At a historic former church in Melrose on a recent Friday evening, a retired Green Beret spun from partner to partner on creaking hardwood floors to old-time country music from a live band.
Albert “Al” Rogers, 71, of Gainesville, served in the Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War. His Hawaiian shirt revealed his missing left arm, a casualty of a rare bone cancer in 2000.
“It’s a positive outlet for all of us, physically and mentally,” Rogers said of folk dancing with others from the community thanks to the Gainesville Old-time Dance Society, or GODS.
GODS is a nonprofit organization formed in 1986. It annually holds about 30 dances attended by 100 to 120 participants each. Held the first Sunday afternoon and third Saturday evening of every month as well as every fifth Sunday afternoon, the events are mostly held at the Thelma Boltin Center, though sometimes at the Martin Luther King Center or the Historic Thomas Center.
The organization’s steering committee caps its annual GODS Weekend in February at 180 people to prevent an overcrowded dance floor. Some travel as far as 200 to 300 miles to attend, said Mike Randall, 53, a co-convener of the committee, which is comprised of nine volunteers.
GODS considers its mission to promote traditional dance and music with emphasis on contra dancing. The organization also embraces open-dance-floor policy by allowing anyone, regardless of skill level, to participate. Attendees are asked to donate $5 to $25 to help fund future dances.
Seated on a renovated church pew in Mossman Hall, Eunice “Suki” Hoffman, 89, a frequent spectator at GODS events, looked on as dancers went from partner to partner. She did tap and ballet as a child and only stopped dancing in 2017.
“I have a bum knee and hip, so I can’t dance,” Hoffman said. “I just love to watch them dance.”
As she spoke, local college students danced alongside senior citizens from the community.
Cayley Buckner, 21, a third-year student at the University of Florida, has been dancing with GODS for three years. Buckner said she is among those who want greater diversity at each event.
“Our age diversity may be high, but our multicultural, ethnic and racial diversity is more limited,” she said. “We’re trying to make it more accessible.”
Buckner said the steering committee has created a safety subcommittee to not only help alleviate that concern, but also to organize protocols in case of medical emergencies on the dance floor.
GODS publicist Patrick Harrigan, 68, cited another way it is striving to diversify: Adjusting language used by the person calling the next dance move at each event. The caller now uses non-gender specific calls instead of phrases such as “ladies and gents,” Harrigan said.
One approach the steering committee offers to the community is selecting dance callers who choose their own terminology while announcing. Some callers adopt distinct terms such as “leads and follows” or more elusive titles like “larks and ravens,” according to Randall.
Randall said other efforts to expand its attendee base include radio advertising on NPR, hiring new bands and adopting new versions of old-time dance.
“We’re trying to spread the message outside our own bubble,” he said.
The challenge is attracting new members without offending existing ones, Randall said. An effort to add techno-contra dancing to the mix didn’t go over as well with those who crave old-time music. GODS will give techno dance another try in the fall, he said.
The type of music matters less to Rogers than does the chance to be part of a special community.
Rogers said he lived like a hermit before GODS came along in his life.
Two years ago, he bought a silver Dodge minivan in order to transport members to dance events across the state. It’s now nicknamed “GODS Chariot.”
“I started dancing in 2013 because I was interested in a lady who liked contra dancing,” Rogers said. “Now I come because I love it.”