Ladies gliding in floor length gowns, men dancing in black tie … and blow-up pink flamingos.
What could be better?
You can find it all six times a year at the Kenilworth Assembly Hall under the auspices of Town Club. Members of this century-plus-old club say that its combination of keeping traditions, involving members and staying in one spot foster a vibrant community and long-term friendships.
Founded in 1914, the Town Club provides a social circle for people who love ballroom dancing to live music. According to club president George Sullivan and his wife and dancing partner, Dorothy Turek, the club has operated continuously through two world wars and now, two pandemics — influenza in 1918 and COVID-19 (Sullivan noted that the group did go virtual in 2020).
About 25 couples are regular members. They come from all over the Chicago area, and even Michigan and Indiana. The group meets in Kenilworth, however, because of the “beautiful floor” at the Kenilworth Assembly Hall on Kenilworth Avenue, Sullivan said.
Member Chuck Norton, who has belonged to Town Club with his wife, Carole Barthel, for more than 20 years, added that the hall is really a home for the club.
“When we hold a dance there, nothing else is going on,” he said. “It’s not like a country club. It’s like being in someone’s home.”
According to a history of the club compiled in the 1990s, it was initially known as the Town Club of Wilmette and only allowed Wilmette residents as members. Pot-luck dinners and dancing were held at the Women’s Club of Wilmette once per month on Sundays.
In 1919, the club began allowing members from other communities to join, and in 1924, dances were moved to the newly completed Assembly Hall in Kenilworth. Women were not allowed as full members until 2005.
One way the club builds community is to assign each couple to a committee, Turek said. Each committee takes responsibility for one of the yearly dances. Members choose a theme and work together to provide decorations, appetizers, desserts and invitations to their dance.
The last two themes were Flirty Flamingos and Dance with the Daffodils, respectively, the latter of which was based on the poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by William Wordsworth.
“People get really clever with the themes,” Barthel said.
She and Norton enjoy the social aspect of the committee planning sessions.
At each dance, a reception and receiving line begin at 6:30. Dinner starts at 7:30, and dancing lasts until 11 p.m. Certain formal traditions foster conversation at the events. At dinner, for example, couples are not seated together to encourage all guests to get to know each other.
The club also uses dance cards. One partner who is not a spouse is listed on a person’s card before the dance begins. Then, men meet and exchange partners to ensure that a lady who plans to dance has a partner for each dance and an escort from and back to her table. The roles are reversed for Sadie Hawkins dances. The dance card ensures that each dancer has several different partners during the evening.
This may seem intimidating for a newer dancer. Joyce and Steve Taylor, who have been Town Club members since 2009, said the club has considered dropping the dance cards. Members worry that guests will not want to join because they feel self conscious. But the Taylors said that the dance cards make the club more social.
At other dance clubs that don’t use dance cards, Joyce said, couples spend most of the evening dancing with the person they came with instead of mixing it up.
“It’s a fun group of people. It’s fun to dress up. Everyone gets involved,” Joyce Taylor.
The Town Club has encouraged some deep friendships over the years, Turek said. One group of four couples who met through the club — and who do not live near each other — hold a semi-monthly conference call with each other to check in, she said.
Someone who wants to join must be asked to a dance by a member of the club.
“You come to a dance. You come to another dance, and then you can be asked to join by the club membership,” Sullivan said.
This is not meant to exclude anyone, he explained. Guests of members are welcome regardless of whether they want to join. Annual dues are $300, and each dinner dance is $200.
This article originally appeared in The Record North Shore, a local news nonprofit.