Dedicated faculty club dancers have a ball

Karlee Weinmann

The three-piece band hit every note in a swing melody Saturday night in the St. Paul Student Union’s North Star Ballroom, while dance pairs smoothly maneuvered on the floor, smiling and with apparent ease.

“We just danced to my parents’ favorite song,” Catherine Robinson said at the end of “Mack the Knife,” a perennial top-40 favorite roughly a half-century ago. “I’ve always danced the song with my dad and I always request it.”

Robinson’s parents, Dennis and Alicemay Watson, were founding members of the University’s Faculty Dance Club in 1949. The club was born when five couples decided to turn a shared enthusiasm for ballroom dance into a regular gathering in which other interested parties could become involved.

In the past, the club was open only to University faculty members and their guests, but the club recently widened its criteria for attendees. Now, any pair interested in dinner and dancing can participate.

Sixty-eight couples attended Saturday’s ball.

Current and former faculty members still account for at least 60 percent of event regulars, according to event coordinators.

Food protection and defense professor Frank Busta and applied economics professor Jean Kinsey first joined colleagues at a club-sponsored event four years ago.

“The University has an immense, broad selection of activities that are available, and this is one of the special events the University affords to (us),” Busta said.

Medicine professor Dick Asinger and his wife became regular ball attendees more than 15 years ago.

“Our children are gone and we’re kind of footloose and fancy-free, so we like to get out,” he said, then laughed. “And it’s some dynamic aerobic exercise, which, as a cardiologist, I support.”

Dick Shager, coordinator of the facility and food since the early 1990s, said he hopes a renewed interest in dancing will draw younger members to the group to keep its tradition alive.

“Dancing is like anything else: cyclical. Right now there’s more interest in dancing because of TV shows and things like that,” he said.

Jan Mosman, a 1977 University graduate, said she and her husband were invited to their first club event in the last few years after trying out a few other local dance groups.

“There aren’t as many people in our generation dancing,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get our kids involved, too.”

Dave Yarusso, who manages the club’s mailing list, paused between songs and said he’s noticed slight growth of the group in the past two or three years.

The club hosts five functions every year, each at the same venue but with different themes, live music and catered cuisine. Dances are not held in summer months, and Yarusso said the December dance is typically the most popular.

Ginny Roadfeldt, a 12-year member of the group who is responsible for decorating, said she was inspired by current fashion trends when she selected Saturday’s safari theme.

Some conservatively followed the theme by wearing animal-adorned ties, but others posed with animal-like masks for the occasion.

The Paul Heffron Music performed, marking the latest of recurring appearances at the events over the past two decades.

Frontman Paul Heffron said the dances are special for two reasons.

“The people have an appreciation for the music and dance, and the best-kept secret in town is the atmosphere in the North Star Ballroom,” he said.

The facility boasts a large dance floor and high ceilings for optimal acoustics.

Even as the hours passed and the crowd began to dwindle, the polkas, salsas and swings played on.

Norm Solberg has been a group affiliate since the early 1970s and is on the clinical faculty. He said members of the group tend to show extraordinary devotion.

“The reason they stop coming is when part of the couple dies or physically can’t dance anymore,” he said.

Robinson said her club-founding father danced at functions as recently as 2005 – at the age of 91.

“We hope that young people learn to dance because it is such a joyous thing,” she said. “And then they can replace us on the dance floor.”