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Dancing the night away

Allen and Diana Hall have danced many a night away during an active, high-energy retirement over the past two decades. Now age and changing circumstances are forcing the amateur dancing duo to make adjustments that will include less moving to the music.  But they have every intention of keeping on the go in their new lifestyle. Allen, 80, and Diana, 67, have spent the last 20 years pursuing their passion for fast-paced swing dancing while spending summers at their home on Lake Sylvia in western Wright County and winters traveling the country in a motor home. The Halls do the Lindy Hop, the original swing dance, which dates back to the Roaring ’20s and takes its name from Charles A. Lindbergh’s historic nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1927. “We’re kind of a Mutt and Jeff operation,” Allen said in an interview, referring to his nearly 6-foot height compared to Diana’s not quite 5 feet, “but it’s worked out all right.” Anyone who’s seen their smooth and seemingly effortless moves on the dance floor, however, might describe them as more like poetry in motion. Diana, who’s also known by the nickname Rudy, said she grew up dancing in a musical family in Dayton, Ohio, and she’s been doing the Lindy Hop since she was 8 years old. As a youngster in St. Louis, Mo., Allen wanted to do the jitterbug like the cool guys, but he was too shy to ask girls to dance. The two met in the late 1970s at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton where he was a veterinary pathologist and she was a certified veterinary technician. They married in 1980 and he retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel the next year. The Halls came to Minnesota in 1981 to work for Medtronic in Coon Rapids, then after a stint in Chicago they returned in 1987 when Allen retired a second time. They’ve been at home ever since on the north shore of Lake Sylvia northwest of Annandale. For years Diana went dancing with friends, but she finally persuaded Allen to try it. After about six months of lessons and her help, he began having fun with it, she said, and they’ve been dancing together since 1992. From October through May every year they’ve traveled in “the Hall Lindy JazzMobile” from one dance or competition to the next around the U.S., in Canada and Mexico. “We are now wearing out our third one,” Allen said. The couple has even gone to Europe to dance. They’ve spent summers in the Lake Sylvia house his grandparents built in 1911, driving their car to dances in the Twin Cities sometimes three or four nights a week. “One month we danced 26 of 27 days,” Diana said. “People our age shouldn’t do that,” Allen joked. He estimated they’ve danced more than once every three days, 12 months a year going back to ’92. “Outside of professionals, I don’t know any couples that have danced more than we have in the last 20 years,” he said. “I couldn’t get enough.” The pair has been good enough to win a national jitterbug contest for seniors in Los Angeles a decade ago. “That was a big event,” Allen said. “It was a national event.” And they took third the same year in another California event that featured 20 top couples, including some pros. “That was the tip of the top,” he said. “We were shocked” to place that high, Diana said, adding, “We were connected .…We were both in the zone.” “I don’t think we ever danced any better,” her partner said. One thing that distinguishes their dancing is that “the two of us probably get into the music more than other people do,” Diana said. “We both respond to the music,” and people can tell. That “gives us that connection together,” she said, when the vibes travel from one to the other through their linked hands. Diana has danced with Lindy Hop legend Frankie Manning three or four times in the course of their travels. Manning was a “very smooth dancer,” she said, “like dancing with a feather.” His favorite dance tune was Silver Stockings, she said. Manning, who died in 2009 at age 94, was one of a small group of dancers who did the Lindy Hop to Big Band music at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, Allen said. “He was the best …. He’s the alpha and omega of Lindy Hop.” On a personal level, “I don’t think I have ever known someone who had a greater generosity of spirit than Frankie Manning.” The dance had been around since the mid-’20s but didn’t have a name, he said, until a reporter asked one of the dancers, “Shorty” George Snowden, what it was called. That was right after Lindbergh’s “hop” across the pond, and Snowden replied they were doing the Lindy Hop. “It stuck,” Allen said. The term swing dancing covers an enormous number of different dances, all of them done to jazz music, he said. But “the primordial dance was Lindy Hop. That’s what started it all.” Technically, swing dance is characterized by the couple moving from an open position away from each other to a closed position and back, and there are no other rules, Allen said. The Lindy Hop is done to eight-count music and uses a circular motion. “It is the most difficult of all the swing dances to master,” he said. It’s also the most popular among swing dancers around the world, although the West Coast Swing is a close second in the U.S. “It’s an athletic dance and it’s danced primarily to fast music, so you’ve got to move.” That’s one of the reasons Allen always wears his signature cap, which resembles the popular headgear of the ’20s, while dancing. The sweatband keeps the perspiration from running into his eyes, he said. The other reason: He doesn’t have a lot of hair left. Before taking up dancing, Allen played fast-pitch softball and later squash for years, winning a seniors national championship in the racket sport at age 56 in 1988. Just as he does on the dance floor, he threw himself into those endeavors “hair, teeth and eyeballs,” he said. “I don’t know any other way.” Diana joined him on the squash court and was ranked fourth and sixth in the nation in the “Ladies C” category in the late ’80s. She’s since switched to racquetball, a similar sport, and plays three times a week during the winter. “I just started kayaking three years ago,” she said, with a group of Annandale women who take to area lakes every week during the summer. But surgery on her left shoulder in July canceled her dancing and kayaking activities for most of the summer. The condition resulted from hundreds and hundreds of “tuck turns” she’s performed while dancing the Lindy Hop. On top of all that, Diana makes custom jewelry from glass and copper in her home workshop and still uses sewing skills she learned in grade school. When he hasn’t been dancing, Allen has for years been producing two newsletters. He writes book reviews and opinions for “Fruit o’ the Loon,” a reference to the birds that also make their home on Lake Sylvia, and sends it to over 100 friends and acquaintances twice a month. “I just got started writing and I can’t stop,” he said. He’s both opinionated and wordy, Diana laughed. Allen has also put out “News and Views from the Hall Lindy JazzMobile” for other dancers and musicians, but he plans to discontinue it.  Still another accomplishment is their combined family of four grown children from previous marriages and five grandchildren. “I have one son and he has three daughters, but we’re all one big happy family,” Diana said. “It all got blended very well,” Allen added. Now “we’re going into a new chapter,” Diana said. After years of wear and tear from softball, squash and dancing, a decade of taking pain medication and several surgeries, Allen needs to have both knees replaced, he said. “And then after that I’m almost 100 percent sure that I will not be doing any Lindy dancing.” While Diana said he may still do a bit of dancing when they travel to the city to hear some jazz, Allen is afraid he might tear up the new knees if he dances the way he’s used to.     “I don’t trust myself,” he said. “If the spirit strikes me, I’m likely to do something stupid and do some damage.” And instead of pointing the motor home in the direction of the next dance, they’ve been packing up to travel back to Dayton, where they’ll spend future autumns and winters near Diana’s 88-year-old mother. “I just want to spend time with my mom,” she said. “I need to be there” in case of an emergency. After years of winters on the road, “I’m ready to make a nest again.” They’ll sell the motor home there, live in Diana’s childhood home next door to her mother and return to Lake Sylvia around May each year. With a new set of knees, Allen expects to be able to remain active. “I’ll be able to do something,” he said, suggesting his next big thing may be bicycling. “If I don’t (keep active), I’m going to die,” he said. “I have to move and I have to sweat to feel good, to have a feeling of well-being.” A recovering alcoholic since age 50 who has also managed to overcome bipolar disorder for many years, Allen said he believes activity is therapeutic for those conditions. “I’m just about sure of that.” Diana, meanwhile, plans to attend dances with friends. “I will still go out and dance,” she said. She’ll also continue to play racquetball in Dayton and looks forward to new water sport facilities on the riverfront there. “It’ll be a great place to go down and go kayaking.” They also plan to take road trips to the Carolinas, New Orleans and Austin, Texas, to hear the “wonderful music” there, she said. “We’re not going to park ourselves,” Diana said. “We’re going to be moving around. As long as we’ve got a car we’ll go.”

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