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Back to the Ballroom 

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The Aragon Ballroom, with its mosaic tile and molded plastic towers, its double-tiered balconies and mock-stained-glass windows, proves that it is possible for a Moorish palace to collide with a German Bierstube and survive.

Since its completion in 1926 at a cost of $1.5 million, the Aragon, at 1106 W. Lawrence, has seen everything from Saturday night dances where as many as 5,000 attended to wrestling matches, flea markets, and rock concerts.

So it was with great interest and nostalgia that several hundred hard-core hoofers gathered for an old-fashioned afternoon tea dance at the Aragon from 2 to 6 one recent Sunday afternoon. It was the first of two such events, coordinated by Dave Jemilo, who owns the Green Mill Lounge and Deja Vu bar. (The second dance is scheduled for November 15.)

They came from all over the midwest not only to dance but also to remember. They had returned to fox trot, tango, and waltz away the afternoon to the big band sounds of the Dick Jurgens Orchestra, which played at the Aragon regularly some four decades ago. From the profusion of gray hair and shiny pates, it was clear that many had come back to see how the grande dame of ballrooms had weathered her various incarnations. Couples swept across the dance floor in perfect synchronicity. Even a huge woman who resembled the Venus of Willendorf danced like Ariel with a man who could barely get his arm around her.

Dave Jemilo, who likes to bank on nostalgia, had done his homework. Although a last-minute hitch had precluded the planned-for cigarette-girls, there was none preventing a florist in the lobby from selling corsages for the ladies. For some, the remembrance of things past was too much. One woman, whose husband had just purchased a corsage, began to cry as he pinned the flower to her dress.

Jemilo had spent months preparing for the event, interviewing those like dancer Murial Aramburo who had been a member of the 400 Club at the Aragon years before. The club, she explained, was made up of what the Aragon regulars considered their 400 best dancers. "If you were good enough, you might eventually be voted membership if a vacancy occurred. That didn't happen very often," Jemilo said. For the tea dance, he had offered to admit anyone for free who could resurrect an old 400 Club membership card.

H. "Red" Houston, who had ventured all the way from Madison, Wisconsin, for his dose of the past, hung out at the bar and seemed far more interested in watching than waltzing. He scanned the dance floor and sighed. "During the war, this used to be the greatest place for a guy to find women.

"Back then, if you were a serviceman, you really had it made. The climate was incredible--everyone was living for the moment. So, in a way, it became every woman's patriotic duty to score with a serviceman at the Aragon. And score we did. The Aragon was the biggest pick-up joint around."

Although, Houston says, he was too young for the Army, he wore his own uniform--a zoot suit with shoulders so wide he had to step through narrow doors sideways. The pants were high-waisted and tapered to the ankles. "They were so narrow at the bottom that you had to have zippers put in to get your shoes on and off. Then, you wore a long chain that draped from the suspenders to the ankles and on the end of that chain, you'd attach a GI can opener. The thing to do was to swing it while you walked. Mine was made out of regular plumber's bathroom chain.

"Most of us hung out in gangs because there was nothing these macho marines liked to do better than beat up a punk in a zoot suit."

Dolores and Bob, a middle-aged couple who refused to give their last name because they were supposed to be someplace else, said they were back for their first tea dance in over 40 years because of Dick Jurgens. "This is a historical event for us because he was playing the night we met here in 1940." And that, Dolores added, was in the days when going to a dance was the only social life anyone had outside of listening to the radio with friends. The Aragon was one of the few socially acceptable places for girls to meet boys. "Back then, men respected women much more than they do now."

The single women outnumbered the single men but that didn't seem to bother Maria Fontagneres, who danced by herself. Her hair parted down the middle and pulled back Margot Fonteyn-style, she stopped her solo pirouettes between band breaks to listen to her friend Hal Pearl play the organ--something he's been doing at the Aragon since the 40s. But that still wasn't as long as Fontagneres had been coming to the Aragon.

"I started coming here when I was just a slip of a girl--in 1927," she said, adding immediately that she'd placed second in a disco contest for seniors back in 1983. "I'd come here every day if I could. Who cares about partners. Most of them are too slow for me anyhow."

Jemilo, sensitive to dancers without partners, set aside a special section for singles--a landscape that was soon filled with women waiting to dance. One of them who had come all the way from South Bend, Indiana, complained about the lack of men.

"The whole point behind a tea dance is that available male dancers circulate. It used to be that dance studios would send their instructors around in hopes of luring more students. I haven't seen any here today--single men or instructors."

But halfway through the afternoon, Jemilo had professional dancers Murial Aramburo and her partner, a Ricardo Montalban look-alike by the name of Vito Bertucci, organize an old-fashioned scamper. The idea is that men and women line up on opposite sides of the room and then find partners, but the women outnumbered the men until Aramburo coaxed some less reluctant males from the crowd.

Although Jemilo sees active, older people as a huge market, he doesn't discount the burgeoning group of fox-trotting baby boomers. At 31, Jemilo is convinced his peers are growing more interested in "touch dancing" because it's more dignified. He admits having a penchant for the days of tuxedos and top hats, "when you'd walk into a place and the maitre d' would sit you at a tiny little table near the dance floor and you could order champagne in a bucket.

"Let's face it, now that we're all getting a little older, it feels strange dancing like we used to. All this new wave stuff just doesn't cut it after a certain age."

Jemilo may be right. At the tea dance, one man in his thirties said he'd come because he couldn't stand flailing bodies and deafening disco music anymore.

"It's the most civilized, most subtle form of courtship known to man," surmised Red Houston. "More people are realizing ballroom dancing is the perfect social interaction for the 80s. It's great exercise, it keeps you out of bars, and as long as you keep your feet on the ground, you probably won't get AIDS."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Sequeira.

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