By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But the dancers say Fowler, who they call the "Dance Ranger," devised creative solutions to problems that saved the Park Service hundreds of thousands of dollars, preserved historic attractions and galvanized a strong volunteer base. That won't be possible on a part-time, volunteer basis, they argue.
"The reality is, we wouldn't be where we are now without Stan. Perhaps he trained us well enough that we can carry on the baton. But then again, who knows?" said James G. Titus, 53, a swing and zydeco dancer from Glen Dale. "The problem is, we are not going to know until it's too late."
Fowler commutes by bike to Glen Echo from his home in Takoma Park. He dances ballet, writes poetry and often speaks in quotations, citing the thoughts of dancers, poets, politicians and scientists.
He first came to Glen Echo Park for a modern dance class in 1976, not long after the Park Service took over what had been a segregated amusement park until the late 1960s. Fowler already knew how to swing dance and took up ballet to loosen his muscles after running marathons. Two years later, he took a job at the park as a sound board operator and worked his way up to park ranger, abandoning plans to become a chemist or engineer.
Fowler was drawn to the large dances in the ballroom. "It was like, here's a part of Americana, like New Orleans jazz, that we can preserve," he said. The task has not been easy, especially with the park's small budget and the fading popularity of social dance nationwide.
Fowler is a perfectionist when it comes to cleaning the ballroom floor, removing any dust or grit that could get under a shoe and scrape the maple. Since the 1970s, he has organized volunteers who clean it with oil-treated dust mops, stopping after each row to vacuum the mops.
Occasionally, floorboards broke and Fowler replaced each with a new piece of wood, until he realized that the floor could quickly become a patchwork of mismatched pieces. He formulated epoxy substances to fill in gaps, and studied the floor. He concluded that it was most worn down in the center -- prompting a new rule that sent dancers to the sides whenever possible.
In 1996, the Park Service determined that the ballroom floor was unstable and unsafe. Fowler crawled under the floor and taught himself to use a computer drafting program to find a solution. He concluded that the floor could be stabilized easily and inexpensively with concrete blocks and recruited volunteers to start the process.
"We did one-third of the job in four hours, then we went to get permission to finish it," Fowler said. "The dancers chipped in to pay for everything, and it was done."
In the early 1990s, Fowler wandered into the park's dilapidated 1923 bumper car pavilion. The structure was likely to be demolished if it was not renovated, a cost the Park Service pegged at more than half a million dollars. Fowler said he sanded down the end of a pine beam in the pavilion, counted 169 tightly grouped tree rings and decided that the structure had to be saved -- if for no other reason than to preserve the historic wood.
The project took seven years, $100,000 in donations and 19,000 hours of volunteers' time, Fowler said. Volunteers moved the building onto a new foundation, leveled its roof, carved out tunnels for ventilation, built a stage from recycled wood and unscrewed 7,000 screws to remove the metal plates covering the pine floor.
The finished pavilion became a temporary ballroom in 2002 and 2003, when the Spanish Ballroom underwent renovations as part of a $20 million facelift of the entire park.
"It was very slow and painstaking, but Stan always had things thought out to the nth degree," said Sarah Fulton, 63, a former social worker who has danced at Glen Echo since 1991. "Contractors don't do that. They do a quick-and-dirty. They don't get that meticulous."
When a flash flood struck during a May 1989 contra dance, the nearby Minnehaha Creek swelled in size and swept away most of the Glen Echo parking lot, taking several cars downstream with it. The dances were moved to a hall in Alexandria until the parking lot was fixed and Fowler arranged to move the events back to the ballroom. The dancers just had to promise to carpool so they could fit in the 86 remaining parking spots.
The creek become another project for Fowler in 2005, when the Federal Highway Administration decided that it needed to spend $600,000 to cut down a tree and install a concrete wall to prevent erosion.
Fowler studied historic photos and noticed that the creek had dramatically changed course. Every week for months, Fowler and volunteers repositioned the creek's giant boulders using pulleys and ropes. The creek has yet to overflow and the erosion has been reversed, Fowler said, but after each storm the volunteers must check the rocks and move them back into place.
"It's like dancing," Fowler said. "When you're dancing, the gentleman offers a move and the lady might go along with it. . . . When you're pulling a rock, you think it's going one way and it goes another, and you just readjust. You continue the dance."