The Dresser

With his snappy threads, fancy footwork and sordid past, Vance Thompson has cut a swath through St. Louis

The scene at Tully's is not a meat market by any stretch, but there is a lot of partner-swapping. Swing dancers flock to the club, across from South County Center, to jive to the sounds of Marcel Strong and the Apostles, playing for a $3 cover. Strong has a standing gig here on Tuesday nights -- in part because he plays R&B like nobody's business and in part because he and his band have had a loyal following ever since he ran his own club on South Broadway. It was a great place to dance on Saturday afternoons in the 1980s, the joint filled to the rafters.

There are six swing-dance clubs in the area, but most dancers check out Tully's -- and each other. Members of the swing community range in age from their late 30s to their 70s, a mixture of singles and partners. You don't need to bring a date. There's an ample assortment of free partners pining for a dance. It's not considered risqué for married people to show up spouseless. It's OK to swap partners; the group is considered one big family. There are more women than men here, at a ratio of 3-to-1.

The place is filling up, and Strong has just launched into a version of Johnnie Taylor's "Who's Making Love." In groups of twos and threes, people take up stools at small tables on the perimeter of the dance floor, nursing drinks -- "supersize your cocktail for $2" -- while watching dancers twirl and glide in syncopated time and waiting for their turn on the floor. Swing dance has countless stylistic variations from coast to coast. There's the Tulsa Trot and the Texas Whip. Here the style of choice is the Imperial, which originated at the Club Imperial, a popular nightspot on West Florissant Avenue during the 1960s and '70s. You need rhythm to do the Imperial, but there are only three rhythms to keep in mind: single, double and triple time. As one octogenarian member of the Southside Dance Club remarks after stepping off the dance floor with a beaming lady in tow, "You don't have to do much, just know when to do it."

Jennifer Silverberg
Vance Thompson has taught dance for 45 years. Says one partner, "Wonderful timing, wonderful lead, but he doesn't like to be restricted to a routine."
Jennifer Silverberg
Vance Thompson has taught dance for 45 years. Says one partner, "Wonderful timing, wonderful lead, but he doesn't like to be restricted to a routine."

As usual, Thompson has come stag. In a roomful of swell dressers, Thompson stands out: black-and-white shoes, paired with a black shirt and tie under a black suit with a white kerchief sticking out of the pocket. Thompson is almost always on the dance floor, squiring a sequence of middle-aged ladies. He says dancing is not his wife's cup of tea: "This is my thing, and frankly it's better she's not here. Other wives were here, and it didn't work out." Thompson is on his fourth marriage.

The band starts up again, and Thompson grabs a partner -- blond, fiftysomething -- and makes for a spot right in front of the band, in the spotlight. "The thing about Vance," begins Kathleen Mindak, an occasional dance partner of Vance's, "is, he's really in great shape. It's, like, whoa! A lot of younger guys aren't even near the shape he's in." Mindak also praises Thompson's novel approach. "He mixes in cha-cha with swing. Most people can't do that. Vance can do that." Indeed, Thompson claims he has a dance step named after him, the Snap Drop.

Thompson used to swing week after week with Mindak's sister, Sheri Valvero. They were well known as the first couple of swing and jitterbug. The good-humored Valvero, 55, has a red topknot like Woody Woodpecker's. She has danced competitively since 1983 and has a closetful of trophies, including first place in the National Jitterbug Championship, the Missouri State Swing Classic and the Illinois State Swing Classic -- and she's been a guest on Dance Fever.

Because the swing community has fewer men than women, it's not easy for a serious female dancer to find a good partner. Says Valvero, "You're very fortunate when you find a competitive male partner who's healthy, dependable and has the funds to travel and the tenacity to work out a routine." She thought she had found her Fred Astaire in Thompson. They paired up long enough to garner a slew of dance trophies. In 1988, they were the Missouri State Swing Dance champions. 1991 was an even bigger year; they were the St. Louis jitterbug champs and place third at the U.S. Swing Dance Council Convention. Valvero compliments him as "one of the most individualistic dancers in the swing community -- wonderful timing, wonderful lead, but he doesn't like to be restricted to a routine. Vance prefers spontaneity and just going with the feel of dancing."

After five years, the two stopped dancing competitively. "Vance decided traveling for swing competition wasn't his bag anymore," Valvero says.

At some point, they had a falling out. Thompson sums it: "It was over a prize that we won, a trip on an ocean liner, and she took it and went on it with someone else." He adds ruefully, "She told me I didn't get nothing."

"He had never been on a cruise, and he didn't want to go," counters Valvero. She bought out his share and took the cruise, which ended up costing her a small fortune when all the extras were added up. Still, Thompson felt shafted and spurned Valvero.

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