Dancing Like it's Senior Prom

Written by Michael Knock

Photos by John Richard

If you didn’t know better, you might mistake it for prom night.

There’s the old gymnasium decorated to the nines with white Christmas lights dangling from the ceiling. There’s the stage at the front of the room draped with gauzy lace that seems to glow in the darkness thanks to still more lights. There’s a band — a three-piece combo — that plays hit after hit while couples move about the floor in a counterclockwise circle.

It sure does look like prom. But then you hear the accordion ....

The Ponderosa Ballroom in Walford is a dancing hotspot for seniors in eastern Iowa. Every Tuesday from 7 to 10:30 p.m., 150 to 225 people crowd the maple dance floor doing waltzes, polkas, two-steps and fox trots to the live music of groups like Barefoot Becky and Lyle Beaver. They come from all over to meet, to talk, to laugh, and, of course, to dance.

“I love the exercise,” said Dick Shepardson of Iowa City. “I come in feeling a little crotchety, and I leave feeling pretty good.”

Dick and his wife, Marty, have been coming to the Ponderosa for years. Typically, they dance two to three times a week attending other dances in Malcolm, Iowa City, Oxford Junction, Davenport and Riverside. It’s good exercise, and it’s very social. They’ve made friends with other couples from the area from towns like Lone Tree, Cedar Rapids, Traer and Iowa City. And they become like family, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries with treats, cakes and cards.

Some dancers even fall in love.

Beth and Jim Noeller of Iowa City met on the Ponderosa dance floor about six-and-a-half years ago. A year later, they were married.

“I was from Vinton, so I danced here a lot,” Jim said. “She was just starting out when we met.”

“I guess I just found a good partner,” Beth responded looking up at her husband.

Beth, 58, and Jim, 66, are among the younger dancers at the Ponderosa, where gray hair dominates on the dance floor.

Ponderosa owners Paul and Connie Louis said that occasionally they get younger people at their dances, but that most of the crowd is in their 60s, 70s or even in their 80s. Paul says that it’s less of a generational difference that keeps the young folks away, and more a matter of culture. People who grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s didn’t have the options for entertainment that young people today enjoy, so they laced up their dancing shoes and hit the floor.

“For them, entertainment was to go to dances,” Paul said. “There might have been one movie theater in the whole county, so once you saw the movie, you needed something else to do.”

Connie added that many people who today are in the 30s and 40s never learned to do the polka or the two-step. Thus, it’s no surprise that the crowd at the Ponderosa is a little older.

Indeed, many of the couples at the Ponderosa said that they danced regularly when they were younger and dating. Once children came along, however, it was harder to get away. Many have come back to the dance floor now that their children are grown.

According to Marty, the dances at the Ponderosa have a rhythm to them. The songs come in sets of three — three waltzes, three polkas, etc. After each set there’s a short break as couples leave the dance floor to get a drink or just to rest for a moment. When they return, many have new partners and they begin the cycle all over again.

“We try to work through all of the couples at our table and dance with everyone,” Marty said.

She added that dancing with different partners is both fun and challenging. Every dancer moves differently and you have to try and adjust yourself to their speed, their skill level and their rhythm.

Clearly, the Shepardsons and the friends at their table are experienced dancers. They glide about the floor smoothly, occasionally stopping to do a spin or a twirl. But, as Dick explains, it doesn’t matter how good you are. The point is to have fun.

“The critical thing is to forget about the mistakes and just keep going,” he said. “No one is keeping score.”

And you can get a pretty good workout. Dances like the polka and “The Flying Dutchman” can get the heart pumping pretty fast. Mary Burr of Lone Tree said that in addition to the fun and the friendship, she and her husband, Lloyd, dance as a substitute for other types of exercise.

“We don’t do any mall walking,” Mary said. “We just take it out on the dance floor.”

Others agreed. Barb Krall, who works as the senior resources executive director in Muscatine County, said she encourages seniors to dance.

“We like to keep seniors active and healthy,” she said. “Dancing can be a big part of that. It can be such an aerobic workout.”

It can also be a metaphor for something bigger.

“I think that dancing brings the lives of the husband and the wife together,” Mary added. “It’s a wonderful life.”