East Sacramento dance hall lives on
By Daniel Barnes
When you step inside The Ballroom of Sacramento, you have stepped into a bygone era. The spacious ballroom floor is roughly the size and color of a basketball court. Throughout the mirror-walled dance floor, strings of tiny lights snake up 20 feet of support beams. Fred Astaire wearing a top hat and tails would feel right at home.
Imagine what The Ballroom looked like two decades ago, back before social media replaced most other forms of social engagement. “In the old days, when we were basically the only ballroom other than Arthur Murray, there were a lot of people dancing,” says Linda Infante, owner of The Ballroom. “We’d have 400 people here on the weekends for dances.”
These days, The Ballroom is half as big as when it opened in 1996 on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento. “It started out with seven owners, and little by little, they either died or wanted out,” says Infante, who took over ownership in January 2009. However, The Ballroom shimmies on, still holding dance parties on the weekends, as well as group classes and private lessons all week. Although The Ballroom still offers ballroom dancing lessons, those classes have significantly lower attendance compared to “social dance” classes like salsa and West Coast swing. Infante blames the high costs of competitive ballroom dancing, as well as disinterest among the younger generation.
“Sacramento is very much a social dance town,” she says. “It used to be that a lot of people competed. But a lot of those people have gotten older and quit, and the new people just don’t want to do it.”
A Washington native, Infante moved to Sacramento from Fresno following a divorce. She started attending country dances in Sacramento, and became a DJ in 1986, working national dance contests around the country, moving from country dance to West Coast swing to ballroom. After a decade on the road, she got tired of living out of a suitcase and started working at The Ballroom in 1997.
Infante gave up dancing long ago because of bad knees and feet, but she still DJs once a week at The Ballroom. She also serves as the in-house plumber, electrician and air-conditioning repairwoman. “All these things you have to learn to do because there’s nobody else,” she says, stressing that owning The Ballroom is a 24/7 job. “I’m always here. Even when I’m not here, I’m here.”
Keeping a place for people to dance inspires Infante to keep doing the work. “All the time, people say, ‘Thank goodness for The Ballroom,’” she says. Customers feel comfortable coming to The Ballroom because no alcohol is served, while Infante and the instructors foster a friendly and energetic atmosphere. “We’ve had so many people meet here, get married, lots of hookups over the years. It’s like one big family.”
The demographics in classes at The Ballroom skew older, in part because of the physical benefits of dance. “There’s a lot of older people that come just because it gives them exercise, and it keeps your mind sharp,” Infante says.
No one understands the therapeutic benefits of dance better than Mark Vangere, a dance instructor at The Ballroom who Infante calls a “medical miracle.”
In 1998, Bay Area native Vangere started having progressive seizures. Two years later, he had brain surgery, but the procedure left him paralyzed. Months of grueling physical therapy helped Vangere learn to walk again. Then he was diagnosed with Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis less than one year later. Vangere still kept dancing, even visiting The Ballroom the night before his 2008 heart bypass surgery.
More than a decade later, Vangere teaches individual and group classes all week at The Ballroom. He gives a lot of credit for his recovery to the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of dancing. “It allows me to express myself, to calm myself. It takes a lot of focus and concentration,” he says. “I really enjoy the way it allows me to work on my posture, my balance and my strength.”
For her part, Infante looks forward to next year when she will celebrate her 70th birthday at The Ballroom. “I will have celebrated my 50th, my 60th and my 70th birthdays here,” she says. Despite the long hours, Infante plans to keep The Ballroom operating for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not a sit-at-home-type person, so I don’t see myself retiring anytime soon,” she says. “I just hope the people keep coming so we can keep the place open.”
Browse upcoming classes at The Ballroom at theballroomofsacramento.com.
Daniel Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.