If you’ve packed your bag for the weekend with ballroom dance shoes, a tuxedo, a ball gown, and a blaze orange hunter’s safety vest, you’re probably on your way to Mohonk Mountain House’s Ballroom Dance Weekend, held every December. I’ve been wanting to go for years and finally this past December John and I were able to get there for their 21st annual dance weekend.
The weekend includes a Saturday night black-tie optional dance, (this year to the live music of George Gee and his Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra), so we were prepared with the clothes for that (and I wish I had thought to bring elbow-length long gloves like those I spotted on the dance floor.) When we checked in we were handed a Ballroom Dancing Weekend schedule of classes as well as dances to live music. And, along with that itinerary, since Mohonk Mountain House is adjacent to Mohonk Preserve, in the New Paltz, NY area, and other landowners’ property where hunting is permitted, we were also given a memo advising us that hunting season was open and to request a safety vest if we planned to hike beyond the Mohonk Mountain House grounds.
Hike? You mean, outside? That was not going to be an issue for us since, once we handed over the car to the valet attendant upon arrival Friday afternoon, we didn’t leave the property until Sunday. Baby, it was cold outside and there was a full slate of dance classes and dancing to do, plus cozy fireplaces to sit in front of in the lounges, not to mention the one in our room. (In fact, Housekeeping comes around and knocks on the door to see if you need more firewood. PS We had a balcony too.)
The weekend featured a Gala Friday night dance, the Saturday night dance and a Sunday farewell dance at 11 am, all with live music. There also were ten classes to choose from, starting with a basic ballroom class for beginners held Friday from 830 to 9 pm, just before the evening dance began.
Who goes to this Mohonk weekend? We met couples from White Plains, Rockland County and Long Island, New York and from the Philadelphia area and beyond. Many were back for their 3rd time. Age-wise, a few couples were in their 20’s and 30’s, many in their 40’s, most in their 50’s and 60’s, and some 70’s, maybe 80’s.
And I say “couples” because this was no “singles” weekend. You’d better come with a partner or you won’t be dancing. This is not like those dance weekends where you can go by yourself and there will be people to dance with in class and during the dances. Nope. This is a romantic weekend for couples who enjoy dancing and each other.
And they are serious about dancing, which I concluded from the fact that about 70 or 80 percent were wearing ballroom dance shoes.
Upon checking in we got into the dance mood right away as we were escorted to room number 567 (and 8, as we called it.) The all inclusive cost covers not only meals and all lessons and dances but tips for the valet, housekeeper and bell boys as well.
We arrived just barely in time Friday for the 4PM daily afternoon tea and cookies, so I raced down there to the Lake Lounge and to explore the property. There was no TV in the room but I spotted one or two TVs in the various lounges. No matter; dancers want to be dancing. The staff told us that about 50% of the guests were there for the ballroom dance weekend. Other theme weekends at Mohonk, with dates selected every month of the year to maximize occupancy during slower periods, involve chocolate, yoga, crosswords, mystery, birding, photography, triathlon training, dieting and family fun.
We had made 7:30 pm dinner reservations for both Friday and Saturday night, so we’d be ready to dance when the band started at 9 pm. (All other meals are buffet style so reservations are only needed for dinners.) On my self- guided tour that afternoon, I had peeked into the main dining room and saw the decorated Christmas tree, the stage for the band and the dance floor at the front of the room. So, when we arrived for dinner, I protested when they tried to seat us downstairs in the overflow room. They caved easily, but once seated upstairs I came to see that it was the downstairs dining room that is the kids-free zone but by then it was too late to change again. So, our first meal was accompanied by the sounds of a Thomas the Tank Engine video on a child size DVD player at the next table. Lunch and dinner the next day were eaten in the downstairs dining room.
Meals were delicious and the wine list was notable. Dinners are a four-course affair and ours included Local Hudson River Valley Artisan Cheese Plate, Grilled New York Strip Steak with Yukon Gold Duchess Potatoes and Natural Jus, Pan-Seared Sea Bass with Butternut-Squash Purée and Creamed Leeks and mint chocolate chip ice cream. We enjoyed the wine so much we even made a note to remember it: a Joseph Carr Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.
While we were waiting for dessert I excused myself to go peek into the Parlor Room to see who was taking the basic class. There were about 20 couples learning a basic swing and salsa and one could see they were beginners. I mention this because people always ask “Do I need to already know how to dance to go to a dance weekend?” But no. There were many newbies at Mohonk and so this is a lovely weekend whether you are an experienced dancer or not.
The Friday night band, Andy Moss and The Night Owls, a Hudson Valley orchestra, was scheduled to start at 9 pm and before the clock struck 9:01 the music was playing. (Punctuality was the watchword for the weekend as I also discovered the next morning when I was looking for breakfast. The breakfast buffet had ended at 9:30 but Continental Breakfast was promised in the Carriage Lounge Bar until 10:30. At 10:31 they were clearing it away.)
The first dance of the evening was “Our Love is Here to Stay” but no one was on the dance floor! Such a lovely song that we couldn’t resist being the first couple out there and by the time the song was over the floor was filled. The next song was a rumba but John said, “Port Now, Rumba later” so we went downstairs to The Carriage Lounge for a quick after-dinner drink. Sitting at the bar, with some other guests, we could hear the dancers loudly above us. The phrase “a herd of elephants” was mentioned but doesn’t seem apt given how really good the dancers were.
Back upstairs on the dance floor, we did a tango, merengue and that rumba, a fox trot to “Isn’t it Romantic” and a waltz to “Someday My Prince Will Come” but Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” was a quick step so we sat that one out. By the end of the second set the crowd had thinned by half, and by the third set, which started at 11:10, it was down by half again. It’s dangerous for a band to take a break at 10 minutes to 11 pm on a Friday after everyone’s drive up to the country.
On Saturday there was a choice of two classes at 9:30 AM: Beginning Salsa/Mambo & Cha-Cha or Intermediate Fox trot and two at 10:45 AM :Advanced Swing or Beginning Swing. These morning classes were the most popular, with 25 to 35 couples in each. The afternoon classes were smaller. We chose Advanced Salsa/Mambo over Intermediate Tango at 1:30 pm and then Intermediate Rumba/Merengue over Advanced Waltz. While it was called “Advanced” Salsa, I would characterize us as simply more advanced than the beginners. When the instructor Laurie Shayler polled us at the start of the class whether we wanted to work on “turns” or on “shines” she was met with silence until someone finally admitted “I don’t think we know what ‘shines’ are.”
At 4:15 pm a fifth hour of instruction was offered, a Beginning Fox trot and Waltz class. I was debating between Stretch & Tone in the Gym or Afternoon Tea. You can guess which won. I would have liked to have gone to the spa too. Note to Mohonk: Why not include that 50-minute “Real Relief for Calves and Feet” massage spa treatment in the next dance weekend package?
What were people wearing? If you care about being under or over dressed, or care if you are the only one wearing (or not wearing) a swing outfit, you always want to know this answer. For Friday night, here’s what the women were wearing, statistically: 25% LBD (little black dress); 25% other dresses; 25% nice pants; 25% leggings/other casual pants. Saturday night was the black tie optional dance and John wore his tux. (You don’t have to ask him twice. Or even once, really. He owns 3.) Probably 30% of the men were in tuxes and the rest in suits but some of those jackets came off. We ate in the downstairs dining room Saturday night, mingling with the non-ballroom guests, and he was the only one eating dinner in a tux there. Finally, ladies, here’s your chance to wear your elbow length gloves in a non-ironic, non-Halloween way!
Saturday night was our favorite: George Gee and his Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra, whom we’d follow anywhere. We’d danced to his music in New York City at Lincoln Center’s summer outdoor dancing series, “Midsummers Night Swing”; in Chinatown at the Grand Harmony Palace Restaurant’s Sweet and Sour Swing dances; on Restaurant Row at Swing 46, and at the World Financial Center. John also danced to their music in San Francisco at the Velvet Lounge some years back. We waltzed to their “Apple Blossom Time” and did plenty of chachas and swing dances plus a tango or two and tried out our newly learned Mambo routine with a shine (Or was it a rumba? I don’t know; you’ll have to ask John what we were dancing.) George Gee has a Bossa Nova in his repertoire, which John said he “blamed” as the reason to sit that one out and get a drink at the bar. This second night, they had the good idea to set up a bar at the edge of the dance floor so we didn’t have to run up and downstairs to the Carriage Lounge.
The last dance of the evening was “Take the A Train,” so George sent us off with a fast swing. (We know for sure it’s going to be the last dance when we hear a band play Bob Hope’s anthem, “Thanks for the Memories.”) The evening was over, but, wait!, there’s more! Sunday AM. This is a crowd that chooses dancing over dining. One last practice session at 10 am and then a Farewell Dance at 11 that conflicted with the start of the gourmet brunch buffet spread, going on at the same time.
The Night Owls were back and mixed it up so we did a fox trot to “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” plenty of swing and then they played “It Was Just One of Those Things” as a quickstep so we had to sit that out. The Quickstep is one of the few dances we both want to sit out. When they played “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” John said it was too early for Viennese Waltz. John won’t hustle either but that didn’t come up this weekend. (I see it will be featured in March as one of the dances “Mohonk Thinks You Can Dance” and will be taught by our other Ballroom Weekend teachers, Candace Woodward-Clough and Jeni Breen.)
After 7.5 hours of dancing over the entire weekend we earned our brunch buffet. Check out time was at the unheard of 2 pm so we had time for a leisurely brunch and we indulged.
Then we went for a little hike on Sunday for 30 minutes just so we could say we did. (Actually 15 of those minutes was spent standing in front of the stone fireplace at the back of the outdoor skating rink.) Just steps out the back door of Mohonk Mountain House there is a choice of a high road or low road. We took the high road, which the sign warned would be steep and it brought us along the rocky edge, overlooking the Shawangunk boulders way up above the lake, and I heard John muttering something about the armless guy in “127 Hours.” Soon we reached a switch back and we could see ahead that the path went straight up, away from the edge of the cliff but also away from the view of the lake.
John said, “Yeah, we’re not going any further,” so we turned around.
One last thing we both agreed to sit out.
Next year’s Ballroom Dance Weekend will be December 2 – 4, 2011 but you don’t need to wait until the end of the year to dance. The “Mohonk Thinks You Can Dance” Weekend, which many of our December Ballroom friends had been to, will be Mar 18-21, 2011. Also scheduled, a Winter Harvest Weekend, a Cousin Brucie’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Weekend and a Couple’s Romantic Weekend, which all include dancing. Mohonk Mountain House is located about 90 minutes from New York City.
For more information and reservations call 800-772-6646 or visit www.mohonk.com
By Lisa Skriloff