new york times magazine
In Miami, single women of a certain age pay for a hairdo, a manicure - and a mambo. Why not?
April 23, 1995
TEXT BY Lou Ann Walker

Lee Fox, Margaret Sell and Carmel Marry at Holiday for Dancing, Hilton Hotel, Boca Raton, Fla.

IN THE DINING ROOM OF THE SUN Spa hotel, Lucky Kargo, a broad-shouldered man with an 88-key grin, is gingerly twirling a fragile woman in a cornflower blue dress. A former Broadway dancer and B-movie actor, Kargo, 70, is clearly restraining himself. But when he tosses his head back for a big stage laugh, his partner, well into her 80's, adjusts her glasses and smiles up at him lovingly. "They like that sexy man appeal," Kargo later confides.

The exchange will be repeated countless times this evening throughout the South Florida world of Latin and ballroom dancing. It's an economy driven by the presence of elderly women: housewives, bank tellers, managers of family real estate society grande dames, ranging from their 60's to their 90's, who have come to dispel winter. They take the dance lessons that the Sun Spa, like many local hotels, offers its residents during the day. Every night there is dining and dancing. For a $6 fee, a woman can rent a male partner for a two-minute dance - a chance, however momentary, to scintillate.

Providing this service are men like Kargo: suave, gentlemanly ballroom dancers, age 20 to 85, who know how to play the part of Fred Astaire. Of the $6 paid to the hotel concessionaire, Kargo pockets $3.60 and hopes for tips. (He has since moved on to higher-paying venues.) If the band plays fast, escorts can squeeze 15 or 20 dances into an evening. They hand out business cards to attract private clients. They also attend charity functions for $150 to $200 a night. An hour-long dance lesson at home usually runs $60. "But no hanky-panky," Kargo says.

For aspiring Rita Hayworths, the Sun Spa is only the beginning. Miami-area ballrooms feature live bands two or three nights a week. There are dance showcases and weekly parties to attend, and competitions in exotic locations. Everywhere the doors open onto excitement: spangled gowns and bobbed hair, the carefree scent of romance and intrigue. One woman in her 80's loved to dance so much she hired two instructors, and never told either about the other.

The life style is not inexpensive. Competition entry fees may run several hundred dollars, and the specially designed gowns - one for a tango, another for a bolero - can cost several thousand more. (The hired partners are responsible for their own tuxedos and manicures.) As happy as this life may make them, the women are careful not to reveal too many details. The story of one who did still circulates through town. "'Someone told her son," a friend says, "who took her to a rest home."

Can the price of a light heart - and light feet - ever be too high? "That's what money is for," one elderly dance hall patron says. "You pay to get your nails done. You pay for a good time. What the hell - tomorrow it could be all over."

Lee Fox and his student Margaret Sell in full glide at Holiday for Dancing.

Lucky Kargo, former 'Kismet” chores boy, gets in the groove.

Daphne Klein and Daniel Maloney, a dance school owner, exude mature grace.

Gladys Baker and Stanley Ulrich, student and teacher for 20 years, strike a pose at Mr. Dance in Fort Lauderdale.

Strangers at a dance: Jack Lucinian and Bunny Duke await a mambo at Derek's Dancemasters in North Miami.

Mary Ellen Mark is a documentary photographer living in New York City. Lou Ann Walker is a writer in Sag Harbor L.I.