor — as if she is “almost in another world.” Bob McEniry, who has been Gloria Gordon’s steady dance mate the past 10 years, said getting caught up in the moment — with the soothing music and the seductive movement — induces a kind of meditative state that triggers memories of old times. “You’ll hear a song and it brings it all back. That’s part of the reverie. It is a form of trance — you’re way off there by yourself. It’s trance dancing.”

For Shirley Sailors, dancing is “the nearest thing to heaven there is.” Shirley and her husband Ken come all the way from their Dunlap, Iowa home to kick up their heels in Omaha. Appropriately, the pair met at a dance. The circumstances of their meeting echo that of many senior ballroom dancing couples. Both had lost a longtime spouse and in the process of getting back into the social swing of things, they found each other. Dancing had been a shared love of Shirley’s and her first husband’s but she was unsure if it “could ever be the same again with someone else.” To her joy, she discovered she “enjoyed it tremendously” with Ken too.

When Omahan Bob McEniry retired a decade ago, the widower didn’t know what to do with himself — until he rediscovered a passion for dancing grown dormant during years spent working and raising a family. “I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘Dancing,’ with a phone number. I dialed it right away. The fella answering said, ‘We’ve got free dancing every Wednesday afternoon. Why don’t you come over?’ I went over and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s been a fabulous find. It’s just been delightful. It’s brought it all back for me. It’s a great way of staying young.”

That desire to recapture a glint of youthful vitality crops up time and again in conversations with the senior dance crowd. Gloria Gordon loved to dance as a young woman but fell out of practice while married to a man without an ounce of Fred Astaire in him. After being widowed, she struck up a friendship with McEniry and was delighted to find that, like him, “it just came right back to me.”

In the case of Elaine McMullin, she and her husband Jim shared a passion for dance they often entertained until he suffered such severe heart problems that it curtailed his physical activities and effectively ended their arabesques together at night spots like Peony Park, the Music Box and the Charemont. “We both missed it a lot.” After Jim died, she waited a year before she went back dancing. Now, she might as well be a blushing bride of 18 again when circling the ballroom in the arms of Bernie McKernan, her friend and partner these last several years.

Vivacious Elaine is lovely to look at on the dance floor. She sashays with the gentle, effortless ease of a twirling leaf in the wind. Her body is relaxed. Her feet step lively yet gracefully to the beat. There is nothing out of place — from her high wavy set hair to her fabulous dress (she makes her own fancy dance dresses) slit just so to show off her still shapely legs. Where she grabs attention, Bernie, a retired building inspector, complements her with efficient if not flashy leading. Together, they make a pretty picture on the hard wood, their limbs entwined in close embrace one moment and swaying apart the next. They are made for each other.

“Having a good partner is an important part of it,” Elaine said. “When you can move together as well as Bernie and I do, it really makes it good. When he pulls me up close on some of the slow music, which he calls cuddle dancing, our bodies just blend together and we kind of move as one.” As for the dapper Bernie, who took dance lessons as a boy, he deflects any praise for his footwork to Elaine, saying, “After you’ve been dancing awhile the lady gets accustomed to you and things just come naturally. She can feel and anticipate what the next step’s going to be. With her, well, she’s a great dancer. She makes me look good out there.” The pair never practice. Instead, they simply work out their steps on the floor.

Like many older people who suffer the loss of a spouse, Elaine and Bernie sought solace when tragedy struck and they found it in a support group for widows and widowers. Soon after meeting they learned of their mutual fondness for tripping the light fantastic and began making the local ballroom circuit together (Omaha, Millard, Lincoln, Blair and across the border in Minden, Iowa). They have been an exclusive dance floor couple ever since. Besides cutting a rug, they enjoy going out to dinner. Bernie also helps Elaine maintain her large house and yard. For them, though, dancing is the cat’s meow. They plan their weeks around it.

Elaine, who studied dance from age 8 through her teens, said, “I’ve always loved to dance. Now, more than ever, I look forward to it. It is an occasion. It is a dress-up occasion. I plan the next night out what I’m going to wear and the fun I’m going to have and the music I’ll enjoy dancing to. And there’s a lot of camaraderie in places like this. I’ve met so many friends over the years just because of dancing.”

To a man and woman, ballroom fanciers cite companionship and interaction as among the main attractions offered. The 40s Dance Club is rare in actively seeking senior singles. More than a few romances have blossomed in its ballroom. Take Ed and Gratia Setlak, for example, comparative youngsters at ages 55 and 65, respectively. He was divorced and she widowed when they met at a club function a few years ago. Sparks flew on the dance floor. “Right off the bat I sensed an honest openness in Gratia, and that said a lot to me,” Ed recalls. “We danced twice that night. It was about three weeks before we got back together. We started dating and eventually we married.” Dancing defies age in inspiring such interludes. After all, it is an intimate, seductive and sensuous mating ritual. “I love the rhythm. I love being held held by somebody,’ Gratia Setlak said. Beyond the physical closeness it provides, her husband added, “It brings you together emotionally.”



Dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. Gelatin silve...

Image via Wikipedia



Ballroom dancer Ken Sailors said displays of endearment are only natural on the dance floor. “You’ll see dance partners kiss each other on the cheek. It’s a loving you don’t see other places. There’s nothing wrong with showing affection for the lady I love out on the dance floor.” Romance aside, social dancing offers a relaxed and festive setting whose banter and gaiety are infectious. “One of the biggest joys I get at this dance club is seeing the pleasure these people are getting,” Shirley Sailors said during an intermission at a recent 40s Dance Club program.

Bill Yambor and his late wife were crazy about dancing. After her death, he found a steady ballroom partner but she died too. Today, he is an unattached bachelor and equal opportunity dancer. “I don’t want to get hooked up with one partner all the time, so I try to dance with all the ladies. Once in a while I’ll take one out on a date.” He said as long as his “body holds out,” he expects to keep right on punching his dance card. “I’d probably be bored with my life if I didn’t have dancing to do. It’s one thing I really enjoy. It’s a really good pastime. I meet a lot of nice people and make a lot of friends. I’d recommend it to anyone.” Jerrie Kraniewski and her partner Irl C. Andis say they would miss dancing more than life itself. “I’d hate to have to ever give it up,” Jerrie said. “No, we’re not going to give it up as long as we can move,” Irl added.

More than a few ballroom devotees carry on despite artificial knees and hips. Then there is Bernie McKernan who, after an unexplained cardiac event last June in which he collapsed unconscious on a Millard dance floor, now cha chas with a pacemaker in his chest. Bernie recalls little about the incident, but Elaine does. “It sure was scary. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a nurse was there and she administered CPR. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital and I spent the evening with him in the emergency room,” she said. All Bernie knows is that he “keeled over on the dance floor and woke up four days later with a pacemaker.” Then, as if to prove his ballroom devotion, he added, “When I came to, I asked the doctor, ‘How soon can we go dancing?’ and he said, ‘In a few days,’ and so we did.”

Asked what could possibly inspire such fierce ardor for this recreation activity, Elaine searched for words and said, “There’s just something about dancing. It really makes you feel good. We both love it.” Or, as Bernie simply puts it, “Well, it’s fun.”

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