DREW PARK — With a disco ball, twinkling white lights and a sprightly song, men and women dance a two-step around the floor. Romantic duos wait for slower music when they can cling together in warm embraces amid the shadows.
And then a rambunctious tune sparks a spirited electric slide line dance.
On Friday nights the Zendah Grotto, at 4450 Ohio Ave, is the place to be for swinging singles in what some might say are the twilight years for people in their 60s and older.
But the nonprofit organization, Bachelors & Belles, for about 40 years has disproved that assumption. These guys and gals are having the times of their lives on the dance floor and on trips to the gambling mecca of Biloxi, Miss.
They aren’t 20-somethings, or even 30- or 40-somethings. Those groups might “think we’re old,” said 87-year-old Betty Eckley. “We’re not old.”
Eckley and her boyfriend, Carl Boyce, 79, go dancing three nights a week. Fridays are reserved for the Bachelor & Belles dance at the grotto.
They met on a day-cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale.
Bruce Houghton, 85, has been a member of Bachelors & Belles for about 20 years. He had been through a divorce. “At the time they were just having house parties,” he said.
Through the years activities expanded to group dinners at restaurants, monthly birthday parties, trips to Biloxi and Friday dances. Costs for the dance are $7 for members; $9 for non-members.
On a recent dance night the Beach Boys, Donna Summer, Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond were on the disc jockey’s play list.
“This isn’t Ybor Centro,” said Houghton. “It’s an older group and the music is different. People are very comfortable coming here.”
Romance bloomed for Jacqueline Trull, 72, and Lance Stalnaker, 65. They met two years ago at Zendah Grotto.
For Stalnaker it was love at first sight for a confirmed bachelor and divorce attorney who never had married. “I’ve seen too many train wrecks,” he said.
But he wooed and won Trull’s heart. “I wanted to marry a Christian,” he said. “We share a faith together.”
They were married a week ago — on Saturday, Aug. 10. The Friday night before the nuptials, the couple hosted a special Bachelors & Belles dance at the grotto.
The Bachelor & Belles have led full lives with marriages, divorces and widowhood. They’ve had jobs and careers, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. New chapters are ahead of them.
Robert West, 77, is a retired theater arts teacher. He is working on his second novel which deals with abuse of the elderly. And he is one-month into his journey with Bachelors & Belles. “I’m a newbie,” he said. “A lot of older people will give up ahead of their time because they feel there is nothing out there. I didn’t want to sit home watching TV the rest of my life.”
Mary Ann Simon is chief greeter at the dances. She sits at a table, her walker parked nearby. She can’t dance but that doesn’t hold her back. “I sit here and do PR (public relations) work,” she said. “It’s my entertainment. I have a good life. I had a good marriage. This is my second family. That’s what gets me out.”
She has a wish, though. “We need younger people to help us out,” said Simon; people in, say, their 50s or 60s.
Laura Diez, 74, is president of Bachelors & Belles. She joined more than a dozen years ago. “I loved it,” she said. “I was still working. Every Friday I hauled my butt home. I’d run and get all dressed up. I really look forward to it.”
Hattie Baez, 84, is Houghton’s girlfriend. The West Virginia native was age 78 before retiring from a job at a bottling plant. “I’ve got to keep on moving,” she said. “I tell (people) you need to get out and move. It makes you old sitting down.”
For information on Bachelors & Belles, visit the website, www.tampabaydancing.com or contact Diez at 813-504-2158 .