Swing your partner: Liz and Don, looking sharp at the Sharp Images Singles Dance.

Strictly Ballroom

Liz and Shirley, both in their mid-fifties, have been personal trainers for many years, during which time they wore simple, stretchy black garments and called it good. That changed when they discovered the Sharp Images Singles Dance, a ballroom bash held every Sunday night.

"I started out with one pair of dressy black pants," Shirley remembers. "Then I started going to Goodwill. Glitter, sparkle. . .I began wearing things no one before me had worn more than once."

"It's half the fun, getting dressed up," says Liz, who stocked up on cheap evening gowns and jewelry.

But there was one crucial accessory she already possessed, deep in the recesses of her closet. When she was a teenager, her father had owned the Ballroom Boutique, and back then she acquired two pairs of ballroom-dance shoes -- high, high heels reinforced by a steel rod. Could the shoes have retained magical powers? Because when Liz began to ballroom dance again, it all came back -- even the steps she'd mastered when she spent six months prepping for a competition with a partner, only to have the duo break up before the big day.

"He was too dumb," she remembers matter-of-factly. She went on to start her own modern-dance company and has spent much of her life dancing -- at various times using her maiden name (Elizabeth Mandeville), or her until-recently married name (Liz Kelly).

Well, there's a new girl in town. "I am now Elizabeth DeVille," she announces. "I dropped the 'Man.' I've been taking care of men my whole life. Now, if you translate it, it's Village of Elizabeth, and that works for me."

Now, if you translate it, Liz DeVille and her friend Shirley are expecting a good time; they're on their way from the foothills to the corner of Speer Boulevard and Zuni Street, where a dance at the Continental Hotel changes lives.

"I started coming three years ago," Shirley remembers. "I had just gotten a divorce, and I was nervous. Well, I didn't sit down all night. I learned it all on the floor. At first, I thought, these men are my father! But that didn't matter. The second time I came, I met a boyfriend. Of course, I brought Liz. If I didn't, she'd still be moping around her house with those two cats."

Liz debuted six months ago, her own divorce barely cold. "I was scared to death," she remembers. "I'd been married thirteen years. I hadn't been in anyone else's arms all that time. But I liked it. I liked to dance and flirt. I like adoration, and the fact that it doesn't go any further. It opened up an avenue. What else is out there, anyway? Club booty dancing?"

"Right," Shirley agrees. "It's intimate without being personal."

Or personal without being intimate.

Inside the Continental's ballroom, most people attending the Sharp Images dance are sharply dressed, which gives the space, with its low, acoustic tile ceiling and sad little chandelier, an unaccountably sophisticated air.

After paying eight bucks apiece and grabbing a handful of peppermints from a centrally located bowl, Liz and Shirley assume their regular places at their regular table. It's true: They're among the youngest people in the room, although the preponderance of seventy-somethings all look very fit and much younger than their years, many wearing tight, racy clothes or dripping sequins.

Men roam around the room while women sit at tables, applying lipstick and powder, their spots marked with evening purses. As the DJ starts in -- "In the Mood" -- and the lights dim, a low undercurrent of conversation rises.

". . .I just loved to dance, but my husband hated it. Of course, when we were dating, we danced every weekend."

"Honey, didn't anyone ever tell you that things change?"

"Okay," Liz says, calling her table to order. "The cattiness can start. Let's remember Rule One: If you step on a man's toes, it's not your fault."

"It's always his!"

". . .ooh, there she is. She has some kind of bigtime job at a government agency and she always does that sex-kitten thing. Men just eat it up."

". . .costume party? I wonder if that woman's going to come in that bra and diaper again!"

"Well, I think it sounds fun. I love the '50s nights."

"Poor, poor thing. Her husband died thirteen years ago, and she's never gotten over it."

Next song up: "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." Several men swoop down on the table, and soon almost everyone is dancing: many suavely, a few stumping back and forth in the time-honored high school manner. A similarly nostalgic line of shy men hugs the wall. Partners change with dizzying speed.

"He smelled like alcohol, and he's rude," Shirley says of her most recent match. "He gets married and goes away and gets divorced and comes back. I'm not dancing with him again. I hear he's some kind of preacher."

Alex, a more suitable partner, whirls her off for a West Coast swing.

"Now, him, I like," Liz pronounces. "He dances from his diaphragm. He can't do anything but the dance he makes up -- the Alex dance, which I love. It's free-form, which always makes a dance more interesting."

"So, I've been coming here fifteen years. Started because I got divorced," Alex reveals. "I'd never done ballroom. Mostly jiggy stuff. But I've got natural rhythm. I can do it. Made lots of friends here. Dated a couple." He excuses himself for Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll."

"What on earth kind of dance is this?" Liz fumes. "A stroll? Who knows how to do the stroll? This is ridiculous."

The next eight or nine numbers, however, are not. Singled out by Don, one of the night's best dancers, Liz works happily on her triple turns.

"I was assistant golf pro," Don remembers of his youth. "There was dancing upstairs, and I was downstairs. I ended up taking lessons, and I still do. Each time I dance with Liz, I can do more with her. We were just out there screwing up a waltz. And it's actually more fun to screw up a dance than to do it right."

"I don't dance with whoever," Liz says, after Don has moved off. "I used to feel badly about saying no, but to get out there and just step side to side -- it makes my teeth hurt."

"Hey, you wanna dance?" someone asks, tapping her shoulder.

"Sure!" she says.

Regulars estimate that Sharp Images dances have been around somewhere between fifteen and thirty years, but the origins are shadowy.

"It's an established business, owned by a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous," says Debbie, Sharp Images' current manager. "He offered me the chance to run it, and I knew it was up my alley. I'm a people person, and I'd been doing daycare for so long, I hardly remembered what it was like to talk to a big person. I just love it. I had never waltzed. I had never been outgoing. Clyde and his buddies taught me all that."

"We're a big family," says Clyde, a rangy older gentleman who appears to know everyone in the room. "I support them, they support me. I've been coming here five years. My wife had passed away, and actually, she couldn't dance a lick, and I'd always liked it."

That first year, Clyde met Vicky, a "lady friend" who was dying of cancer. He helped her through her final months and met many dancers in the process.

"It gives me goosebumps, remembering Vicky," says June, another member of the Clyde posse. "And that's not the only friend we've had pass away. It's devastating, but we keep coming back."

At first, June found it difficult to break into the Sharp Images crowd. "The women go, oh, gosh, competition, and no one talks to you. So I always talk to the new women, and now sometimes the guys will ask me to ask them to dance," she says. Although she enjoys a low-key lunch date with a fellow dancer from time to time, she's secure in the knowledge that it will lead nowhere.

"Me, too," Clyde says. "I have a lady friend, but are we getting married? Nah. To me, marriage is a sentence. I come to dance."

"I come to dance," Liz echoes. "What you saw tonight barely exists anywhere else. People don't dance as couples anymore. The best dancers in this town are in their seventies. What does that tell you? And people who dance don't buy much booze, so the cowboy bars, the dancing bars, fade away."

"This is no bar scene," Debbie confirms. "Only once has someone had too much to drink and become rude. That I won't tolerate. This is about fun."

"If someone had told me my divorced life would be like this, I would have thought they were crazy," says Fran, a jitterbug-contest winner. "I hear about people searching for people and having no luck. Not me -- gosh. I go out to meet people, and rollerblade, and, gosh, to dance. Four, five times a week."

"You can make it six, if you want," says Jim, who's suspected of being 74, despite his tireless energy. "Tuesday, it's Teddy's for country-Western. Wednesday, the Aurora Summit -- the Glass Menagerie plays live. Thursday, the Denver Tech Center Broker, then on to the Summit. Friday and Saturday, same. And Sunday here, of course. People recognize me. I always wear black, and I always, always, dance. Excuse me."

Jim goes off to dance with a younger woman in a long red evening dress who is nursing a sprained ankle. Compared to his usual partners -- and his usual style of dancing -- this is tame. But he's polite and attentive. "She's what we call a street dancer," he says. "Never took a lesson. Doesn't wear dance shoes. I've been taking West Coast swing classes for fourteen years, but I don't see an end to it. There's nothing like it.

"But, of course, I've done it all my life. I remember the first time. I was fourteen, on a porch, and someone was trying to teach me to two-step with this girl. I got to get so close to her," he remembers. "Of course, I loved it."


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