by Stacia Friedman
Going from woman to woman usually gives a guy a bad reputation. But it works just fine for Steve Blum, 69, a Chestnut Hill resident for almost 11 years, as he navigates his way around the dance floor. On a recent night at Holy Savior Annex in Norristown, the retired computer programmer dipped and spun several partners to a thumping Louisiana zydeco beat for almost four hours nonstop. How many ladies were in his arms that night?
“Oh, God!” he said. “I have no idea.”
Two, three nights a week, Blum perfects his moves in a wide array of dance styles, including salsa, waltz and blues. “Dancing is my main social interaction,” said Blum, whose definition of happiness is “a great band and a good partner.”
It wasn’t always this way. “I had wanted to dance when I was younger, but I felt awkward. In my 30s, I tried folk dancing and found there was too much to learn. Then I took ballroom dancing lessons, and it felt fake.”
Blum’s “eureka” moment came 10 years later in 1992, when he attended his first contra dance, a variation of 17th century English and French country dance. The music was lively and old-timey. A caller announced the patterns. People were hooting with joy, stomping and swinging, skirts spinning, totally involved in the dance. And smiling.
“When I first started contra I noticed my cheek muscles ached from all the smiling,” said Blum. It was fun and flirtatious. Best of all, Blum didn’t have to be Fred Astaire to learn the basic steps. “I was immediately hooked. It was energizing, and people were so accepting. I was laughing, making mistakes, and everyone was fine with it.”
In addition to weekly contra dances, Blum started attending weekend dance workshops. “It was an opportunity to learn new steps and meet new people. At one of the workshops, they presented other styles of dancing — blues and zydeco.” Once again, Blum was smitten. “The nonprofit dance world is under the radar. It’s not commercial. It’s run by people who love to dance. When I moved to Philadelphia from Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2004, I already had friends who danced contra in Glenside.”
The local dance scene doesn’t discriminate. Everyone is welcome, with or without a partner, and age isn’t an issue. While many of the regulars are Boomers like Steve, swing, salsa and contra dances tend to attract college kids as well. If you don’t know the steps, there’s usually a free beginner’s class before the dance starts.
Blum’s favorite dance is the waltz. “It’s courtly,” he explained. “In contra, you follow the caller. But in the waltz, a woman has to put her faith in a man she doesn’t know to guide her around the floor. It pushes the limit of how much she trusts you when you dip her.” Blum grinned. “They always come up smiling.”
When he’s not contra dancing, Blum attends Mostly Waltz once a month in Broomall and Waltz Time twice a month in Glen Echo, Maryland. “Glen Echo has an amazing ballroom, and their bands are spectacular,” said Blum.
“Dancing has been really important in bringing me out of my shell and making me more open to the world around me,” said Blum, who recently teamed up with a partner to do dance exhibitions at senior centers. “Dancing connects me with the joy of being playful. Once you feel confident, you can goof around and have fun even when you make mistakes.”
Blum believes he inherited the “dancing gene” from his mother. “Mom loved dancing, but my father wasn’t interested, so she didn’t dance for the 26 years of their marriage. So many women do that. They suppress their love of dancing because of their spouse.”
After Blum’s father died, he took his 80-year-old mother to a street festival in Chestnut Hill, where the Dukes of Destiny blues band was performing. “Mom said, ‘Let’s dance!’ She was in her 80s, but when she heard the music, her eyes lit up, and we danced in the cobblestone street.”
In spite of his enthusiasm, there are some dances Blum has yet to master. “Argentinean tango is an ongoing challenge,” he admitted. “I tried twice and gave up in frustration. I’ve been told it’s typical for men to try tango several times before it sticks.”
Dance has become Blum’s passport. “When I visit my brother in Boulder, Colorado, I try to find a contra dance or a waltz.” In January, Blum is going to the Snow Ball, a weekend contra festival in Tampa, Florida. Over 300 people will attend. Even if he hasn’t met them before, Blum will share a common language with them: “One, two, three … One, two, three …”
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