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In search of a dance partner, some find love and a song for life

Mike Unwin doesn't know much about love, but he does know a good love song.

Whether it's Billy Ray Cyrus or Andrea Bocelli, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs or Bruno Mars, the 53-year-old DJ has seen them all make lovers of widowers and divorcees, bachelors and bachelorettes, and those who guard their broken hearts.

He found Grow Old With Me for Gary and Pauline Gylund of Tarpon Springs, who were then both in their 70s.

He found Every Day of My Life for Josephine and Dick Anci of Trinity, who had both buried spouses.

Cathy Snider of Largo had turned down man after man looking for a turn on the dance floor until the DJ played The Last Dance just as David James approached her table.

"You can tell, when you watch people dance, just by the way they look, when they're with someone who's a good match," Unwin said.

He has never been sure what, exactly, draws certain people to certain songs, or for that matter to each other. So when he decided to launch his Bay Area Singles Dances 20 years ago, he promised to play them all: AC/DC and Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and Robin Thicke. Singles at one of his dances can expect to waltz, line dance, swing dance and merengue in the same night.

Three times a week, for six years, the Gylunds have attended — Wednesdays at the New Lakes of Regency Park Civic Center in Port Richey, Sundays at the Largo Community Center and Fridays at Cabaret in Palm Harbor.

The second time Gary Gylund went to a dance, future wife Pauline Teachout wordlessly pointed, first to him and then to the dance floor. Once there, she asked what church he attended. He told her he was a Christian. It was what she wanted to hear.

"That night she danced my heart away," he said.

He wore a jacket and a tie on their dates. Both were divorced and had been single for decades. After eight months, the two married, but the dance continued.

"You see a lot of couples that seem to love each other, but they dance with everyone else on the floor, and we never did that," Pauline Gylund said. "There are a few couples, like David and Cathy, that just dance with each other, and you know they really care about each other."

Cathy Snider had been a regular at the dances for about two years, but always with a group of girlfriends. She had a reputation among hopefuls for declining invitations, and had even passed once before on David James. One night in 2014 James walked up to the table of women "just a second too late," he recalls, and she was the only one who hadn't partnered up on the dance floor.

"I was ready to pivot and turn away," said James, 65, "but for some reason she said yes."

For four months they kept running into each other but never exchanged numbers or planned a meeting. Finally Snider, 58, told the recent Canadian transplant that she would like to watch his hockey team play some time. Now they're engaged.

"You have to go slow, get to know each other a little bit, don't rush it," James said. "It's okay to just be friends, but I knew when we danced that Cathy wasn't just a friend."

Both had been divorced for about eight years and found Unwin's gatherings in an effort to rekindle a love for dancing that was lost in their marriages.

Most of the dances average about 200 people, and some regulars travel from as far away as Auburndale and Orlando for the unique set lists and relaxed, old-fashioned feel.

Rick Esham of Tampa, 76, had never danced until 2013, when he began taking ballroom dancing lessons with friends. Now, he's exploring swing dancing, practicing with a new partner.

"I learned that it's easier to talk more when you're slow dancing," Esham said. "Swing dancing makes that a little hard."

Music is played just soft enough that people can hear each other, and Unwin picks songs to keep them moving.

It's a career that the DJ had always dreamed of, even as a boy in Skokie, Ill. He has always loved love songs, he says, whether they come from his parents' old records or his teenage twins' iPods.

"There are songs out there like Unchained Melody that everybody is going to love," he said, "but it's something special when you share a song with someone that isn't sitting on the radio or isn't someone else's song."

Of course, loving the same song isn't a recipe for lasting romance, Unwin said. He is divorced, and like many at his dances, has yet to fall in love again.

He refrains from dancing with the women he sees night after night at his events. If things didn't work out, it could be bad for business. He did make an exception recently, for a woman he had admired from afar. The night he joined her on the dance floor, she was wearing a red dress and red lipstick.

"There was something about her, I couldn't tell you a specific thing, I just saw her and said, 'I have to talk to her. I have to ask her to dance,' " he said.

Perhaps it was the way she glowed under hundreds of twinkling lights piercing the dimly lit room. Perhaps it was the way he watched the Gylunds smile in each other's arms like it was their first dance. Perhaps it was the music he had so carefully selected that compelled him to ask for a dance and later, dinner.

And what was the song that sang to the matchmaker's heart?

"You know, I can't remember," he said.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.