Discovering social dancing in Mesa, Arizona – a favourite with winter visitors
A sandwich board sign at the entrance to the gated 55+ community announces Dance Tonight 7 p.m. My husband and I drive up to the gate. We tell the guard we are here for the dance and he waves us through. It is not quite 6:30, but we know these dances fill up. We don’t want to scramble for seats amid a full ballroom.
Snowbirds, aka those from colder northern states or Canada who winter in warmer southern states, keep busy with a range of activities. Card games, pickleball, tennis, golf, crafts, woodworking, shuffleboard, Wii bowling, community volunteering and more. There is also an active dance circuit in east Mesa, Arizona, where we have spent the last three winters.
A number of communities have regular Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening dances with live bands. You can also find some afternoon dances. Depending on the band for the evening, music focus may be old-time, ballroom, country, classic rock-and-roll, early rock-and-roll, blues, swing or Latin. Dances are open to the public with admission ranging from $8 to $12.50. Water, ice, soft drinks and popcorn are usually available. If you prefer something stronger to drink you bring your own. Attendees enter the ballroom carrying portable bars or insulated cooler bags containing their beverages and snacks. Drinks and snacks aside, the evening is all about the dancing.
We first learned about this circuit from Joe, who volunteers at the same food bank as my husband. Joe lives year-round in a Mesa 55+ community and belongs to a ballroom dance group.
The first dance we attended featured old-time music by a familiar band, Julie Lee & Her White Rose band, based out of North Dakota, one of several bands from the northern states who do southern gigs in the winter. At just under sixty and sixty-five, we were the youngest in the packed-to-capacity room by many years. The crowd put us to shame. They danced up a storm.
I came to know the Julie Lee band through my parents, who were fans of Polka Fests and spent the last decade of their lives travelling through Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota to these parties. A Polka Fest is a one to two-day dance party, starting in the afternoon and running until late in the evening. There are usually three bands, who alternate playing for an hour at a time, which results in near continuous music. Music extends beyond polkas and includes a variety of old-time dances, including foxtrots, waltzes, two-steps and possibly a rhumba or two. An article I read in a Regina, Saskatchewan newspaper likened these events to “wedding dances on steroids.”
There is plenty of available seating when we enter the ballroom tonight. The last time we were at this particular community for a dance was over a year ago. It was a Valentine’s Day dance with a big band. The room was packed and people were dressed up. Long red gowns, several tuxes (some even red!). There was a large contingent of ballroom dancers. Heads turned sharply at just the right angle, fancy moves. There were also regular social dancers, some quite accomplished, others less so. Elderly couples, who had difficulty walking, shuffled onto the dance floor and then danced gracefully around the room. Joe was at the dance. He spotted us and said there must be other people from Winnipeg here. There were. He found them and introduced us.
The band is preparing their gear. Julie Lee walks around the room and talks to the people at the tables bordering the dance floor. Most seem to know her. When the music starts at 7:00, there are still empty seats.
My husband and I love dancing, although I am not very good at it. I tend to rush things and he reminds me not to lead. We’ve taken a number of dance classes, but with only sporadic dancing we’ve forgotten all but the basic moves. But we have fun. I imagine our smiles are like those I see on many of the other dancers on the floor.
Arthritis in the joints of my big toes means I pace myself. I cannot spend too much time on the balls of my feet. I wonder about orthopedic dance shoes. I think about the couple, in their nineties, who seem to dance in slow motion but continue to swirl and turn. I see another couple. The man has trouble lifting his feet and has adapted his dancing style to do less steps and more shuffles. The rhythm is still there in the rest of his body.
The floor tonight is sticky and my sandals have too much grip. I threw out my smooth-soled dancing sandals last year because they had become too painful to wear. Then I remember I should have brought tape.
While buying shoes at The Walking Company a few months prior, I watched the clerk help a lady in her eighties. She was there to pick up shoes held for her, smooth-soled shoes for dancing. The clerk did not like the way they fit her and was reluctant to sell them to her. I think he felt she would be too unstable on them. He suggested she wear a shoe that had good support and place tape on the sole to make ithem smooth when she went dancing.
The ballroom remains half-empty and we do not know why until Joe and his lady-friend come over to talk to us. The 55+ community she lives in has a two-day Polka Fest going on this weekend. A lot of people are at that. I learn Joe’s lady-friend is originally from Grafton, North Dakota. The last dance we went to with my parents was in Grafton. And, if memory serves correctly, it was the Julie Lee band playing that evening.
The less-than-capacity crowd did not lessen our enjoyment. The dance floor was full but not crowded. I don’t know when and where we will dance next. I need to go shopping for tape. I’m thinking clear packing tape would be a good choice.
For information on dances in Mesa, check out Dancing in Mesa.