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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff