It was a time when young folk in high school danced together as a couple face-to-face. It was the gentleman’s responsibility to lead. It was the lady’s responsibility to follow, unlike today when it seems that dancing couples have adopted an “everyone for himself” manner of following the beat of the music.
When I was attending Harlan High School years ago, ballroom dancing was in fashion. The Lewallen Hotel was the perfect venue for high school parties and dances, as well as civic cub meetings, wedding receptions, teas, showers and banquets. The hotel was located on Cumberland Avenue where the “adobe hacienda-looking” building is today, across from the Kentucky State Employment Office.
Then, in the 1930s and 40s, the hotel was owned and operated by Ben Lewallen, a tall, handsome, congenial host with sharp facial features and a head of coal black “patent leather” hair. Grand parties at the Lewallen Ballroom sometimes had professional orchestras, but high school parties usually depended on a jukebox, which was tripped so that no money had to be put in the slot before selecting a popular tune. The $25 rental of the ballroom included the music.
One of the highest compliments paid a young man back then was “He is a smooth and peachy dancer.” That translated into the fact that the young man not only knew the appropriate steps, but lead his partner in such a way that he was easy to follow.
Through the years there have been some mighty “peachy” dancers in and around the local schools. At Harlan, there was Garland Eagle, Ed Nolan, Howard Smith, Fred Lewis, Sandy Weiler, Jay Barlow, Bill Gene Cudd, Tommy Shoemaker, Bill Rice, Sonny Gergely, Ralph Forester, as well as Willard Carmical and others.
Some of these fellows learned to dance in a friend’s home where patient and sympathetic parents allowed the living room rug to be rolled back for more space and a better footing. A record player furnished the music.
One Valentine’s Day dance at the Lewallen Hotel Ballroom sticks out in my mind. It was planned and sponsored by a rambunctious bunch of my HHS classmates, who organized an independent all-male club, calling themselves the “Esquires.” They were an interesting, fun-loving lot. Their dance was one which included a “no break card.”
That meant, a boy signed a girl’s program for a certain dance and no other boy could “cut-in” during that song. There were six “no breaks” on the program, an intermission and six more “no-breaks.” The understood protocol was that the couple who had a date for the evening, danced the first and the last dance together.
The dance card, or program booklet in this instance, was most unique. One associates Valentine’s Day with roses, hearts, cupids and romantic verses. The Esquires’ program had none of those.
One of their members, Tommy Shoemaker, was an artist and one with an unusual sense of humor. He designed the dance program booklet. Instead of the traditional heart on the cover, he drew the dissected cross-section of an anatomically correct heart. It was like something one might see in a medical book. The heart showed the chambers, the valves, the veins and arteries, all dripping droplets of blood.
None of the ladies fainted. They figured the Esquires would do something different for their Valentine dance. In spite of the unusual no-break program, the dance was a resounding success. The boys were all perfect gentlemen, and many of them, additionally, were smooth and “peachy” dancers.