Ballroom, swing, Latin and contra are among dance styles featured at venues in East suburbs

Social dances get couples out on the floor


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For those who live east of Pittsburgh and want to dance the night away without alcohol, tobacco, flashing lights or cheesy pickup lines, there are a number of social dances where, after a lesson or two, new dancers can join in the fun.

Here is a quick survey of social dances here, all but the first sponsored by Coal Country Traditions, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving traditional music and sponsoring dances and classes. Admission prices vary.

Ballroom

David Vint advertises his ballroom dance events with the headline "Nothin' Fancy, Just Dancy." That's not entirely true for those who have seen the elegant SNPJ Crystal Ballroom, located on Third Street in the Sewickley Township village of Herminie.

Well-scrubbed and with plenty of chandeliers, it's the perfect place to impersonate Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But dancers don't need a tuxedo, fancy gown, heels or even reels to take part -- nor would they see them here.

The dance takes place two Saturdays a month or an occasional Friday night, thanks to Mr. Vint and his wife, Amy, of Hempfield, longtime dance instructors who have been running it there for eight to 10 years.

Mr. Vint, who once worked for Arthur Murray and had his own dance studio, also is a disc jockey and does an occasional wedding reception. It was through doing such receptions that he noticed that the hall, which has hosted polka dances for 50 years, was occasionally available on Saturdays and inquired about its availability.

The dances performed here run the gamut: East Coast swing, better known as the "jitterbug"; several types of Latin dances, such as salsa and cha-cha; an occasional "smooth" dance, such as waltz or fox trot; and even a hustle from the 1970s disco era.

Mr. Vint said 80 people may show on a typical night -- more than 100 on New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day. Attendees are encouraged to bring snacks. Although singles are welcome, couples in their 50s and 60s predominate.

The location has one drawback:

"Since [the ballroom] has a lot of wedding receptions, we can't get a standard night," Mr. Vint said.

Contra

One of the few contra dances in this part of the state takes place every Friday night at the Sarah Jacobsen Brown Community Center on Windemere Street in Swisshelm Park.

Contra dancing comes out of Scots-Irish culture and employs some of the same moves as better-known square dancing. But while a "square" utilizes four couples, contra dancing uses two or four lines through which couples may weave up and down.

This evening's caller advised dancers to focus their eyes on their partners, not their surroundings, and after two dances it became clear: Dancers do lots of twirling and it can make them dizzy.

Formerly located at the Edgewood Club, Wilkinsburg YWCA and Third Presbyterian Church in Shadyside, the contra dance has been in Swisshelm Park for about 10 years. But it's been going on "way before I started -- I started in 1975," says Wayne Albright of Squirrel Hill.

The Friday dance always uses live bluegrass music, with the quartet the Lackawanna Longnecks providing tunes one recent evening.

Because contra dances are so few in number, committed dancers come from all over. One couple -- who met at a contra dance in the D.C. area -- drove in from Johnstown. Others came from West Virginia.

"Once you get outside of Pittsburgh you have to go a couple of hours to find a dance," in such disparate locations as Erie, Dunkirk, N.Y., and Morgantown, W.Va., said Cindy Harris of O'Hara, one of the stalwarts. "It's a passion."

Swing

Pittsburghers tend to follow trends, but not when it came to the late-1980s renaissance of swing music and dancing -- it was pretty much "with it" even then. Fans can still dance to swing music every second Sunday of the month at the Edgewood Club.

Here, people do primarily East Coast swing but also an occasional Lindy hop to "jump blues" music, which is always live except during band breaks. The Boilermaker Jazz Band, Dr. Zoot and Jimmy Sapienza and Five Guys Named Moe play here regularly.

For those who want to look the part, the sartorial style is clearly retro. Some of the men sport 1940s-era high-waisted, billowing trousers, pocket watches and often a two-tone style of footwear called spectators. Some of the women wear short, flared skirts, ankle socks and Keds, recalling the 1950s. Because of the club's relative accessibility, college students often attend.

The most experienced dancers often are vigorous and energetic -- it can be a real workout.

"We started in the fall of 1989," said Lisa Tamres of Squirrel Hill, one of the three organizers with her teaching partner and a musician named Henry Shapiro. She said that Mr. Shapiro "wanted to play more for dancers; he found the Edgewood Club."

The dance really took off in the late 1990s, early 2000s, when the Gap commercials depicting dancers came out, Ms. Tamres noted. "Everyone wanted to try out swing dancing after that. That's when a whole lot of people started -- we had to stop advertising because we had to turn people away." At one point, they were holding three dances a month, breaking during the summer because of hot weather.

Overcrowding is not a problem now, however. Organizers have recently made noise about holding the dances only for special occasions because of increased competition, but they are reconsidering that decision.

Latin

For 16 years, The Edgewood Club also has hosted Latin ballroom dances that these days take place on the third Sunday of each month. They grew out of Sunday swing dances.

"One of the swing dancers, [the late Bill Leiber,] decided he wanted to form a Latin dance," said Bob Vescovi of Squirrel Hill, who has attended since they began and plays disc jockey. "His vision was to have a Latin dance similar to the swing dance."

And like its swing counterpart, it did become popular.

"For a number of years we did two a month," Mr. Vescovi said. "Probably for the last two years, we've been going to one a month." Like the swing dance, "there are a lot more places, a lot of competition."

On a recent night, when only about 20 to 30 people showed up, two lessons were held -- salsa in a side room and cha-cha in the main ballroom.

"Over the years it's become a good place for people to learn," Mr. Vescovi said. Because it isn't a "meet market," "People can feel comfortable here [coming] without partners -- it's not uncommon for women to ask men to dance."

Many of the women wear high heels because it's actually easier to do Latin dances in them. In addition to the aggressive salsa and the more laid-back cha-cha, there also are the more rocking meringue and bachata, the latter with some similarities to swing.

However, Mr. Vescovi noted, "At a Latin dance, you won't see tango."

Like the swing dance, the Latin dance breaks over the summer.

"It's too warm, plus a lot of people cut back in the summer," Mr. Vescovi said.

Prices vary for lessons. Details: www.coalcountry.org; for Mr. Vint, call 724-832-2687.

neigh_east

Rick Nowlin: rnowlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3871. First Published April 11, 2013 8:15 AM


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