The wizened man steps to the mic and launches into “Mack The Knife,” while behind him the 17-piece band goes a-one-and-a-two and begins to really swing. Evelyn rises carefully from her chair and stalks across the dance floor, her eyes locked on her target: a tall man, distinguished, steel-rod-for-a-spine in a dinner jacket with a green bow tie and matching cummerbund. She grabs him, and they spin gracefully across the black and white tiles. I turn back to my table where Ted is pouring me another glass of white wine from a rapidly emptying jug. I am kicking it old school at the Senior Center Snow Ball, at least 20 years younger than everybody else here, and they are outdrinking me by 2 to 1. The man across from me, wearing two thick gold bracelets and three chunky gold rings, slaps his palm on the table. “We aren’t dead!” he says, baring his teeth.
The Senior Center is 46 years old (too young by four years to be a member), and every year it hosts the Snow Ball, a winter dance featuring the big band orchestra Sentimental Journey. The party starts at 8pm, as does the music, and on the dot almost everybody is up and moving, no preamble whatsoever, in the dark, low-ceilinged ballroom. The Snow Ball is BYOB. Deb, who sits down at Table 5 with me, pulls a bottle of single malt Scotch out of a yellow paper bag and pours herself a healthy two fingers. By the end of the first dance, my table is full and everyone is talking. Ted introduces me to his date, Esther, tall and pretty. He tells me they met at the Senior Center two years ago. Are they married? I ask. No one at the table is married, he tells me. At my table and the adjoining one are members of Schmooze, a singles group for seniors that meets at the center. Ted points out the various couples at the tables and explains that many people here are divorced or widowed, but they don’t want to remarry. “What is important,” he says, “is companionship. I would say this is a happy place.”
I slide over next to Evelyn. What does she enjoy about a party like this? “Not much,” she says, laughing. “I was just sitting here thinking I’ve got to be here another three hours!” She does like to dance, however, and claims she is regarded as quite good at it. Just then she is asked onto the floor. Maybe 5′ tall, with short white hair, black pants and a sparkly black and white top, she moves her feet quickly and fluidly. The man seems twice her height, but she is every inch his equal. No sooner has she resumed sitting when she is asked up again. “You barely had time to sit,” I say. She squeezes my arm and smiles.
I get pulled to another table, where “the original Lady Di” introduces herself, telling me in her Welsh-accented voice that the piano player is her beau and extending a heavy hand loaded with silver for me to kiss. After sending me for water, she pours me a glass of red wine upon my return, and tells me about drinking Champagne with Jeremy Irons way back in 1981, before he was a star.
By 10 o’clock the crowd has thinned by half, and the band is taking its second break. I drink my wine and gaze around at the rather nondescript ballroom. With the current divorce rate roughly four times what it was in the 1950s, how much more will my generation need events like this? I wonder. Will I dance one day in a similar room, gray-haired and stooped in a suit twirling a woman in a sparkly dress, while Sentimental Journey plays “Heart Shaped Box” and “Gin and Juice”?
Eleven o’clock approaches, and I ask Lady Di if she will join me for the last dance. She takes my left hand in hers and positions my right hand properly on her black satin dress. I tell her that she is going to have to lead. “When your hand is in the small of my back,” she says, Elizabeth Taylor eyes staring up at me from above her billowing feather boa, “then you have to lead.” She has the good grace to ignore my clumsiness, telling me softly, “Forward. Now back.”
“Are you going to write about us old people?” Pat asks me. Earlier I had seen her and her husband, Richard, dancing slowly and with some difficulty, and now they’re helping clean up the stained paper plates and crumpled napkins. She walks with a cane, and when she moved here from Pennsylvania, the only people she knew were her children and her doctors—that is, until she began coming to the Senior Center. “If you know anybody who’s feeling sad and lonely in Charlottesville,” she says, “send them here for a week.”