Tag Archives: swing

Searching for Simpatico

July 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appeared in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The waters of Lake Manawa are dead still. It’s 5:30 a.m. and nearly 50 young women are about to disturb the pristine, glass-like surface. They are the Creighton University rowing team and part of a small but active rowing community in Omaha.

Ray Griggs serves as boatman for the Creighton team and is a master rower with Omaha Rowing Association (ORA), which boasts about 40 members. He talks about rowing as though born with an oar in hand, yet he never rowed before age 18. Griggs’ introduction came in 1976 upon joining the Naval Academy, where participating in sports is required.

“I got a postcard from the rowing coach,” Griggs says. “I tried to walk on to the football team. After two weeks, I was cut, at which point I immediately ran to the boathouse. I ran up to whoever looked like he was in charge and he says, ‘OK, get in a boat.’”

Rowers frequently exude that same “join us,” attitude.

Rowing2

“Are you coming to see us Saturday?” asks Creighton assistant coach Catherine Saarela-Irvin with a grin. The team was hosting a regional competition at Carter Lake that coming weekend. It was a rare chance to see rowing locally. The Creighton team travels as far away as Dallas to compete.

Saarela-Irvin also rows at a master’s level with ORA, where she coaches kids age 12 to 18. The ORA often competes in the Master’s National, which this year will be held in Camden, New Jersey.

The welcoming spirit comes from a total team sport that creates lifelong bonds. Ninety percent of the Creighton team never participated in the sport before college. Many plan to row as long as they can, joining club teams such as ORA.

“I’ve picked it up anywhere I go,” says Saarela-Irvin. “I’ve rowed in New Hampshire, San Diego, and now Omaha.”

“It isn’t a sport for someone who wants to stand out,” Griggs explains. “You have to do exactly what everyone else does, when everyone else does.”

Rowing involves synchronous movement of the arms, legs, and cores of the body. Rowers cannot see where they are headed. In eight-person boats, and sometimes in four-person boats, a coxswain (pronounced cox-sin) sits at the stern and calls commands; without a coxswain, the rower at the bow steers and commands so the boat glides in the proper direction.

It’s a quiet, serene sport, even though the physicality of it demands a grueling combination of strength and endurance. Only the person steering speaks, and the silent rowers enter their own private worlds as they pull and push the boat through the water in a zen-like cadence.

They collectively hope for “swing”, that precise moment when perfect synchronicity is achieved and the group moves as one.

“We call it the magical row,” Griggs says.

“You’ve got this simpatico thing happening,” adds Saarela-Irvin. “It’s really neat…kind of like flying on the water.”

Rowing1

Let’s Dance!

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For over 50 years, Dottie Dankof and her husband, Dan, have been partners in life as well as on the dance floor. The couple met while Dottie was an instructor with Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance. Today, Dottie says they try to go dancing four to six times a month. The Dankofs enjoy ballroom dancing, which includes the tango, the rumba, foxtrot, swing, and polka, among others. “We do all that stuff, but we favor the waltz,” she says.

One of the benefits of dancing that Dottie cites is the fact that it’s great exercise. “They say that it’s the one physical exercise you can do that works the whole body, and they’re right!” She also finds dance to be relaxing. “When you’re out dancing, you’re not thinking of all the other things [going on]. You’re just having so much fun!”

Gone are the days of seniors spending their retirement years rocking in the front-porch swing. Today, more and more folks ranging in age from their 60s to well into their 90s are doing swing moves on the dance floor.

“It’s really, really good exercise,” says Elizabeth Edwards, dance instructor and owner of Omaha Ballroom at 153rd and Q streets. “It’s [great] for memory, too.” Edwards explains that dancers have to remember a wide variety of dance steps and that keeps their minds and their bodies active. She shares that she and one of her students have a running joke: “When he forgets a dance move, he says he has waltz-heimers.”

Dottie and Dan Dankof

Dottie and Dan Dankof

Omaha Ballroom teaches all types of dance, but Edwards says that the seniors she works with are mainly interested in ballroom and swing. The instructors have also traveled to local retirement communities to teach lessons. Edwards is working on adding line dancing and Zumba Gold (Zumba for seniors) to their repertoire. She adds that such classes are good options for seniors who are single and may not feel comfortable dancing with an instructor.

As an instructor, Edwards meets many people who come to her studio to learn a dance for various reasons. “Some people just want to dance socially,” she says. For those, Omaha Ballroom offers what they call practice parties every Friday night. “They get a lesson and then everyone dances until 10 p.m.”

For others, who wish to pursue dance on a competitive level, Edwards and her staff can help their students achieve their goals. “We just kind of see what they’re interested in and then get them started in the right direction.”

“They say that it’s the one physical exercise you can do that works the whole body, and they’re right!” – Dottie Dankof

What would ballroom dancing be without a big band to provide the music? Thanks to the Greg Spevak Orchestra and Lonny Lynn Orchestra, local dancers won’t have to find out.

The Greg Spevak Orchestra has been playing for 43 years. “We used to play at the Music Box downtown…it’s not there anymore,” Spevak adds wistfully. The Peony Park Ballroom is another lost favorite. But today’s dancers are making memories at some other local ballroom hotspots. Of course, the Wahoo Starlight Ballroom is a favorite, as are Omaha Post 1 American Legion Hall and the Bluffs Center across the river, just to name a few. Both Spevak and Lynn play at the regular Wednesday dances hosted by the Center.

While the Greg Spevak Orchestra plays a wide variety of music—from ballroom, Latin, country, swing, and popular music from the 1950s through the mid-80s the Lynnvts Orchestra tends to stay with the Big Band Era. “But we mix a lot of Latin in throughout the evening,” Lynn adds.

Both band leaders say that the majority of their audiences are in their 60s and 70s, though it’s not uncommon to see dancers in their 80s and 90s grace the dance floor as well.

“These people move great…they dance every dance,” says Spevak. “It’s an aerobic exercise. I don’t know if I can keep up with them, to tell you the truth,” he laughs.

“If there’s a dance, the seniors don’t miss it,” says Lynn. “It’s their recreation and their social get-together.”

 “We have five or six parties a year where we hire a band and invite a bunch of our closest friends.” – Linda Todd

Lynn likes the fact that he has come to know a lot of the people who come to hear them regularly. “The people we attract to the dances…they have become like family.” He says that while he can’t remember everyone’s name, “I look at their face, I can remember their favorite song.”

Bob and Linda Todd of Gretna are regulars on the ballroom dance circuit and are close friends with the Dankofs. “We’ve been married for 20 years, so we’ve probably been dancing for 25 years,” Linda says. The couple enjoys dancing so much that they’ve built a ballroom in their basement. “We have five or six parties a year where we hire a band and invite a bunch of our closest friends.”

She adds that while they have participated in local dance classes, she and Bob often use DVDs to learn new dance steps for the convenience. “We want to learn the Argentine Tango,” she says.

Both the Todds and the Dankofs travel around the metro area to meet their friends and fellow dancers several times a month. “We enjoy socializing with our friends,” Linda says, adding that their group of friends range in age from 50 to 90. “It’s just a lot of fun, and we love it!”