For four years, Florence Newman and her husband, Howard, have blocked Friday nights off their calendars so they don’t miss the Friday Night Swing Dance Club at the American Legion in Towson.
Familiar faces turned into friendships. Single women felt safe there, and widows and recently divorced women found companionship. Old couples brought their children, and new couples met and courted and even proposed on the dance floor. Once, a heartbroken man breathed his last as he swayed to the ground with his wife on his arm.
It wasn’t just a club, Newman said, it was a community.
But Chuck Alexander, 72, who founded the dance 27 years ago and has been at the helm ever since, said declining attendance made the pursuit financially unsustainable.
On May 25, the year-round weekly club will hold its final dance.
The end of the nearly three-decade tradition will be a deeply felt loss for club regulars, said Betsy Pfund, Alexander’s dance partner and fellow teacher, who helped him run the organization for around seven years. .
“It’s going to leave a real void in our hearts,” Pfund said.
Alexander founded the Friday Night Swing Dance Club in 1991 in the ROTC building at Johns Hopkins University. After a series of moves, the dance settled into its final location at the Towson American Legion 10 years ago.
At its peak, the dance would attract up to 800 people for two or three Friday nights in a row, Alexander said.
“Every dance is different,” Newman said. Different live bands performed each week, the dancers changed partners and during the band’s intermission Alexander played recordings of different styles of music, so that between swing sets the participants could practice Latin dances, tango or waltz.
“It’s so much fun,” Newman said. “It’s kind of an adult game.”
Before each dance, Alexander taught a swing lesson to get started. Chairs – never tables – lined the walls around the dance floor. The alcohol was never served because Alexander was determined to make sure the dance was “not a pickup joint,” Pfund said.
Then at 8:30 p.m., the lights were dimmed and Alexander would introduce the band, Newman said.
“We are a social dancing club,” said Alexander – not a competitive ballroom dancing club. “When you make a mistake, you don’t yell at yourself. You laugh and call it a new movement.
It was a social event, an occasion where life happened. Newman said she has attended weddings of couples who met in swing dancing. Once the band stopped playing and a man got down on one knee and proposed.
Years ago, Alexander said, a man he taught who had heart problems told his wife that all he wanted to do was go dancing. The man slid down the wall in the middle of a waltz, and “it was the last thing he ever did…all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not save him”, Alexander said. He called it a happy story.
“I really planned that one day I would dance and fall apart and that would be the end of it all,” Alexander said. “There’s only one better way than to dance, and I’m almost too old for that.”
Regulars said the club’s emphasis on partner dancing, in particular, was what kept people coming back.
“To me, there’s no reason to dance unless you’re dancing with a partner,” Alexander said. “What’s the meaning of stepping out and waving your arms and shaking in the middle of the floor?”
“Pair dance is just this amazing connection and flow,” Pfund said. “For people who have this dance bug, there’s nothing like it… you get carried away and it’s wonderful. There is this exaltation of being able to find a human connection without language, but with the language of dance.
Alexander said the typical attendees were often people looking for companionship — those who were recently divorced or widowed. But there were also married couples, a family who brought their 16-year-old daughter and even students from Towson University.
Alexander estimated that in 27 years about 100,000 people passed through his classes and dances.
“It’s part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” Newman said.
The Friday Night Swing Dance Club has a core of loyal regulars – but as that core has dwindled over the years, Alexander said it wasn’t big enough to sustain it.
Renting the hall for dancing is expensive, and while live music is what regulars say makes dancing so special, booking bands also costs money, Alexander said.
Participants pay $15 or $12 with a student card or membership. Alexander said the dance needed about 130 participants to break even.
The past few months, usually a busy season for dancing, have been particularly slow, Alexander said, and the summer months, when people prefer to be outdoors, are always slower. He never intended to make a profit, although he said running the club requires the commitment of a full-time job. But that became a problem, Alexander said, when he began to cut his Social Security checks and savings to maintain it.
“I’m not getting any younger so I thought it was time to go,” he said.
“Chuck has been doing this for a long time,” Newman said. “He deserves a life.”
For swing enthusiasts, Newman said it’s been a challenge to see why attendance has declined in recent years.
Alexander called it “Baltimore-ized”.
“People in Baltimore are going crazy for something, only hundreds of people show up; then all of a sudden they decide they want to go crazy about something else.
Some think it was about awareness. Newman, a retired English professor at Towson University, said the club was slow to adopt a web presence and could have found better ways to reach younger audiences. Most of the participants in recent years are over 40 years old.
Another factor could be technology, Pfund said. Dances were once where people went to meet people, but dating sites and social media have helped fulfill that role, she said. People are also constantly busy, expected to be able to answer a call from work even when off duty, she added. And Alexander said the amount of entertainment available on a screen in a living room could keep people from going out dancing.
But then, maybe the dance is just on a downtrend, Pfund said, adding, “I think some of these things come in cycles, like everything in the economy.”
Although there are fewer regulars these days, some who come are loyal. Newman said she hopes to keep dancing, but the Friday Night Swing Dance Club will be hard to replace.
“There are other dance venues, but most of them don’t have the special qualities of this particular dance.” says Newman.
That Last Dance, May 25 at 7:30 p.m., will feature ’60s-style girl group The Fabulettes, who Pfund says are known for their beehive hairstyles and polka dots. There will also be food and photos to commemorate the club’s nearly three-decade history and thank Alexander for his role in building it up.
“Especially in the last few years as the market has changed, he’s really dug into his pockets to make it wonderful for us, to feed our addiction and keep us all happy and dancing every week,” Pfund said.
Alexander said the end of the club will leave a “big hole”, but he is looking forward to taking a break and spending time with his adult son out West.
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Pfund said the transition will be difficult for her. “My life is going to change drastically after this,” she said.
Newman said she was at a loss as to what she and her husband would be doing on Friday night. “That’s why, like many people, I am desperately looking for ways to save our club,” she said.
There were whispers of people trying to keep the club going after Alexander left. The longtime organizer, however, is skeptical.
“They have already split into several groups,” Alexander said. “It just won’t happen.” He said he feared that without a single person leading the charge, a future group could sink into committee wrangling.
Despite having organized the club for years, Pfund takes a step back as discussions begin about whether to keep it going. She said she wanted to let the dust settle and focus on making the last dance a “solid finish.”
After that, Pfund said she didn’t know what was in her future. She wants to spend more time with her grandchildren and to write and edit. But whether the club continues in a new form or dissipates, Pfund said she will keep dancing.
“Once you have that love of dancing and the skills you’ve learned, it’s hard to give it up,” she said.