With swing dance – including such variations as West, East, Lindy, Balboa, and DC hand dancing – not to mention tango, Cathy Furlong has a full dance card.
She has danced in many places, but considers Glen Echo Park her “favorite place.”
Furlong has had plenty of time to form that opinion; she has been attending dances at the park’s Spanish Ballroom for more than 31 years.
The social dance program at the Park has a much longer history.
“The program, as it exists today, is really a continuation of social dancing that has been taking place in Glen Echo Park since the early 20th century,” said Jenni Cloud, staffer. “Ballroom dances (the more common term then) were popular at the Park during the time there was a privately-owned amusement park on site, first in the Dance Pavilion constructed in 1911, then in the Crystal Ballroom, which opened in 1921.”
In 1933, Glen Echo built the Spanish Ballroom over the existing dance floor to keep it intact. The Ballroom quickly became a popular venue for Big Band music; and featured famous musicians such as Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk.
In 2003, the National Park Service, Montgomery County, and a newly formed organization – the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture – signed an agreement. The Partnership would manage all the arts programs at the Park, including social dance.
The interest in social dance intensified in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the national swing dance craze fueled a revival.
“Attendance at Glen Echo has waxed and waned at various times during the past decade, but the social dance program has remained vibrant throughout,” Cloud said. “From July 2016 to June 2017, close to 50,000 people attended 355 social dances.”
Over the years, Furlong’s favorite type of dance has changed.
“At one point it was swing, then it became waltz, but now it is Argentine Tango,” she said. “I started the tango about five or six years ago. It’s beautiful.”
In the D.C. area, where “one can dance every night of the week,” Furlong remains smitten with Glen Echo Park. “The wood dance floor is amazing – sprung and easy on your feet,” she said. “In addition, most dances at Glen Echo have live bands, and the D.C. area has wonderful musicians. A live performance with dancing for usually less than $20 is such a deal.”
The Spanish Ballroom has 7,500 square feet of dance floor.
“It’s fun to watch a person walk into the Ballroom for the first time,” said Cloud. “They usually seem to be in awe. The Ballroom conveys a feeling of having stepped back in time.”
Among the dance styles Glen Echo offers are contra and square, ballroom, swing, blues, fusion, and Balboa.
“I really enjoy the creativity of partner dancing,” Furlong said. “Swing dancing is so energetic and playful. The best dance occurs when you and your partner are connected and can interpret the music together. It is a non-verbal communication of joy, energy, and creativity.”
Glen Echo is always looking to add new types of dancing and bring back some styles that had been popular in the past – such as English Country Dance, Cajun/Zydeco, and West Coast Swing. Among the newest styles are Brazilian Zouk and Kizomb, said Cloud.
Glen Echo is currently looking to replace its former salsa dance presenter “because it’s such an important dance style,” she added.
Furlong has another role at Glen Echo other than dancer. She contacts the musicians to organize the bands for the Waltz Time dances on Sunday afternoons.
“Waltz Time sponsors 22 to 24 Sunday waltzes per year and the Strauss Ball in late April or early May,” she said.
The Ballroom is also available to rent for wedding receptions, large corporate gatherings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and other events.
Glen Echo Park is at 7300 MacArthur Boulevard in Glen Echo. For more information about the Park’s social dance schedule, visit their website at www.glenechopark.org/dances, or call 301-634-2222.