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Dancers whirl an afternoon away in true Coliseum style

Although it was his first time at the Coliseum, Roy C. Voils, 92, had a full dance card.

"My doctor brought me today," Voils said. "He wanted me to see what it was like and also get the exercise. But I can't keep up with him."

Voils' acupuncturist, John Chiang, says ballroom dancing is his No. 1 prescription. "It's better than drugs," said Chiang, 62. Twirling a woman in a short yellow dress, Chiang seemed to be taking his own advice.

Wednesday afternoon, Voils and Chiang joined more than 300 ballroom dancers to kick off the Coliseum's summer season. A disco ball hanging from the ceiling rained flickering light over the 15,000-square-foot dance floor, where couples waltzed, cha-cha'd, and dipped to the merengue.

The weekly dances normally cost $4, but Wednesday's "Pre-Fourth of July Firecracker" tea dance was free. Although crowded during the winter season, the Coliseum sees a sharp drop in attendance during the summer. And budget cuts over the past few years have forced the ballroom to cut its evening ballroom dances to January through March.

"This is for our year-round residents," said Greg Mosman, supervisor for the Coliseum for the past three years. "It's our way of saying thank you."

Except for short periods of renovation, the Coliseum has been holding dances since opening on Nov. 24, 1924. Although overshadowed by the Gandy Bridge, which opened the same day, the ballroom has played host to legends. Louie Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington all performed under its arched roof.

Although the legends are gone, the regulars remain.

And some seem to have it down to a science. There are, they say, tricks to finding a good partner.

Men, many in crisp suits and ties, wove through the tables eyeing women in brightly colored dresses, bows and pink lipstick. "You look for a good dancer, period," said Alfred Sorace, 73, his gold chains sparkling under the purple and blue ceiling lights. "You don't want to be pushing some unknown quantity around."

As Sorace whirled his next partner toward the floor, silver and black dance shoes tapped to the beat from the Twilight Time Trio. Playing its third year at the Coliseum, the band occasionally receives requests from the audience. But the band rarely changes its 16-set program.

"You have to follow the board," said Sebastian Cotugno, 69, the band's leader, as he gestured toward the floor. "Or they complain."

Some people said they were drawn to the dances because of the exercise. With just a few minutes between sets, many had only enough time to grab a cup of water before heading back to the floor.

"It's good for the body," said Mildred Anton, 65, shaking her dark curly hair to the music. "I have arthritis, so I can't sit. I've got to move around."

Others were there for the memories.

Ann Marie Schlau, 71, and her husband Fred, 72, learned to dance while growing up in Chicago. "That's when they really danced," said Mrs. Schlau. "Queen of Angels. Trianon. The big ballrooms."

They met in 1947 when Schlau asked her for a dance. Married 47 years, they seem well suited to what is still a favorite pastime. Holding her closely, his arm draped lightly around the shoulder of her black sweater, Schlau glides his wife along the floor, making the dance seem effortless.

IF YOU GO:

The Coliseum hosts weekly tea dances from 1 to 3:30 p.m. every Wednesday. Admission is $4, and tickets can be purchased at the door at 535 Fourth Ave. N. For information, call 892-5202.

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