It lacked the red velvet wallpaper and leather booths bathed in colored lights, but Tony Johnson was crooning and the dance floor was packed. ¶ "One of these days, oooh, you gonna rise up . . ." he started. ¶ Ara Coban tapped a strappy silver heel. ¶ She had fallen off a ladder a few weeks back, breaking her right arm, and was mulling whether to join the crowd. She sipped pinot grigio, her arm in a black sling under a white sweater. ¶ The dance hall lacked the extravagant decor Coban remembered of her haunt, the Red Rose Inn & Suites, but the vibe seemed right and for a few hours she could imagine herself there again. ¶ She smiled and swayed to the music in her seat. ¶ Back then, she said, "My car knew how to get to the Red Rose on its own on Thursday nights." ¶ That was five months ago.
Red Rose owners Batista and Evelyn Madonia shuttered the hotel in May, startling city boosters and leaving a void for the 150-plus regulars from Tampa to Lakeland, including Coban, who came every Thursday night to kick up their heels.
The dances looked to be gone forever until a month ago when dance instructors Donna Garzone and Susan Staton set out to rekindle the parties.
They said they missed the camaraderie and spark that made the Red Rose the place for late-night dancing. Even after classes, their students insisted on frequenting the place. After a while, it became a hang out for the ballroom crowd.
"Everybody went there," Garzone said. "When it closed, everybody split up. Nobody had a place to go to."
First, they set out to reconnect with faces familiar to the Red Rose faithful: singer Johnson and musician Norris Riggs, a.k.a. Rusty Trumpet, who sang and played electric piano.
Then they booked the Stardust Dance Center 2 miles away, nestled between the Family Dollar and Beall's Outlet in the Big Lots shopping center.
Perfect for dance classes and wedding receptions, the place lacked the Red Rose's plush furnishings, but Garzone and Staton did their best it make it intimate.
They topped the long, rectangular tables with black plastic table covers and tea lights, then set out platters of egg salad sandwiches, meatballs, chips and cookies in the next room. There was no bar. Strictly bring your own bottle.
They called friends, told their students and posted messages in online event calendars. They called the soiree the "After the Rose Dance." Admission was $10.
With enough familiar faces, the lights down low and Johnson crooning, the hope was they could stir memories and get people on their feet.
Johnson eagerly filled his part. Clad in a fire-engine-red sport coat and black fedora, the singer quickly had the crowd shuffling to a dance standards from Patsy Cline's Crazy to Beyonce's Love on Top.
The group cha-cha-cha-ed and samba-ed, line-danced and fox-trotted. Mostly, they danced freestyle, mixing steps and holds. Nobody was judging.
Sequins, satin and high heels were well-represented. Most couples were over 55, but a quick scan of the crowd revealed some who appeared to be in their 30s and 40s.
Staton, sashaying across the floor in a clingy orange dress — blond hair falling past her shoulders — said the aim wasn't to replicate the Red Rose's over-the-top decor, but to hit the dance floor and relive moments they had had there. Encouraged by the turnout — about 80 people showed — she said the dances will continue Thursdays "from 8 until whenever."
Coban was among those missing the pale-yellow hotel at the crossroads of Interstate 4 and State Road 39.
Ceramic conquistadors, wrought iron roses and bucolic landscapes in gilded frames greeted visitors as they stepped into the lobby.
There was the ballroom, all emerald velvet and chandeliers, and the more informal Polo Club with its colored lights, red leather booths, oak dance floor and bow-tied bartenders.
That's where Coban and her friends gathered on Thursday nights.
"It was elegant," she said. "It's not the same ambience here, but it's not the same place. The Red Rose was special."
The Madonias haven't said what's next for the 261-room hotel. Even their friends were left wondering.
"I haven't heard anything," said Al Berry, who once worked in promotions.
Staton, who gave classes at the hotel, said she's in the dark, too.
"There's lots of rumors flying around but nothing's been confirmed," she said.
Michael Hano, 59, of Lakeland said the Red Rose's Thursday and Saturday night dances helped him emerge from his shell after a divorce. He heard about the Red Rose after taking dance lessons with Staton. The music wasn't so loud that it drowned out conversation.
He went to the After the Rose event to see old friends.
"You could meet people who were active and you could be serious or as light as you want. I miss it. I miss it, but this is good, too" he said. "It sure beats sitting around playing cards with the guys."
Scott Edwards, 64, said the music was "appropriate for people in their 50s and 60s."
He runs a singles group from Brandon who visited the Red Rose once or twice a week. At other places, he said, the music is too loud or edgy and doesn't lend itself to dancing. Not at the Red Rose.
"It made people lose their inhibitions and get out there on the dance floor," he said. "This is a kind of reunion for us. I haven't seen these people in months."
Coban, who's part of Edwards' group, was wondering whether to hit the dance floor. She worried about getting jostled and injuring her arm. Then the line-dancing song The Wobble came on.
Coban ran to the dance floor like a teenager.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Susan Staton is a teacher at the Stardust Dance Center. Her name was misspelled in an earlier version.