SWISHER — From Glenn Miller and Lawrence Welk, on to The Boxtops and The Buckinghams, and now to country band Black Diamond for the 21st time this Friday and Saturday nights, Dance Mor Ballroom in Swisher has always been a place to dance more than anything else.
“We’re a dance hall, not a bar, an all-ages venue,” says owner Craig Davis as Dance Mor celebrates 80 years of continuous operation. “Under 12 with their parents get in free. There are three generations that come in one carload.”
Located in the heart of Swisher’s business district, Dance Mor began as the open air Paramount Dance Pavilion in 1932. Polka was the dance of the day, eventually giving way to swing, the swim, disco and line dancing. Owner Frank Stangler also had a carnival and reportedly used a circus tent as a temporary roof for the maple dance floor until he had a permanent roof erected. Sides were added in the last major remodeling in 1956.
Walk through the double front doors and a metal pipe railing guides you past the ticket booth and a fully-stocked bar into a dimly lit ballroom with room for 800 people. Old wooden booths, a tight squeeze for four people today, line the walls while colorful tube lights and those ‘50s dish lights with large white reflectors on the ceiling take you back — way back.
“People come in all the time to these dances,” Craig says. “They’ll say ‘Oh, man, I haven’t been in here for a long time. It hasn’t changed.”
He takes a breath and smiles, as his customers often do. “Then they’ll tell you a story. It’s always about some high jinx.”
They’ll talk about dancing here at 14 against their parents’ wishes. They’ll remember their favorite band. They may even recall that Tiny Hill played here the night World War II ended.
Yet, as the number of old dance halls in Iowa has dwindled to about a dozen — Dance Mor was inducted into Iowa’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 — those still operating continue to attract new customers.
“Every season, there’s always people who discover us for the first time as if we’re brand new,” Craig says.
Craig, 59, found Dance Mor in the late ‘60s while playing with rock ‘n’ roll bands, particularly The Fourth Estate which still holds the record for attracting 1,400 patrons on New Year’s Eve in 1973.
The next year Craig’s family bought the ballroom. While Harold (he died in 2009) and LaVenia Davis, now 89, operated it, Craig helped his parents when he could. After a career that included real estate sales, he manages the ballroom full time during its Labor Day to Memorial Day season, spending much of his summer on hunting/logging ground he owns in Missouri.
“I never grow tired of this,” Craig says. “It’s an iconic place.”
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