Change Makers

30 Years of the SAGE Womens Dance

Memories from an original dance committee member

Where were you 30 years ago on Sunday, March 31? Maybe you weren't even born yet. But 10 of us were at the Limelight—originally a church, then a bar/nightclub, now a shopping mall on 6th Avenue and West 20th Street in New York City.
 
We weren't clubbing. We were nervously chewing our fingernails, wondering if any women would show up. We were volunteers for SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders).
 
I was a member of the SAGE Board of Directors at that time, and we were concerned that not enough women were participating in SAGE activities. So a committee was formed, and we were supposed to think of ways to draw women's attention to the organization.

We tried a luncheon, but that fizzled; about 15 women showed up. We tried a book reading, but that was a washout; there were maybe a half dozen attendees. We tried a walking tour of women's historical sites—that failed miserably. We tried a couple of other activities, without much success.
 
Then, someone suggested a dance for women only, something unheard-of back then. We crossed our fingers and hoped that might bring a lot of women together and help support the services of SAGE.
 
We thought a price of $20 would be reasonable, and went searching for a suitable place for the dance. The Limelight was a popular spot then (for men), a pleasant atmosphere, conveniently located. And the management was very cooperative; we would only have to agree to a minimum take at the bar.
 
We called it the "Almost Spring Dance," promised a "live DJ with fantastic music from the ‘40s to ‘80s," set the date, spread the word, crossed our fingers and prayed.
 
There was a terrible rainstorm on the day of the dance. We panicked—that sure wouldn't help our attendance. About half an hour before the doors were supposed to open, Audrey Hartmann, co-chair of the Dance Committee (with Liz Ferris), peeked out the window and screamed: “There's a line of women outside!” We ran to the management and begged them to let us open the doors.
 
And the women began pouring in, excited and amazed to be in the company of so many women like themselves. "It was wonderful to see that many older women together being honored and recognized and enjoying themselves as older lesbians," recalls committee member Amber Hollibaugh.

We all have fond memories of that night, like the memorable time we all joined hands and sang "We Are The World.”
 
Committee member Edie Windsor remembers, "People were instructing me on the phone which church entrance to use for a wheelchair entrance, and I was bewildered. Oh, God, it was wonderful. It was a huge success. I remember Thea Spyer and I dancing, with her in her wheelchair, leading me—our first time in public, dancing to the disco version of 'If My Friends Could See Me Now.' And I was thrilled."

"I was in my late 20's, early 30's and was surrounded by these magnificent women with strong opinions, bright, articulate, some in long-term relationships, some single and dating,” says committee member Carolyn Chadwick. “It was just great. I loved every minute."

Perhaps not surprisingly, many long-term relationships began in that heady, joyous atmosphere. "On a personal level, I remember asking Irma Vega to go with me; I think that is when we began to realize that we cared for each other," says committee member Judy Ennis—and they’re still together today.
 
On a personal note of my own, Michele Schwartz and I exchanged glances at the dance, and—30 years later—we are married now, have a daughter and a grandson. Who knows how many other romances were sparked and how many life commitments were made that day.

Connie Kopelov, Gerry Faier, Mary Ann Jones and Mary Jeanne Sanford also served on the committee.
 
By end of day, we were a howling success. We counted about 300 dancers, a number we never dared imagine. But we had neglected to plan for one thing: what to do with the money? We had almost $6,000 in cash! We couldn't leave it with the Limelight, banks were all closed, and there weren’t any ATMs back then.
 
So, out of desperation, Audrey and I split up the money, buried it in our socks and bras and nervously took it home.
 
That's how it all started. Since then, the SAGE Women's Dances have been held four times a year, winter, spring, summer and fall, and attendance is always in the hundreds of women who come from all over the East Coast.
 
The upcoming anniversary event on Sunday, April 21, is very special, celebrating three decades of dances exclusively for women. The price at this historic dance is about the same as it was in the beginning: $20 for an advance reservation ($25 at the door).

The Limelight no longer exists as a nightclub, so the Women's Dances have moved around New York City, currently at the Club LQ at Lexington Avenue and 48th Street.
 
Attendance has grown, and now averages 450-600 women of all ages and all backgrounds at each dance. Nothing else has really changed since that first night: good music, good company, new friends.
 
And a couple of us are still committee members and attend all the dances. This coming June, I'll be 90 years old. But that's nothing; Jerre Kalbas just celebrated 95 years. She and I are at the Raffle Table at the Dance. Stop by and say hello.

Olivia
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