Swing To It

Dancers learn the Charleston step during swing dance night at Active Seniors Inc. in Salinas.

Every dance floor has an It Couple. On a recent Tuesday evening on a dance floor in Salinas that It Couple is not, as common sense might dictate, the lithe young professional dance duo, spinning around the community center room with captivating precision and flair. No, the It Couple is Janna and Jack, 92 and 101, respectively, foxtrotting and waltzing through nearly every song – or holding court in conversation with the other dancers when they’re not.

This is ballroom dance night at Active Seniors Inc., – a Tuesday night tradition that has been running consecutively since the nonprofit was created 63 years ago.

This event is not, as the name of the venue might suggest, for seniors only. While many of those who attend are retired, there are some younger dancers too, including dance students at local studios looking to practice.

And you don’t have to know how to dance already to join – the evening begins at 6pm with a dance lesson covering one of the ballroom classics. On this night, that means swing taught by a very enthusiastic Nora Mckenna. A crowd of about 15 (roughly split between men and women; most that participated in the class appear to have arrived solo) gather to learn the basics. The group circles up, divides into leads and follows, learning the basic step first, then a side step, a simple spin. Dancers trade partners at the word from Mckenna, moving from style to style: the timid one, the confident one, the one that just can’t help but give advice.

Mckenna’s specialty is swing, but there are other teachers that teach other styles – Sera Hirasuna tends to lead bachata and Cuban salsa, for example. A community college English teacher by day, Hirasuna joined as a ballroom teacher at Active Seniors in 2019. “It’s really nice to teach with your body,” she says. “I think the reason people come back is the social interaction and the physical interaction.”

Hirasuna is also quick to point out the many health benefits of dance, as exercise and socialization, but also as a way to improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of dementia. Some who join have experience – maybe they took lessons as a child – but others are brand new to dancing and “scared to death,” Hirasuna says. Ballroom night at Active Seniors welcomes them all.

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(During the pandemic shutdown the dances became virtual, Zoom affairs, which required some sound engineering but was appreciated by the regulars. The in-person dances resumed as soon as Gov. Gavin Newsom reopened the state on June 15, 2021 – proof of vaccination is required but masks, currently, are not.)

At 7pm the lesson ends, but the dancing is just beginning. That’s when more dancers show up – attendance typically runs between 25 and 40 – and the Moon Glow Jazz Band goes on. Live music is a key part of what sets the Active Seniors dance apart from, say, the long-running Saturday night dance at Chautauqua Hall in Pacific Grove. The band features Michael Gaines on bass and vocals, his wife Bari Roberts on guitar and vocals, Ben Herod on sax, flute and clarinet, Craig Jardstrom on trombone, lap steel and cornet and Jim Vanderzwaan on drums and percussion. The group, in some formation, has been playing this dance for about 12 years. Gaines has crafted 31 different setlists, which the band rotates through, to keep the music fresh. Once free dancing begins all ballroom dances are on the table – so the band plays swing after foxtrot after samba, rumba, polka, waltz.

“It really keeps your chops going because you’re playing all these different types of music,” Gaines says.

The same could be said for the dancers. A TV powerpoint presentation identifies the name of the dance as each song changes, and the roughly 22 dancers on the floor at any given time move seamlessly from one to the next. Sure, some are dancing at double tempo and mixing in fancy footwork while others are counting out the steps. But everyone is smiling – it’s a thing of beauty.

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