Ballroom Loses Its Partner
Sunday, January 11, 2009
On nights when the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park fills to capacity, Park Ranger Stan Fowler escapes from the live music to the crawl space beneath the maple floor. There he listens to a different musical ensemble.
Above his head, the historic floor he restored gives as toes tap, heels grind and stomp, feet land from jumps and hops. A contra dance, a type of folk dance, flows in perfect lines of synchronized sound. Waltzes gently sweep past. Swing and Cajun steps are accented by sporadic thuds.
"Other than the music and your partner, the floor is the most important part of dancing," said Fowler, 60. "I know every floorboard in here. . . . A lot of people say the floor is in bad shape. It's not in bad shape, it has a story."
Last month, Fowler was unexpectedly reassigned to the Mount Vernon Trail in Virginia, a job he began Wednesday, and Glen Echo Park lost the man who had been the heart and soul of its community dances for more than 30 years. Many dancers worry that their beloved 1930s ballroom will fall into disrepair without Fowler, who has spent his career staving off the aging hall's closure.
A group of dancers has organized a petition and sent hundreds of letters to National Park Service officials and members of Congress, begging someone to reverse the decision to move Fowler.
"My life has gone topsy-turvy with this," said Lindsey Dodson, 49, a Friday night dance regular whose father took the trolley from Georgetown to Glen Echo Amusement Park for weekend dances around 1940. "Stan's very, very much a part of the life of this park. I don't know what we'll do without him."
Park Service officials have decided that Fowler, an avid biker, is more valuable on the high-traffic Mount Vernon Trail than in the ballroom, both of which are part of the George Washington Parkway and owned by the Park Service, spokesman Bill Line said. The need for U.S. park rangers at Glen Echo has declined since 2002, when Montgomery County took over management of the park. About a half-dozen other Glen Echo rangers have been reassigned, Line said.
"There's nothing punitive or disciplinary about it at all," he said. "If he is ready, willing and able to work in one part of the park, then he has to be ready, willing and able to work in another part of the park. That's how we treat all of our employees."
Fowler said the "out-of-the-blue" reassignment disrupts his plans to archive the history of Glen Echo dances and the story of the ballroom floor before he retires in a few years.
"This is where they left me for 30 years. I did the best job I could. I thought I would retire here," said Fowler, who lost an appeal of the transfer to the Park Service's deputy superintendent.
At his new post, Fowler will help keep the peace between the bikers, joggers, walkers and stroller-pushers who frequent the trail. Fowler can volunteer at Glen Echo on his days off, Line said, but Park Service and county employees will assume his regular duties there, including taking care of the dance floor.
Line said there is "absolutely no" chance the dances -- which attract as many 800 people on weekend nights -- will end.