Iowa ballroom dancing club adapts to changing interests
By WILL SMITH
May. 13, 2018
BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) — The rise and gradual decline of the Cotillion Club is a familiar Iowa story.
Old traditions that once flourished fall by the wayside as younger generations define pop culture. Getting gussied up for a night on the dance floor used to be part of that culture, but the passage of time has rendered it old-fashioned.
At its height, the Cotillion Club — an organization dedicated to providing venues and music for ballroom dancing — had 120 members.
Now, it has about 30. And the majority of them are sporting gray hair.
"Our youngest member is in their 50s. We have one member who will turn 88 in October," said Cotillion Club president Marilyn Carhoff.
Though Carhoff has been in the club for the past 13 years, she talks about the declining membership in analytical terms, always looking for a way to broaden the club's appeal. She knows it won't be the end of the world if the club fades away.
But if it does, the world will have lost something beautiful. A nearly lost form of expression.
"As long as our older people are able to get out and dance, we'll keep it going as long as we can," Carhoff told The Hawk Eye .
Founded in 1978 in Henry County, the Cotillion Club initially was restricted to those who live in the county. The bylaws changed when people outside of Henry County expressed interest, and for a while, the club grew.
When it became obvious the club's formal wear requirement no longer reflected how people dressed, it was loosened, and so was the vibe. In a good way.
"For most, it's a social gathering for people who like to dance. We sit and visit and have snacks," Carhoff said.
Though interest in the niche hobby is low, Carhoff said part of the problem is intimidation. Not from the members themselves, but from the act of dancing.
"I wish they would teach ballroom dancing during gym class. The kids would have a ball," Carhoff said.
Other than a few hip gyrations and shoulder sways, most people don't know how to dance. And they're terrified of others watching them not know how to dance.
Carhoff's advice? Get over yourself. The other dancers either are staring into each other's eyes or down at their feet, if they're new to the hobby. They are not watching you.
"The level of dancing is not important here. We're not 'Dancing with the Stars,'" Carhoff said with a laugh.
In fact, no level of dancing is required. You can sit at a table outside the dance floor the entire night if you wish. Just don't expect to be exempt from some friendly conservation. Club members go out of their way to make everyone feel welcome, which is why the dress code was changed to business casual in the 1990s.
"The lights are lowered, so people aren't staring at you," said Wayne Gerdes, who joined the club about 10 years ago.
It's no secret the woman in a dancing relationship is usually the one behind the dancing lessons. But when Gerdes started, he had no dance partner — just curiosity.
"I always wanted to learn something like this, but I never had the chance," he said.
As Gerdes reached his retirement window, dance seemed like a more viable hobby. So he started taking lessons from Burlington ballroom dancing couple Gary and Marcia Dick. The couple usually can be found on an open dance floor in the area. They taught moves to a large portion of Cotillion Club members.
"I kept taking lessons, and I kept getting better. I wasn't very good at first," he said.
All he needed was a dance partner. He found that in Carhoff about six years ago.
"We enjoy each other's company and have fun," she said.
Carhoff got interested in dancing through her late husband, and their weekends were filled with hardware floors that stretched across the Midwest. They, too, were taught by Marcia and Gary Dick.
Gerdes, who used to find public dancing intimidating, can't imagine life without out it now. Or at least, he wouldn't want to.
"You can come and slow dance. They have plenty of slow dances. You don't have to get out and waltz," he said.
In its prime, the Cotillion Club ferried members to Chicago for dances with the likes of legends such as Danny Kaye. These days, the dances take place on hardwood floors in Burlington — three dances in the fall, and three more in the spring. Each hosts a local band.
For Carhoff, that's enough. A hobby doesn't have to be popular to be transformative.
"We dance the gamut," Carhoff said.
Information from: The Hawk Eye, http://www.thehawkeye.com