For four years, Florence Newman and her husband, Howard, blocked out Friday nights on their calendars so they would not miss the Friday Night Swing Dance Club at the American Legion in Towson.
Familiar faces grew into friendships. Single women felt safe there, and the recently widowed and divorced found companionship. Old couples brought their children, and new couples met and courted and even proposed on the dance floor. Once, a man with a failing heart took his last breath swinging across the floor with his spouse 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 has made it financially unsustainable to keep going.
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 the club’s regulars, said Betsy Pfund, Alexander’s dance partner and fellow teacher, who has helped him lead the organization for about seven years.
“It’s going to leave a real hole in our hearts,” Pfund said.
The language of dance
Alexander started the Friday Night Swing Dance Club in 1991 in the Johns Hopkins University ROTC building. After a series of moves, the dance settled in its final location at the Towson American Legion 10 years ago.
At its high point, the dance would attract as many as 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, dancers switched partners, and during the band’s intermission, Alexander would play recordings of different styles of music, so between swing sets attendees could practice Latin or tango or waltz dances.
“It’s such fun,” Newman said. “It’s a kind of play for adults.”
Before each dance, Alexander taught a beginning swing lesson. Chairs — never tables — lined the walls around the dance floor. 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’re a social dance club,” Alexander said — not a competitive ballroom dance club. “When you make a mistake, you don’t yell at each other. You laugh and call it a new move.”
It was a social event, an occasion where life happened. Newman said she has been to weddings of couples who met 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 was struggling with heart problems told his wife all he wanted to do was go dancing. The man slid down the wall in a middle of a waltz, and “that was the last thing he ever did … all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t save him,” Alexander said. He called it a happy story.
“I really anticipated that someday I would be dancing and keel over and that would be the end of that,” Alexander said. “There’s only one better way to go than dancing, and I’m almost too old for that.”
Regulars said the club’s focus on partner dancing, in particular, is what kept people coming back.
“To me, there’s no reason to dance whatsoever unless you’re dancing with a partner,” Alexander said. “What’s the sense of going out and waving your arms and shaking in the middle of the floor?”
“Partner dancing is just this amazing connection and flow,” Pfund said. “To people who have this dance bug, there’s nothing quite like it … you’re swept away and it’s wonderful. There’s this elation about being able to find human connection without language, but with the language of dance.”
Alexander said typical attendees were often people seeking 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 Towson University students.
Alexander estimated that in 27 years, about 100,000 people have 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 group of loyal regulars — but as that core group has waned over the years, Alexander said it is not large enough to keep it going.
The hall rental for the dance is expensive, and while live music is what regulars say makes the dance so special, booking bands also costs money, Alexander said.
Attendees pay $15, or $12 with a student ID or membership. Alexander said the dance needs about 130 attendees to break even.
The last few months, usually a busy season for the dance, were particularly slow, Alexander said, and summer months, when people prefer to be outside, are always slower. He had never intended to make a profit, even though he said running the club takes about the commitment of a full-time job. But it became a problem, Alexander said, when he began cutting into his Social Security checks and savings to keep it going.
“I'm not getting any younger, so I figured it was time to go,” he said.
“Chuck has been doing this for a long time,” Newman said. “He deserves a life.”
For swing devotees, Newman said it was a challenge to see why attendance has declined in recent years.
Alexander called it being “Baltimore-ized.”
“Baltimore people go crazy for something, just 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 outreach. 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 a younger audience. Most attendees in recent years have been over 40.
Another factor could be technology, Pfund said. Dances used to be where people went to meet people, but dating websites and social media have helped fill that role, she said. People are also constantly busy, expected to be able to answer a call from work even while off duty, she added. And Alexander said the sheer amount of entertainment available on a screen in a living room could be keeping people from going out dancing.
But then, perhaps dancing is simply on a downward trend, Pfund said, adding, “I do think some of these things come in cycles, as with anything in the economy."
Though there are fewer regulars these days, some that do 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 that this particular dance does.” Newman said.
A strong finish
That last dance, on May 25 at 7:30 p.m., will feature the ’60s-style girl group The Fabulettes, who Pfund said are known for beehive hairdos 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.
“Especially in later years as the market’s changed, he really has been digging 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 a break and to spending time with his adult son out West.
Pfund said the transition will be difficult for her. “My life is going to change dramatically after this,” she said.
Newman said she does not know what she and her husband will do on Friday nights anymore. “That’s why, like a lot of people, I’m sort of desperately looking for ways to save our club,” she said.
There have been murmurings of people trying to keep the club going after Alexander bows out. The longtime organizer, however, is skeptical.
“They’ve already split into several groups,” Alexander said. “It’s just not gonna happen.” He said he worries that without a single person leading the charge, a future group would descend into committee bickering.
Although she has been organizing the club for years, Pfund is stepping back as discussions begin about whether to keep it going. She said she wants to let the dust settle and focus on making the last dance a “strong finish.”
After that, Pfund said she does not know what is in her future. She wants to spend more time with her grandchildren and writing and editing. But no matter whether the club continues in a new form or dissipates, Pfund said she will continue to dance.
“Once you have this love of dancing and the skills you built through it, it’s hard to give that up,” she said.