This long evening of weekly ballroom dancing is good for body, mind and spirit. | 831 (Tales from the area code)

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Every dance floor has an It Couple. On a recent Tuesday night on a dance floor in Salinas It Couple is not, as common sense might dictate, the nimble young professional dancing duo, circling the community center room with captivating precision and flair . No, the It Couple is Janna and Jack, 92 and 101, respectively, fox-trot and waltz through nearly every song — or hold court in conversation with the other dancers when they’re not.

It’s an evening of ballroom dancing at Active Seniors Inc., a Tuesday night tradition that has continued since the nonprofit was founded 63 years ago.

This event is not, as the name of the venue might suggest, just for seniors. While many of those who attend are retired, there are also younger dancers, including dance students at local studios looking to practice.

And you don’t need to already know how to dance to participate – the evening starts at 6pm with a dance lesson covering one of the ballroom classics. That night, that means swing taught by a very enthusiastic Nora Mckenna. A crowd of about 15 people (roughly split between men and women; most of those who took the course seem to have arrived solo) gather to learn the basics. The group circles, splits into heads and follows, first learning the basic step, then a side step, a simple rotation. The dancers swap partners at Mckenna’s word, moving from style to style: the shy, the confident, the one who can’t help but give advice.

Mckenna’s specialty is swing, but there are other teachers who teach other styles – Sera Hirasuna tends to lead bachata and Cuban salsa, for example. A community college English teacher by day, Hirasuna joined Active Seniors as a ballroom teacher in 2019. “It’s really fun to teach with your body,” she says. “I think the reason people keep coming back is social interaction and physical interaction.”

Hirasuna is also quick to point out the many health benefits of dancing, as exercise and socialization, but also as a way to improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of dementia. Some who join are experienced — perhaps they took lessons as children — but others are new to dancing and “scared to death,” Hirasuna says. The prom night at Active Seniors welcomes them all.

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(During the pandemic shutdown, the dances went virtual, Zoom’s business, which required some sound engineering but was loved by regulars. In-person dances resumed as soon as Governor Gavin Newsom reopened the hall. Status June 15, 2021 – proof of vaccination is required but masks, currently, are not.)

At 7 p.m., the lesson ends, but the dancing has only just begun. That’s when more dancers show up – attendance is usually between 25 and 40 – and the Moon Glow Jazz Band continues. Live music is a key part of what sets Active Seniors dancing apart from, say, the long-running Saturday night dance at Chautauqua Hall in Pacific Grove. The band includes Michael Gaines on bass and vocals, his wife Bari Roberts on guitar and vocals, Ben Herod on sax, flute and clarinet, Craig Jardstrom on trombone, lap steel and cornet and Jim Vanderzwaan on drums and percussion . The group, in some formation, has been practicing this dance for about 12 years. Gaines created 31 different setlists, which the band spins on, to keep the music fresh. Once the free dance begins, all the ballroom dances are on the table – so the band plays swing after foxtrot after samba, rumba, polka, waltz.

“It keeps you playing because you’re playing all these different types of music,” Gaines says.

The same could be said of the dancers. A televised PowerPoint presentation identifies the name of the dance as each song changes, and the approximately 22 dancers on the floor at any one time transition seamlessly between them. Of course, some dance at double tempo and mix in fancy footwork while others count the steps. But everyone is smiling – it’s a thing of beauty.

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