It’s Tuesday night at Orlando’s Marks Street Senior Recreation Center, and a small but enthusiastic collection of seniors are here to dance. At 7pm, nine couples are already on the dance floor and ready to go. The hall is dimly lit, with six of the nine ceiling fans illuminated and spinning above. There sits a thin, wooden platform overlaid on standard vinyl tile, which is flanked on three sides by large, unadorned banquet tables capable of accommodating five or six couples each.
On the fourth side of the dance floor is Trumpet Blues: an 11–piece band founded over 25 years ago by trumpeter and now-retired mechanical engineer, Tony Pizzurro. The musicians come at this from many angles: for some of them this is the only public music-making they do all week because of non-musical day jobs, while for others it’s one fun gig amongst many.
The other trumpeter is Eric Wright, an Adjunct Professor of Humanities and History at Valencia College. John Babb, the baritone saxophonist, works for Charles Schwab and is also a real estate developer. I knew Melissa Davis as a yoga instructor at Warrior One on Corrine Drive in Audubon Park before I learned she plays second alto saxophone in the group. The singer, Barbara Jones, is an executive assistant at The Wyndham. Kurt Sterling, on tenor saxophone, does instrument repair and makes mouthpieces. They blend in seamlessly with the working musicians: the lead alto saxophonist Gerald Retner, bassist Larry Jacoby, trombonist Will Rogers, drummer Bill Cole, and Howard Herman—the pianist, composer, and frequent arranger for the band.
Herman has created over a dozen arrangements for Trumpet Blues, including some original compositions. His contributions complement the more than two hundred songs the band has ready to go at any given moment. Meringues, rumbas, sambas, cha-chas, tangos, and foxtrots make up the majority of tunes requested of the band. Pizzurro consults with Jones and calls out tunes by their number so the musicians can locate them easily in their thick binders of sheet music, and the dancers come so regularly that they have some of the tune numbers memorized themselves. Most of the songs are understandably on the moderately paced side.
I see grace, dignity, and playfulness as couples revolve past each other, occasionally offering greetings to each other as they rotate past. I engage a few couples in conversation as they take small breaks, with a lot of repeating ourselves to be heard over the band.
93 years old and still incredibly spry, John Ticen and his wife Clarice have been coming to Marks Street for 20 years. Joe grew up loving planes during the Great Depression in Indiana and served as a pilot in the Air Force, flying patrol and interception missions in Panama during World War II. Using the GI Bill after the war, Joe became an engineer and moved to Florida in 1957 to work for Martin, which would eventually become Lockheed Martin. He’d wanted to be a pilot his whole life, but the timing was wrong for him to become a commercial pilot. By the time that would have become a possibility, he was already an engineer with a family. He started dancing lessons in 1972, and found that he “enjoyed the hell out of that.”
One of the dancers makes a request for Herman’s arrangement of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”
Joe and Lucy Birkemeier travel weekly to Orlando from Ocoee. The couple has been coming to Marks Street for upwards of fifteen years, when the band playing was smaller, and the dancers were far greater in number. Joe had done competitive dancing in a Balkan folk dance group in his youth in Ohio. The Birkemeiers are 87 and 85 years old, respectively, and an observation shared by them and other couples is that the reduction in dancers is for obvious reasons: they are aging and dying, which is impossible not to notice because there are fewer and fewer younger people taking up ballroom dancing.
But there is one younger couple dancing amongst the seniors. With a buoyant, irrepressible energy, JoHelen Breen-Skinner, “Jo! Helen! With an haitch! No space!”, is an Irish-born bundle of energy in a fedora and short dress with a machine-gun speech pattern reminiscent of a 1920s flapper girl. She is there with her new dancing partner, Dancin’ Dan, a dance instructor here in Orlando. They are joyful on the dance floor, with the confidence of experience and talent, but they clearly also take care not to show up their floormates. They’re respectful regulars, and JoHelen knows many of the couples there. She suggests I talk to another couple who has a truly remarkable story, and who visually stood out to me, too, because they seem about forty years apart in age.
The band starts the slow introduction to their arrangement of Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling” from Flashdance—the fastest piece of the night so far. Lucy Birkemeier dances Joe along a path to where I am sitting with JoHelen and Dancin’ Dan. She leans close to me with a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye, and whispers a warning, “Watch what’s going to happen next!” I disappoint her a little by informing her that I know that the song is going to pick up speed, and feel a twinge of guilt at unintentionally robbing her of successfully surprising the newcomer. The floor is a little emptier, but the remaining dancers handle the tempo with panache. Handkerchiefs emerge at the end to mop sweat from brows.
I make my way to the opposite side of the hall to discover the story of the couple that JoHelen and others suggested. It’s a story more touching, poignant, and lovely than I ever would have guessed. Maurice Salamy met Sally, “the most beautiful woman [he’d] ever seen,” when he popped up on the street level from a New York City subway during Fleet Week in 1947, and immediately asked her to go dancing. A single mother of two girls, Sally tried to put him off, but he was persistent. She relented on the condition that of the dance halls nearby, he take her to “the expensive one.” Fast forward through 64 years of married life, parenthood, and dancing to the year 2011. Sally was now ready to celebrate her 100th birthday. And because they’d never had an official wedding ceremony, they made a double party of it by having a vow renewal ceremony at their synagogue. Faye Novick, a local event planner, handled the details for the occasion. Three years later, at 103, Sally passed away, leaving behind several children and a lifetime of happy memories for Maurice, twelve years her junior. Faye Novick had been deeply moved by Maurice and Sally’s romantic story. After Sally’s passing, she committed herself to start the process of learning ballroom dancing so that Maurice would continue to have a dance partner. It is Faye—elegant, graceful, and smiling—who Maurice now twirls, cradles, and steps with.
What happens on Tuesday nights at the Marks Street Senior Recreation Center is a small slice of magic. It’s not Disney magic. Nothing flashy or fancy or loud or attention-grabbing. It’s small, unassuming, joyful, sweaty, human magic. There’s music, dancing, love, camaraderie, and stories. So many stories. For $5, it’s open to the public.
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Interesting story about the Tuesday night dances at Marks St. There is a wide variety of ballroom-dancing in the Orlando area: youth programs, performances, monthly dances for all ages at many different venues. The largest and most diverse monthly dance is hosted on 2nd Saturday nights in Maitland by the Orlando Chapter of USA Dance – a non-profit, all-volunteer, performing-arts/charitable organization, with programs for many special populations: disadvantaged youth, Alzheimers patients, Veterans, Visually-impaired, and intellectually/physically-challenged. here’s a highlights video of a recent dance, with performances: https://youtu.be/PdSXse1IA8Q
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