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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Airy Ballroom Refreshes the Soul




Even when the temperature is far below zero, Moscow's 50-, 60-, 70- and even 80-somethings find exercise, fun and maybe even love at the Retro Plus outdoor dances at Sokolniki Park.


On a recent frosty Sunday afternoon, the sun shone and the thermometer showed minus 18 degrees Celsius at the open-air dance floor near the park entrance. Letting out clouds of breath into the chilly air, some 50 pensioners tangoed, mazurkaed and waltzed.


"This is our way of avoiding heart attacks f moving in the fresh air improves circulation and strengthens blood vessels," said dance veteran Alexander Shargorodsky, who first came here in 1980 when he was recovering from a heart attack. Since then, the former mechanic walks almost an hour to Sokolniki every weekend from his home.


"What a great source of positive emotions this is," said Shargorodsky, 70, dressed in a Soviet-style black coat with an astrakhan collar. "I forget about all my troubles and illnesses."


"It's a pleasure to look at them. I get jealous sometimes," said the rosy cheeked dance floor administrator, Galina Bunchikova, as she stood outside her little hut in a silver fox coat. "In spite of their age and the crisis, they still find the strength to look good and be interested in the arts and music.


"They are never cold f they move nonstop like crazy," she said. "It's like sports for them."


About 200 people come during the winter and up to 800 in summertime, said Bunchikova, who has worked at the dance floor for the last five years. She could not recall a time the dances have been canceled because of the weather. While most of the dancers are in their fifties, some are older. Among them there are World war II veterans and people who went through the Soviet-era gulag, said Bunchikova.


"We get a highly educated, intelligent public," said Bunchikova, herself a former literary editor at the Union of Writers. There are doctors, translators from French, teachers and retired military officers among the regulars. Some of the widowed and divorced dancers have met new spouses there.


The program is called Retro Plus because it features contemporary pop tunes as well as ballroom dances and Soviet classics. The music is presented by Mikhail Zhodzizhsky, a collector of old records.


As soon as they heard the grand music of the pas de quatre, a ceremonious old dance once performed by hoop-skirted grand dames and hussars at balls held by the nobility, women in fur coats and men wearing big fur hats formed a large circle of couples and started to dance, giggling and exchanging partners every now and then.


In the summer the program is augmented with Thursday classes, in which a professional ballroom-dance instructor teaches people the steps of the various dances, including the pasodoble, tango, mazurka and even the sudarushka, a Russian folk dance. On the weekends, dancers learn from each other, whirling and stomping on the marble floor, now totally covered with packed-down snow. Some bring a little food and vodka and go picnicking in the woods after the music stops.


It costs five rubles to get into the dance floor, which is open from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on the weekends. Starting from 1 p.m., pensioners can waltz to the music of the occasional wind orchestra or sing songs together at a different spot near the entrance to the park. The habitu?s say the Sokolniki get-togethers offer one of the few opportunities for older people to enjoy the company of people their own age in pleasant, cultural surroundings.


"It may be the only place in the whole of Moscow to have fun for those who can't afford restaurants and cafes anymore," Galina Alexandrovna, a doctor in her early 50s wearing a fluffy white fox hat, said with a bright smile. She added that, expensive health clubs and swimming pools aside, even indoor classes at houses of culture are often too expensive for pensioners.


But even the five-ruble dance admission is too steep for some. On one Sunday a dozen undiscouraged women twirled just outside, where they could hear the music f but didn't have to pay.