Jan Gardner of Stateburg first learned the joy of dancing as a child.
Her father organized big band dances on the U.S. Air Force bases where he was stationed, and brought along his wife and daughter.
She saw classic big bands such as the Harry James Orchestra and the Tommy Dorsey Band, and learned the high-spirited dances they inspired.
Several decades later, Jan is still dancing. She and her husband Sam move to the steps they learned at the weekly ballroom dance lessons at St. Joseph Church in Columbia.
The five-week sessions are taught by long-time parishioner Sal DiMaria and his assistant Frank Melonas, and attract up to 30 couples.
The Gardners are among the many people around the Diocese of Charleston who are taking advantage of dance classes at their parishes. Organizers and teachers say the events are a good way to build community.
The dancers agree.
‘I always loved dancing …’
The Senior Ministry program, led by Ursuline Sister Julienne Guy, sponsors the classes at St. Joseph. She worked with DiMaria to start them in 2005.
“I always loved dancing when I was a girl, and I thought it would be a great activity to have here,” Sister Julienne said.
DiMaria taught for many years with his wife Janice at Fred Astaire Studios in Columbia before his retirement in 1985. The DiMarias agreed to give the class a try, and five years later it is one of the senior ministry’s most popular activities.
DiMaria said he teaches students everything from the fox trot and the cha-cha to the tango, shag and rumba. The classes are open to people of all ages, although most are seniors. Many couples attend together, but a partner is not required.
“That’s no problem because I teach them how to dance by themselves first, and then we’ll put people with partners if they need one,” he said.
Sister Julienne joins in frequently.
Not all of the students are members of the parish or Catholic, however. The only requirement is a desire to dance and have a good time.
“I think classes like this build community in the church,” Mrs. Gardner said. “It gets people out and meeting each other. It’s great exercise and there’s a lot of camaraderie.”
Since September, St. Michael Church in Garden City has hosted increasingly popular Date Nights on the second and fourth Friday of each month in the parish hall. The nights feature themed dance lessons, music, refreshments and plenty of time for couples to dance on their own.
Parishioners Mike Gray, John Lock, and John and Carol Luce came up with the idea after all four took private lessons in spring 2009 with Donna Rosen and Jim Sterner, dance instructors based in North Myrtle Beach.
“We enjoyed it so much that we decided we needed to try to organize something like it at the church,” Luce said.
The group received permission from their pastor, Father Raymond J. Carlo, and arranged for lessons one night a month beginning in September.
Demand grew so quickly that soon they offered two or three nights a month.
“It’s an evening out with friends and it’s not costly,” Gray said.
Date Nights follow a theme suggested by participants, and they work on the same sequence for two or three sessions. Recent offerings have included ballroom dancing, polka and the shag.
Attendance has ranged from seven couples to more than 100 who attended a Polish night earlier this year.
“Not only are the people learning the dance steps they’re interested in, but they’re also getting to know each other,” Mrs. Luce said. “It’s a large church so this is a way for people to meet each other. It’s also a good way for other people in the larger community to learn about St. Michael’s.”
Ceili Irish dancing
Irish dancing is the focus at Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island. Since 2008, the parish has offered free lessons in the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day.
Organizer Cheryl Daniels said Msgr. Lawrence B. McInerny, pastor, came up with the idea.
“He wanted to try to bring the parish together as a family, and he thought ceili dancing would be a wonderful family activity,” she said.
Ceili, pronounced cay-lee, takes its name from the Gaelic word for social gathering, and is a popular form of Irish folk dancing that can be done individually or in pairs.
The evenings have become increasingly popular, and this year’s classes are attracting everyone from families with young children to senior citizens, Daniels said.
Whether the step is rumba or an Irish jig, instructor Sal DiMaria summed up what attracts many people to a church dance class.
“It’s great just being together with all of these wonderful people, seeing them smile and enjoying the dance together,” he said.