Glen Echo Park is absolutely one of my favorite places and--lucky me--it's only about 10 minutes from my house. It's an old amusement park that was taken over by the National Park Service a few years ago and preserved. My parents used to take the trolley there when they were young and they danced in the Spanish Ballroom. And when I was a kid, we used to go there, often with groups from church. All of the rides except for the beautiful Dentzel carousel are gone now. The Crystal Pool is gone, so is the cuddle-up and the bumper cars and the roller coaster where I surely was going to die one day in a freak accident. In place of the rides there are now performance spaces and art studios. The Spanish Ballroom has been restored and is the site for dancing almost every night of the week. I've taken many classes at the park and especially love being there when it's quiet. It's such a magical place.
I love this old photo of the carousel at Glen Echo and I'm amused by the warning painted on the base of the carousel: "WAIT UNTIL IT STOPS." Good adage to consider about life in general--don't dismount until it stops.
There's a piece in my draft book about dancing at Glen Echo that hopefully captures some of my feelings about being in that magical place. Here it is.
A prayer of joy . . .
The Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo has been closed for renovation for months and it will be many months before it reopens. I loved dancing on that old wooden floor, in the room with no heat or air conditioning, the same room where my parents danced in 1940 before the war. In the early days after my husband left me, I desperately sought something to keep me busy every night of the week, anything to escape the intense loneliness. I first took Irish set dance lessons in the Spanish Ballroom, taught oddly enough by a Japanese man.
I got inspired to dance Cajun and zydeco a couple of years ago when I saw Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie at the Kennedy Center. Geno, a drop-dead gorgeous young black man in a cowboy hat, plays the accordion. People at the Kennedy Center performance danced in the aisles under the chandeliers when he played. It was infectious—I just had to dance. So I signed up for Cajun and zydeco dance classes in the Spanish Ballroom. Now that the old ballroom in being renovated, the class has been moved to the bumper car pavilion, on makeshift concrete dance floor reconstructed of old wood. The protective plastic curtains that normally protect the dance floor from the weather are rolled up during class to let the breeze float through and we dance outside while mosquitoes jitterbug on us and the rats waltz around the shadows.
The instructors put on a recording, a Cajun waltz in a minor key, sung in French. I know enough French to understand—she is too young, her father won’t let her marry, and it’s breaking her heart. The breeze seems cool when we start dancing but we dance for one hour, past two hours, and start to sweat. I wear my red cowboy boots and know that after two hours my feet will be killing me, but still the cowboy boots are perfect because they have leather soles that slide when I am dancing. Often there are more women than men in a class and I sometimes dance alone, imagining I am dancing with a partner. But on this night, dancing on the old wooden floor, there are more men than women. I feel like the belle of the ball.
It sometimes seems awkward to have such intimacy with a complete stranger, to be in the arms of a man whose name I can’t remember. We sweat together. Rich’s shirt is wet with perspiration, Jim wears too much cologne, and Roland is handsome but reeks of garlic. But when I’m dancing with one of them and we coordinate our dancing in perfect rhythm with the music, it’s sweet magic. It seems strange when they just walk away after class, never saying anything, like having a lover get out of my bed and leave without a word. But while I am dancing the music just washes over me and for a time I forget everything else that happened that day. I just dance.
When I’m dancing I don’t feel a little too old or a little too fat or a little too clumsy. I’m part of the music. I don’t feel tired and my feet don’t hurt until I have stopped dancing, then I realize that everything hurts and I’m exhausted. But as long as the music is playing and I’m dancing, it’s all there is.