Courtesy of the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture

A vintage photograph from a dance in Glen Echo Park’s Spanish Ballroom.

Love Is Afoot

Before Match.com, nightclubs and happy hours, singles congregated at community dance halls for a shot at catching Cupid’s arrow. Dance halls were particularly popular in western states — Texas had the most — in the…

Before Match.com, nightclubs and happy hours, singles congregated at community dance halls for a shot at catching Cupid’s arrow. Dance halls were particularly popular in western states — Texas had the most — in the early 20th century, but one of the most spectacular specimens remains right here at Glen Echo Park.

Couples waltz on a Sunday afternoon at Glen Echo Park.
Couples waltz on a Sunday afternoon at Glen Echo Park. Photo Credit: Rob Headrick

Refurbished in 2003, Glen Echo’s Spanish Ballroom is a step back in time — a time when social dances drew men and women of all ages from all over the metropolitan area to waltz, line dance, swing, and contra dance.

Most Thursdays through Sundays, live music still fills this hall, and the companion Bumper Car Pavilion and Ballroom Back Room. Patrons spill in and dance the stress of the day away. Some make new friends. Some meet their life partners.

Meet two couples who met and married, thanks to a Glen Echo social dance.

Shall They Dance

Elizabeth Lee and Jim Cole met at a Glen Echo contra dance.
Elizabeth Lee and Jim Cole met at a Glen Echo contra dance. Photo Credit: Suzan Schaaf

Elizabeth Lee had been contra dancing at Glen Echo for about 10 years, enjoying the live music and the camaraderie when she met her husband Jim. That was 12 or 13 years ago.

“Yes, I saw him across a crowded dance floor and asked him to dance,” she said. “He didn’t come to the next dance and I was broken-hearted. But he came to future dances and we would dance. I gave him my best doe eyes and eventually, he asked me out for dinner. Within about a year, we were married.”

For the uninitiated, contra dancing is a couple’s dance done in long lines. It’s playful, like old-fashioned barn dancing. “It’s also simpler than swing and salsa,” added Lee. “You can learn the basic steps pretty quickly.” She noted that “even though you start and end the dance with a partner, you actually get to dance with all of the people of the opposite sex as you go down the line. Therefore, it’s not hard to meet, albeit briefly, lots of people within a single dance.”

So, do you flirt along the way? “Flirting is fine,” Lee said. “Men can ask women to dance and women often ask men to dance. There are also breaks, when the musicians rest, so you can chat with someone if you’re interested in getting to know them.”

As for the age of dance-goers, Lee said it surprised her “how many folks like us in their 40s, 50s and 60s [there are] in the contra dance community. I think it has to do with who is drawn to contra; it’s the most welcoming social dance that I know and draws the kindest people.…As we get older, we value kindness more than we did as young people.”

Lee and her husband have stopped dancing regularly, but say they still go from time to time. “It’s great fun if you haven’t tried it,” she emphasized.

He’s with The Band

Angela and Craig Gildner, who met in Glen Echo’s Bumper Car Pavilion, have been married for since November 2004.
Angela and Craig Gildner, who met in Glen Echo’s Bumper Car Pavilion, have been married since November 2004. Photo Credit: Lynn Redmille

Craig Gildner has enjoyed both sides of the dance floor. First as a musician — he plays piano, guitar, banjo, cornet and sings — then as a lindy hop dancer.

This Renaissance man, now 50, began dancing at Glen Echo in 1998. “I had played with the Tom Cunningham Orchestra…at Glen Echo in 1993-94, but never danced [there]. I went [to Glen Echo] for my birthday in October of 1998 and have been at dances galore since, both in the ballroom and in the Bumper Car Pavilion,” he said.

In fact, it was in the pavilion that he met his wife Angela. “She had arrived early while we were setting up and was talking to my sax player. We had a brief conversation that evening and hit it off,” Gildner recalled. They have been married since November 2004 and have two children.

For the newbie, Gildner offers some advice. “I suspect things are a bit different today than in 2000 to 2004, but several rules still apply. I think even if you’ve found love at first sight, it’s best to remember you’re at a social dance, where people dance with many different partners. Circling back towards the end of the evening to express interest is probably still a good rule, as opposed to asking for dance after dance,” he said. “Besides, you can’t really carry on a quality conversation while dancing. Either the dancing or the conversation suffers.”

Musician Craig Gildner performed with the Tom Cunningham Orchestra at Glen Echo dances in the early 1990s. He began dancing there on his birthday in 1998.
Musician Craig Gildner performed with the Tom Cunningham Orchestra at Glen Echo dances in the early 1990s. He began dancing there on his birthday in 1998. Photo Credit: Bobby Bonsey

Further, Gildner reminds dance-goers to “always be polite and learn how to accept ‘no’ graciously, without assuming it has to do with you. Always smile and say, ‘thanks’ at the end, even if the dance encounter was less than exciting…or excruciating.”

Does the couple still dance the night away? “Having children really puts a cramp in your going out weekend plans,” Gildner said. “Angela and I will probably go back to dancing on a regular basis when the kids are able to take care of themselves…which will be in a few years.”

Glen Echo dances are in full swing this Valentine’s season. Marketing Director Jenni Cloud, said that “most every Saturday night throughout the year, swing bands bring the music of the 1940s and 1950s.” No experience required. In fact, you can come early for a free lesson before the dance begins. Those looking for love, or just fun, will find it at Glen Echo Park.

Cloud added that “Glen Echo Park is the perfect place to get out of the dinner-and-a-movie rut. When music from live bands playing at our dances makes its way through the Spanish Ballroom and into the park where the iconic neon lights are glowing in the twilight, the hustle and bustle of D.C. seem like a distant memory.”

For a full schedule of events, visit www.glenechopark.org/dances. Glen Echo Park is located at 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Learn more about Glen Echo Park on CultureSpotMC here.