A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s | Pittsburgh City Paper

A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s

click to enlarge A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Dancers ranging in age from 61 to 87 perform the River Waltz during a Motown Monday dance night at the Wightman School Building on Jan. 22, 2024.

Nearly every night of the week, there’s a dance happening somewhere in Pittsburgh. These dances are not to be confused with typical nightlife or club dancing, but instead are “social” dances, descended from the swing era of the 1930s and ‘40s.

Back then, young dancers thronged clubs and dance halls to hear big band music and to do the Lindy Hop  — one of the original forms of swing dancing, originated in Harlem. Often used interchangeably with the Jitterbug, the Lindy Hop kicked off a golden age of swing that persisted for decades and introduced hundreds of new, localized dances, including the shag, the Charleston, and the East Coast Swing.

click to enlarge A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s (2)
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Kelly Driscoll and Ron McCorkle step to the beat of Motown Monday

Today, swing’s adherents are older, but no less enthusiastic.

“We're our own little society,” Mary Beth Kish, 71, of Munhall tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

For nearly 30 years, Kish and her fellow dancers have headed up the stairs at the Wightman School Community Building in Squirrel Hill, which hosts multiple dances a week. There’s ballroom, swing, and even a tango class taught by the renowned Robert “Bobby D” Dunlap, who’s also been deejaying there since 1997. The dances at Wightman started off as Bobby D’s Swing City.

Bobby D is trying to retire, he tells City Paper, though he’s still a fixture at Wightman, wearing a signature beret and white oxfords that look straight out of Saturday Night Fever.

Kish recalls her parents dancing at the McKeesport Palisades, a cigar factory turned event center that still hosts dances and boasts one of the region’s most spacious dance floors.

In Pittsburgh, a then-youthful Greatest Generation flocked to places like the Palisades, the now-defunct West View Park’s Danceland (the Rolling Stones played there in 1964), and Kennywood’s erstwhile dancehall.

“They were buggin’ at Kennywood, you know?” Kish remembers. 

Children of the Greatest Generation, now mostly in their 70s, have taken up the hobby, some dancing as many as six nights a week, for hours at a time. 

“You can get addicted to it,” Kish says. “Some people are really addicted to it.”

For the past four years, Barb Wilson — “Barb, she’s the main thing,” Bobby D says — has organized Motown Monday at Wightman, which, if you ask around, is the dance to go to. “The biggest thing now,” Bobby D says.

“This dance is the friendliest dance in all of Pittsburgh,” Wilson beams. “It truly is. This is the only dance where everybody dances with everybody.”

It’s the most social, dancers say, and the most welcoming of single people. Whereas many Pittsburgh dances are for couples, at Motown Monday, everyone frequently switches dance partners — often as instructed by Bobby D — twirling around on the dance floor adjoining Wightman’s proscenium stage. Newbies are welcome and a “community feel,” pervades, Bobby D says. “Sort of like family” is a sentiment echoed by almost every dancer.

At Motown Monday, there’s boxed wine and a buffet with food cooked by Barb, the event’s promoter and chef.

click to enlarge A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s (3)
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Mark Wagner dances with Linda Hartman during a Motown Monday singles dance night

“It’s a draw for the single guys because they don't cook,” Kish says. “They like to come Monday night so they have something to eat. So it’s a pretty good racket [they have] going.”

On a recent Monday at 7 p.m., Barb puts out the food. A shoulder injury means delivery pizza for the entree this week. “I wish people would shut the lids,” she fusses.

“Did you have [Barb’s] Motown salad yet?” several people ask. “It's Italian salad, it has everything in it, it's delicious.”

Social or partnered dance involves two people, coordinating their movements. It’s a simple enough premise, but as Mark Wagner, a dancer, promoter, and general evangelist from Youngstown, Ohio, points out, it’s a rarified environment where you have such “intimate” contact with several different people — sometimes relative strangers — all in one night.

click to enlarge A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s (4)
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Gerald Tarr spins Mary Beth Kish while dancing on Motown Monday at the Wightman School Community building.

“You’re in physical contact,” Kish emphasizes. 

Moreover, partner dance requires skill.

“You have to have a good lead … with some kind of rhythm [who] stays to the beat of the music,” Kish says. “You have to have the same exact beat or else you can't dance together.”

Social dancers turn up their noses at so-called freestyle dancing, which doesn’t require responding to another person, no leading or following.

“Anybody can freestyle. Which is fine, I get it,” Kish says, “Anyone [who] jiggles around.”

After paying $12 at the door, dancers begin trickling in to “softer” music spun by Bobby D. After dinner, he turns up the volume, and no one hesitates to hop on the floor when “Back In My Arms Again” by The Supremes blares, with sweeping colored disco lights, followed by Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” Though there are a lot of swing moves, dancers mix in cha-cha, hustle, waltz, and bachata — a social dance style from the Dominican Republic. Bobby D mostly stays on theme, but there’s a rush to the floor when he sneaks in “Can’t Stop The Feeling” by Justin Timberlake.

In talking to a handful of the 80 or so Monday regulars, dancers hail from all over the region, traveling up to two hours from Ohio.

“So that’s another thing,” Barb says. “Everybody comes from everywhere.”

Barb has a soft spot for those she calls the “originals” who have come to Motown Monday since it started in September 2019. Back then, Barb says, there were maybe eight people. Just as they began growing their numbers, she planned a St. Patrick’s Day dinner and dance, making green clover-shaped ravioli. It was March 2020.

When the dancing returned to Wightman after the COVID-19 shutdowns, on Memorial Day 2021, Barb says, “We advertised. And I did a big buffet, and our first dance back, we had 80 people.”

“It was a long time without dancing!” Marlene Waszkiewicz, one of the originals, exclaims to CP

Waszkiewicz started dancing as a child. “I wanted to be a Rockette,” she says, dryly adding, “But short little fat stubby girls don't get to be Rockettes back in that time.”

As an adult, Waszkiewicz has kept dancing into her 70s, remembering that she used to ditch her husband to hit some of Pittsburgh’s most storied nightclubs. “I was at Confetti, Chauncy’s, I was down at The Boardwalk, I was out,” Waszkiewicz says, “but you know what? I really like this song and I have to go dance.”

Naturally, a singles dance comes with gossip and intrigue. What happens if you’re in a couple where one partner dances — say three, four nights a week — and the other doesn’t?

“I've been asking that question for 30 years,” Kish says. “I have no idea.” She married twice and both of her husbands were dancers.

At Motown Monday, “nobody here is married to each other,” Kish explains. “But they're married. There's a lot of shit going on. Everybody's having affairs with everybody or whatever … I mean, we’re in our 70s. So it doesn't change,” she laughs.

Barb introduces another Monday original, Tom Richey, the group’s “resident Santa.” Richey grows out his beard every year starting at “Christmas in July.” Multiple people show me pictures of a full-bearded Tom at the annual Wightman Christmas dance talking to women in his lap.

“You know, it's a tough job,” he tells CP.

At one point, Barb wheels out a birthday cake for another regular, who’s leading a line dance to “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. “How old do you think she is?” Tom asks. “I’m 73, she’s 67!” (Apparently one of the youngest people in the room.) “The girl that I was dancing with, her birthday’s in February. She’ll be 75.”

I ask what he thinks the average age is. “Old!” Tom says.

“You’re only old up here,” another dancer tells me, pointing to her head, as about 20 dance partners whirl past to Edwin Starr’s “Twenty-Five Miles.”

How does it end, after three full hours of revelry?

“Gradually!” says another of Barb’s originals, Philip Bourdon, known for his flamboyant shirts. Bobby begins to wind down the music, and around 10 p.m., people with the longest drives home start shuffling toward the lobby. There’s talk of the next dance — at Wightman for Valentine’s Day, or a Saturday Singles' dance at the West View VFW.

Wagner says it’s all in good fun, but also “it's a life-changing experience for people.”

click to enlarge A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s (5)
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Ron McCorkle closes his eyes while dancing with Rose Schoy on Jan. 22, 2024.

“Regardless of what stuff life is throwing at you, [dancing] either makes it sweeter or it gets you out of the ditch and brings you back to reality,” he says.

“And where else are you gonna go for $12?” asks Richey.

click to enlarge A group of Pittsburgh seniors keep the dance party going well into their 70s (6)
CP Illustration: Jeff Schreckengost

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