Swinging in the rain

I spent part of my vacation learning to cha-cha. Of course, I didn't plan for it to turn out this way. It's just that I got caught in south Florida during an August day when a tropical wave settled over the state. That meant downpours, no walks on the beach, and a directive from my elderly mother that I accompany her to a dance that afternoon at the senior citizen center. It also meant putting aside my favorite, somewhat tattered Bermuda shorts, for my mother ordered me to wear long dress trou sers as well as a shirt and a tie. Sure, Mom, whatever you say. What was so intriguing about the dance was the enormous energy exuded by 150 people on such a miserable day. For 150 minutes, no one seemed to mind the nonstop rain, which was upstaged by nonstop dancing. Beginning with the singing of ``God Bless America,'' the dance marathon included just about every phase of ballroom dancing. First, there were the mixers, designed to ensure that the term wallflower received the obscurity it richly deserves on such occasions; then there was a group dancing of a polka ( with some pretty intricate shuffling); and then on to waltzes, rumbas, jitterbugs -- and the cha-cha.

Sometime during my youth, my mother refreshed my memory, I had missed learning the cha-cha. So she introduced me to the center's leading cha-cha instructor, who was happy to provide some on-site training. My learning to cha-cha on a rainy day in a crowd disproved the theory that somehow youth prevails in crises of this sort. For my senior citizen instructor had more precise moves and rhythm than I ever had in my youthful prime. But after two long cha-chas, I was beginning to get the hang of it.

There was more to the dancing, which was occasionally syncopated by claps of thunder and lightning flashes.

There was the sheer pleasure of the group in listening to the talents of an eight-piece senior citizen band plus vocalists, some of whom had driven as far as 30 miles to make their musical contribution. And there was the delight of trying to recall the lyrics of such old songs as ``Sleepy Time Gal,'' ``Up the Lazy River,'' ``Peg O' My Heart,'' ``Melancholy Baby,'' ``My Buddy,'' and ``Smile.''

So what is it that you call 150 senior citizens sashaying across a ballroom on a terribly rainy day? I think I'd call it another form of sunshine.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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