It was early Monday morning and I picked up my 88-year-old mom, Geree, for coffee. Our favorite spot was the little coffee shop several blocks away from her assisted living community. The air was bright and cool for a fall morning in Houston, so we sat at a small outside table. Mom’s cheeks were rosy and complemented the pink sweater she wore.
“I found the photograph you were looking for,” I said as I sipped my mocha latte.
Her eyes lit up, and she smiled. “Thank goodness. I thought it was lost forever.”
I pulled the 35-year-old photo from my purse and handed it to her. It was nestled in front of a piece of cardboard inside a plastic sandwich bag.
“Ohhh.” She let out a breath as she studied the photo of her in a pink ballgown and my father in his black tuxedo. A single teardrop rolled down her cheek.
“When I was a little girl, I saw pictures of beautiful ballroom dancers. And just like other little girls, I wished I could do that, too,” she said. “I longed to trade my feed-sack dresses and clunky brown oxfords for the elegant gowns and dainty shoes. The women looked like princesses.”
Years later, she had the chance to achieve that wish while married to my dad, Harry, whom she always referred to as the man of her dreams. They lived in Linthicum, Maryland, a small suburban community south of Baltimore city, and raised me and my sister in a colonial-style two-story house on Greentree Road. When my parents entered their fifties, my sister and I ventured out to start our own lives.
“After you two left home, we wanted to find new hobbies that would be fun—hobbies we could do together. One evening, while scanning the Maryland Gazette, we came across an ad for ballroom dance lessons. So, we registered for the class.”
While gazing at the photo, she looked up at me and grinned. “The funny thing is, I got cold feet when it came time to attend the first lesson. I was worried that I would look awkward since I’d never been on a dance floor. I wanted to stay home, but your dad wouldn’t let me back out. ‘We’ve paid our money,’ he told me. ‘We’re going.’”
I sipped my coffee and chuckled. “That sounds like dad.”
“As it turned out, the class that evening was great fun. So, we continued to go every Friday night.”
Their teacher, she noted, had been a dance instructor for the cadets in Officer Training School at West Point. When he had to give up teaching because of health issues, they started taking lessons at the Towson Dance Studio, located just north of Baltimore. Their new teacher was an award-winning dancer and wanted his students to participate in dance competitions.
“After we took lessons for about a year, he thought Harry and I were advanced enough to compete, so we agreed to give it a try,” Mom said. “We added new dance patterns to our repertoire, including the cha-cha, waltz, rumba, tango, polka, quickstep, and others.”
She explained that ballroom dancing competitions were divided into five categories—bronze, silver, gold, pre-champion, and champion—for each style of dance. As dancers progressed, they moved up in the competition categories. Competition attire for men was a black tuxedo with tails and patent-leather dance shoes. Women wore elegant, custom-made gowns. The style of dress worn depended on the type of dance.
“This was my first costume,” she said while gazing at the photograph. “I wore it to dance in waltz competitions. It was trimmed with sequins and soft pink feathers. I wore matching pink satin dance pumps with it.”
“The gown is gorgeous, and you looked beautiful wearing it.”
Her eyes lit up as she thrust the photo closer to me and pointed to my father. “And your dad looked handsome in his tux.”
I nodded. “He sure did. Absolutely.”
“Later, I added a Latin dress to my collection of dance costumes. I wore it when we danced the cha-cha, rumba, tango, and paso doble. The Latin dresses are styled to be form-fitting and sultry, with shorter skirts cut to expose the dancer’s legs.”
“Sounds very sexy,” I said. She blushed and continued her story.
“We became part of the Towson Dance Studio’s competitive team, which included nine other couples. The competitions were sponsored by various competitive ballroom dancing associations and held once or twice a month throughout the year.”
“I remember you and dad driving up to Cherry Hill, New Jersey.”
“Oh yes,” she went on. “We would drive to New Jersey on a Friday night. It was about a four-hour drive. We’d compete all day Saturday, and then drive home on Sunday. Couples came from all over the country to participate. We would typically compete against a dozen other couples for the particular dance we were performing. Their ages ranged from the mid-twenties to mid-seventies.”
She paused and took a sip of her coffee. “Although dancing in competitions was a lot of fun, it required a lot of practice, as well as stamina.”
“No one can deny you two weren’t committed to working at it,” I said. In addition to weekly lessons, they had remodeled their basement to resemble a small dance studio and practiced daily at home. They also did strength training at the local gym.
“At first we competed with our instructors as partners and won bronze medals dancing the waltz, cha-cha, rumba, foxtrot, and swing. Soon after that, we were ready to compete as a couple. We won more bronze medals, then advanced to the silver category and started winning silver medals. It wasn’t long before we had a bucketful of medals!” She grinned at the memory. “The judges called us the ‘little couple’ because we were always the shortest ones on the dance floor.”
Mom closed her eyes and inhaled. She sat quietly for several moments and I thought she may have fallen asleep. I touched her arm, and she spoke, her voice soft.
“One of our greatest moments was the day we won two gold medals. One for dancing the waltz and one for dancing the paso doble. That was our last competition.” She paused as her eyes filled with tears. “It wasn’t long afterward, you know, that your dad was diagnosed with heart disease and scheduled for open-heart surgery.”
I had known the doctor encouraged Dad to move to a warmer, more temperate climate after his surgery. They left Maryland and moved to Ocala, Florida. Although they no longer competed, my parents still danced. They heard about a young professional ballroom dancer, the Junior Ballroom Champion in England, who taught classes in southern Florida and also traveled to Ocala one day a week to teach. They reached out to him, and soon Harry and Geree were taking ballroom dancing lessons again.
About a year later, they moved into Ocala Palms, a retirement community that served as their home base for the next 22 years. On their first night in the new house, the Ocala Palms Community Association was holding a dance at its clubhouse.
“We jumped at the chance to attend,” Mom said. “The music playing that evening included many of our big band favorites, and we got up and danced the quickstep. Afterward, some of the Ocala Palms residents asked if we would start a dance class. Although we were honored, we weren’t trained as teachers. We just loved to dance.” Beaming, she shrugged. “They wanted us to share our skills anyway, so we volunteered to teach a class.”
They started a ballroom dancing class at the Ocala Palms community clubhouse, and residents attended free of charge. Harry and Geree taught the waltz, cha-cha, rumba, foxtrot, tango, and swing. The class became very popular, with a dozen or more couples attending each lesson.
“One of our best memories was helping a father learn how to dance the waltz, ” Mom said. “He wanted to surprise his daughter when he shared the first dance with her at her wedding. They were both very thrilled.”
Some of the couples in the class progressed and were eager to show off their new-found ballroom dancing skills. In response, my parents formed a dance group that performed ballroom dancing exhibitions for the Ocala Palms community. They danced at other venues as well, such as area nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and rehabilitation centers.
“We didn’t plan to teach the class for very long, you know. But your dad and I ended up leading the ballroom dancing class in Ocala Palms for 17 years. And we enjoyed every minute of it.”
Harry’s and Geree’s dancing career came to a close in their late seventies, when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer, which required extensive surgery. Trips to the dance studio became trips to doctors’ offices and hospitals. They packed away his tuxedo and stored her dance costumes. Not long afterward, Harry succumbed to his battle with cancer. Mom not only lost her dance partner—she lost her best friend.
“I still have that pink ballgown,” she commented, choking back a quiet sob as we took our last sip of coffee that morning. “Every now and then I’ll pull it out and reminisce about my journey from that little girl in clodhoppers to a ballroom dancer in a beautiful pink gown and satin slippers, and how I was floated elegantly around the dance floor with the most handsome man in the world.”
We drained our coffee cups and rode back to her apartment in silence. She cradled the photograph in her lap and lightly traced the outlines of her and my father with her index finger. Harry and Geree, the “little couple,” smiled back. That one moment captured their love for each other and joy of dancing together. And the memory will last a lifetime.
Check out “Satin Slippers.” Geree’s dream of dancing waltzes in a beautiful ballgown comes true.Tweet
Written by Allorianna Matsourani