The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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December 29, 2012

Big band dance club looking for new members

ENID, Okla. — Big bands, formal attire, ballroom dance and swing — once a staple of American nightlife — still are thriving in Enid thanks to the Enid Big Band Dance Club.

The club, now concluding its 30th year in Enid, has kept the big-band era alive in Enid by offering lessons and four annual dances. Now, as the club moves into a new era, organizers are hoping to broaden appeal for “Enid’s best-kept secret,” and enroll the next generation of members who will keep the music playing and the dance floor full.

Thirty years of big-band dancing all started with a tea dance at Oakwood Country Club.

Jack and Jamae Stewart, one of the dance club’s founding couples, said another founding couple hosted a dance to celebrate their daughter’s engagement.

“We went to that dance, and I used to like to dance when I was in college ... so I told Jamae ‘It would be nice if somehow you gals formed a club where we could have dances,’” Jack said.

Jamae said the idea of a dance club was attractive to them, and other couples at the country club, because they were at a point in their lives when they could rekindle their interest in dance.

“It was our age more than anything else,” she said. “We were at the age where we had children, but they weren’t so small they needed constant care any more, and we wanted something to do.”

A group of about 10 couples was formed, and the first dance was arranged in Hiland Tower, formerly known as Continental Center North.

The turnout for those early dances was more than expected. Couples filled the dance floor and spilled out into the mezzanine.

“They would be dancing in there, shoulder to shoulder,” Jack said, “and that’s a lot.”

The dances soon moved to Oakwood Country Club, which featured a large ballroom before its remodel in 2009-10.

Enid Big Band Dance Club was formalized with a club charter, membership guidelines and leadership in 1982. The club established a schedule of four dances per year, one for each season, a model it still follows today.

Members soon filled the club’s ranks to capacity, and a waiting list formed.

“We had to turn people away,” Jamae said. “We never had trouble getting enough members.”

The club also attracted some high-profile bands, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Russ Morgan Orchestra and Al Good Orchestra.

Jack said the club benefited from Enid being in the crossroads between other larger venues.

“A lot of times, we would hear from famous bands who would be in Oklahoma en route to another city, and they’d be willing to play for us,” he said.

“If they were scheduled to be somewhere Saturday night, we’d take them for Friday,” Jamae added. “That really helped us.”

The club continued to thrive and grow at Oakwood Country Club, drawing in members who previously had not been exposed to big band or ballroom dancing.

“We just kind of fell into it, but we had a good time and we enjoyed it,” said Dick Craig, who joined the club with his wife Rhonda in the early 1990s.

“We had been to country and western dances with a lot of the guys, and they invited us to come to one of the big band dances,” Dick said. “We said, ‘We’re not big band, we’re country,’ but when you get down to it, whether it’s two-step or waltz, they’re all pretty much the same.”

The couple served in various club leadership positions during the 1990s, including terms as secretary, vice president and president.

Rhonda said she and Dick enjoyed the club, because their kids were grown and it gave them a place to dance and have a nice evening out in Enid.

“We just love to dance, and it’s nice to have a place to go for an elegant evening,” she said.

Another draw was the club’s acceptance of novice dancers, and even people who had never danced before.

“There was more emphasis on the social aspect of just enjoying each other’s company than on the perfection of dance,” Rhonda said. “If you were a novice dancer, you still felt very comfortable dancing.”

At its height, in the late 1990s, the club had more than 90 couples on its membership roster, and dances would attract 200 people or more.

That number has slowly but steadily declined since 2000, one that picked up pace after the club moved from Oakwood Country Club after its reopening in 2010.

The club now is working to broaden its appeal, make itself less of a “best kept secret,” and move beyond its image as a “country club activity.”

“I’ve always wanted it to be something that Enid embraces as a whole community,” Rhonda said. “I hope it continues to attract new people who will see the joy of dancing together, because if you can ballroom dance, you can dance anywhere.”

Greg and Linda Stong, who have danced with the club for 15 years, have been with the club through its transition from the country club to its new venue, Enid Moose Lodge at 302 E. Purdue.

Greg said the Moose Lodge has been a positive and negative move for the club, positive because the lodge has “the most wonderful dance floor in town,” and negative because some of the club’s longtime members perceived it as “not as elegant a venue.”

“We still have great, live, high-quality big band dance music,” Greg said. “And, we have a great core group of people who love to dance, so those things have remained the same.”

He said the club currently is working to spread its appeal to a wider audience through use of social media, and by offering lessons leading up to each season’s dance.

Each of the four annual dances features a dance lesson, live music, catered hors d'oeuvres, cash bar and a decorated venue.

Couples can join the club for an entire season for $250, prorated if they join during the dance season. Or, newcomers can try out Enid Big Band Dance Club at $70 per couple for one dance, or $35 for a single dancer.

“If you look at what it takes to be a member of the club, to have live music, food catered and dance lessons, it is a great value, and it’s just an elegant way to spend time with your spouse and learn a new skill,” Greg said. “It’s a way to have a date night for a reasonable price, and have a great time. What better thing is there to do with your spouse than to go out and go dancing together once in a while to live music?”

Julio and Cindy Heng are hoping more couples feel the draw of big band dancing in the near future.

The Hengs have been dancing with Enid Big Band Dance Club for the last five years, and now serve as co-presidents of the dance club.

The greatest challenge of their term as president may be simply keeping the club viable.

“The club is in flux right now,” Julio said. “We’re having difficulty in finding new dance club members, and also in finding members willing to volunteer for board positions.”

“One of the challenges we’re facing right now is a decline in our membership, and it’s been a slow but steady decline over the years,” Cindy said.

“The other challenge has been just making people aware that the club exists,” she said. “People don’t know the club has been here. In the past, someone had to move away or leave the club before someone new could come in, because there was a set membership limited by what we could support at the country club.”

Now, the club has moved beyond “by-invitation” memberships, and since the club has moved its venue to the Moose Lodge, there’s plenty of room for new members.

And, new members are precisely what’s needed if the club is going to continue offering dance lessons, live music and catered dances in Enid.

“Bringing in new blood has been a challenge,” Julio said. “We either have to get new members, or change our format, or possibly even cease to exist.”

He said the club needs to sign up about another 20 couples “just to be viable into the future, and continue to have the same model with live music, nice hors d’oeuvres and a large venue like the Moose (Lodge).”

“We want to maintain the format we’ve had,” he said, “so people can have a place to enjoy a nice night out, in semi-formal or formal dress, in an elegant setting with good food, friendly people and good music.”

They’re hoping as more people know about the club, and know that membership is open to all in the community, more people will come out to try dancing, to enjoy the live music, and make some new friends.

Kathy Smith, who joined the club with her husband, David, after it moved from the country club, said the pleasure of learning to dance and meeting new people has kept them coming back for three years.

“David and I always wanted a place to go on a date and dance, but we never knew where to go to learn to dance,” she said.

They found their answer when they were invited to a dance at the Moose Lodge.

“We got out on the dance floor the first time, and we figured out we didn’t know what we were doing,” she said with a laugh.

They soon learned the basics through a series of dance lessons, now offered for several weeks leading up to each dance.

“We enjoyed not only the process of learning to dance, but also just being with our new friends and enjoying the music,” she said.

“We got hooked on it immediately. The more we danced, the more we wanted to dance, and the more we wanted to share it with other people.”

She said people who don’t know how to dance shouldn’t feel intimidated by the process, or the skill level of others on the dance floor.

“It takes effort to learn to dance, but it doesn’t take long to get out there and get started, and to to start enjoying it,” Kathy said. “The more you learn, the more you want to learn. It’s a process.”

She said the benefits of dancing go beyond just the four annual dances.

“The process of learning to dance, and dancing with other people, builds confidence, poise and balance, and it’s great physical exercise,” she said. “It’s great for the mind, body and spirit.”

For more information on Enid Big Band Dance Club, find the group’s page on Facebook.

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