Once home to six ballrooms, Lincoln, Neb., now has just one. The Pla Mor Ballroom still stands on West O Street after more than 85 years in operation. It’s where I taught a swing dance to hundreds of people over a nine-year period back in the day. A crazy time, for sure, filled with a lot of good memories.
In fact, ballrooms have always been a bastion of community and hospitality, even if their numbers have dwindled over the decades. But ever since the boundaries between the dances of aristocracy and common folk disappeared, ballrooms became that place in towns and cities across Europe – and then the United States – where people could meet, share, support each other and – if they were lucky – fall in love.
A rich history
In this country, you’d often find a ballroom in many of the Victorian mansions that dotted the landscape, especially around the turn of the 20th century. While a parlor was used for more intimate occasions and small gatherings, you needed a much larger space if you wanted to entertain large groups or host an orchestra, for example.
“It’s hard to think of ballrooms as a necessity, but if you wanted to entertain your peers, you did it at home,” Dwight Young with the National Trust for Historic Preservation told Realtor Mag.
As the country changed and trends in residential living shifted, however, home ballrooms became less en vogue. Instead, public ballrooms thrived, especially as the newly created dances of the 1920s and beyond swept the nation and thrilled the public with their energy and independent movement.
In fact, it was around this time that another Pla-Mor Ballroom opened, this one here in Kansas City in 1927. Debuting to a crowd of 4,100, the ballroom featured a 14,000-square-foot dance floor. Jason Roe, a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, describes the scene:
“On opening night, the ballroom’s multi-colored electric lighting dazzled thousands of dancing patrons who were serenaded by the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. Dancers found an extra bounce in their step because of the 7,000 springs beneath the wooden floor that flexed up to one quarter of an inch.”
The ballroom would go on to host jazz legends like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke, Stan Kenton and Ella Fitzgerald.
Sadly, the lifespan of these incredible facilities wasn’t long. The K.C. Pla-Mor finally ceased operation in 1951 and was razed in 1972 to be replaced by a car dealership. Roe attributes the decline to “changing social mores” and urban sprawl as people moved away from the city center.
But, oh, how I wish I could have been on that dance floor in its heyday!
Hope for the future
While ballrooms have experienced the same kind of ebb and flow that affects any industry, there’s no denying the importance they played in building communities and increasing culture. They have always stood for free expression, inclusion and creativity—places where people of all backgrounds and skill levels could come together for the love of dance.
The 1993 drama, “Swing Kids,” is a great example of the draw these dance halls held. Even under the threat of Nazi imprisonment before World War II, German youths risked everything for the chance to express their rebellion against conformity through American swing.
Here at home where the stakes weren’t quite as high, dance halls and ballrooms could be found scattered throughout towns big and small, in urban and rural areas alike. In fact, the location wasn’t the most important aspect, as Gene Budde writes in The Grand Island Independent:
“Regardless of the name and size of the dance facility, most patrons were primarily interested in three things that would determine their dancing pleasure. Dancers wanted a smooth and polished floor, a good-sounding band playing music that was enjoyable to dance to, and an active but well-behaved crowd. When those things were in place, the facility’s physical appearance was a secondary consideration.”
While the Big Band era is now long gone, and many of the great old ballrooms are now closed, the same sense of community can still be found at those that remain. Our ballroom truly is a place where life happens. I’m proud we’ve created a contemporary, flexible and creative space, yet a space where people can still meet and dance and, yes, fall in love.
In fact, I just heard from a gentleman preparing to propose to his girlfriend by creating a set of clues for her to follow—and one of the stops is our ballroom. He said it was the location of one of their best dates. I can’t think of a better endorsement than that!
Stories like this show me the power that ballrooms and dance halls still hold. They serve as the conduit to literally bring people together around a shared interest. And in this day and age, bringing people together is always a step in the right direction.
As a professional dance instructor and owner of Overland Park Ballroom, Amy Castro has been teaching ballroom dance for more than 25 years—and would love nothing more than to introduce you to the rich history of community ballrooms! Let her know your thoughts by tweeting @OP_Ballroom or by commenting on the Facebook page!