Charlotte Andrews has hazy memories from the three weeks she spent on a ventilator in the early part of the pandemic: struggling so hard to disconnect the machines keeping her alive that the hospital staff tied down her hands. A nurse trying and failing a dozen times to insert a needle into her beleaguered veins. Being surrounded by other patients fighting their own battles against covid-19 right beside her.
“They put me in this room, and people were dying all around me,” Andrews told me.
Her life wasn’t the only thing that hung in the balance. Andrews, who is 72, was put on a ventilator March 16, the same day that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency order closing bars and restaurants across Michigan. That order shuttered Club Yesterday’s, a nightclub Andrews opened in 1996 to be a home to Detroit’s distinctive style of couples dancing, known as club ballroom, urban ballroom or Detroit-style ballroom. The dance community she had been building and celebrating for nearly a quarter-century was also fighting for its life.
Three weeks later, Andrews miraculously emerged from her coma, only to learn how much had been lost. “They gave me my Facebook page, and that’s when I found out a lot of the ballroom community had passed,” Andrews says.
Ballroom is more than just a dance style; it’s a living link to Detroit’s past, a pastime that has built bridges between generations. The style, which has its roots in the swing era of the 1930s, has hung on in Detroit even as the city has transformed around it. Ballroom first thrived in Paradise Valley, a historic African American neighborhood on the near east side that was destroyed in the 1950s in the name of “urban renewal.” The dance found new homes during the Motown era, rebooted for a generation of young dancers. Then it started fading away until Andrews and a cohort of enthusiasts, then mostly in their 30s and 40s, helped save it from extinction by offering lessons for the first time and opening new venues for the style.
Now those revivalists are over 60, and the ones they learned from are in their 90s. This was exactly the demographic hardest hit by covid’s first wave: older African Americans. And they were living in Detroit, one of the first hot spots in the country. Longtime members of the scene estimate the dead easily numbered in the dozens, maybe more than 100.
“It just came one week and just wiped out everything,” Andrews says.
But this dance, and the community that nurtured it, had already survived so much. Could this really be the end?
Nathaniel Vaughn, who turned 90 last summer, is one of the last living links to ballroom’s glory years. A retired Ford Motor Co. worker known as “Nate the Great” to his disciples, Vaughn grew up off Hastings Street in Paradise Valley, the entertainment district that adjoined a residential neighborhood known as Black Bottom. This was the heart of Black Detroit in those years, with a cultural scene that rivaled Harlem in New York City.
“It was beautiful,” Vaughn says. And he was a sharp dancer from the beginning. “I was the hottest thing on Hastings.”
Vaughn started dancing in the clubs in Paradise Valley, but the pinnacle of dance in those days was at the Graystone Ballroom, a regal neo-Gothic structure up Woodward Avenue, the dividing line between White and Black Detroit. The Graystone drew America’s greatest jazz bands — Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie — but the club only allowed in Black dancers one night a week, on Mondays.
Many of the steps still popular in the ballroom scene today coalesced in those years. There was the bop, a fast-moving cousin of swing. There was the chop, an intimate partner dance reminiscent of the tango. The legendary ballroom is memorialized today by a style known as the Graystone, with long, elegant steps that make the dancers look as if they’re floating across the floor.
But big ballrooms like the Graystone were struggling by the late ’50s as rock-and-roll swept the nation. And the smaller clubs in Paradise Valley were being erased by “urban renewal,” which destroyed Detroit’s historic Black neighborhoods with an upscale housing development and a freeway.
Ballroom got a new life when Motown took off in the early ’60s, though the different rhythm required some adaptation. But then came disco in the ’70s, followed by techno and hip-hop in the ’80s. Ballroom became an old person’s dance — something grandparents might do at a birthday or wedding, but not something you’d see in a hot nightclub. It seemed destined to die out as the elders passed away.
And it almost had by the late ’80s, when a 27-year-old exotic dancer and former drug dealer named Kevin Collins sought out a dance hall at Detroit’s far northwest corner called Reggie’s Moulin Rouge. He’d seen some older dancers at a demonstration event, and they told him he should check out Reggie’s on Sundays. Reggie’s had wood paneling and fading carpet, a far cry from the Graystone Ballroom. It was kind of like Detroit itself, which had lost a lot of its luster — and almost a third of its population — since 1970. But Reggie’s kept the old Detroit alive, a place where old-timers could relive the days when they were young and Detroit was at the heart of America’s youth culture. Vaughn was the star at Reggie’s, putting on exhibition dances with a group of women he called his “Golden Girls.”
“It was just the most marvelous dancing I’d ever seen,” Collins told me. The dancers showed up to Reggie’s in their finest clothes, men in three-piece suits and the women in sparkling gowns. Couples danced with synchronized syncopation, huddling close before separating in elaborate spins and fancy footwork. The steps were complicated when analyzed piece-by-piece, but the best dancers put them together to create an effect of effortless grace. Collins had found his calling: “My mission was to regrow the ballroom dancing in the city of Detroit.”
Collins wasn’t the only youngster who had been learning from the “legends,” the elder masters came to be called. Reggie’s is where Collins first met Charlotte Andrews — the future owner of Club Yesterday’s — who was just 10 years his senior. Collins began teaching the dance in nightclubs, including Club Yesterday’s when it opened in 1996. But then he got a break when one of his students, a PE teacher named James Boyce, invited him to come teach ballroom at Mumford High School in the Bagley neighborhood. Collins formed a dance-teaching business with two other dancers, and soon they were fanning out to schools across Detroit.
Collins, who is still teaching in the schools 23 years later, estimates he’s taught more than 1,000 kids in over 22 schools. Over that time, ballroom dancing came back to life in Detroit. It was still mostly performed by an older crowd, but nightclubs across the city started to build a steady business catering to ballroomers. They expanded their base by offering classes of their own. Some, like the ones led by the popular teacher known as Mr. Smooth, could draw hundreds of people a night.
Then covid hit.
Detroit started emerging from lockdown last summer, but Club Yesterday’s stayed closed. Since getting out of the hospital, Andrews has had lingering health issues that make it impossible to keep running the club. And reopening would be too financially difficult for her and her business partners, anyway. Club Yesterday’s owed about $70,000 in back rent by the time state authorities allowed bars and restaurants to reopen.
Club Yesterday’s was the last big ballroom club in Detroit. Andrews and I first spoke in July, in that brief moment before the coronavirus’s delta variant hit and life seemed to be going back to normal. But even then, when surviving dancers were eager to get back on the floor, Andrews worried Detroit’s ballroom scene would never be the same.
“We used to go out seven days a week, and now there’s nowhere for us to go,” she said.
But ballroom’s longtime boosters were determined to keep the dance’s spirit alive, even though the only remaining clubs were smaller or a bit shabby. At a party for his 60th birthday in June, Kevin Collins kicked off a new dance class at the Diamond Shaft in northwest Detroit. In September, Tyrone “The Godfather” Bradley restarted the Tuesday afternoon dances he used to host at Club Yesterday’s at the Blues Cafe on the east side.
Bradley also organized a Survivor’s Ball in early September, which drew hundreds of dancers, including one who was 101 years old. That night felt reassuring to the dancers, a clear sign that ballroom dance would go on. But it was also a reminder of all that had been lost.
“You’re seeing a lot of people you’re glad to see,” says 51-year-old Velita Faulk, “but you can tell there’s a lot of people missing, people who didn’t make it.”
Her husband, Derrek Faulk, was particularly missing one of his mentors, who died during the pandemic near the age of 90. “He really took me under his wing like a son,” he says. “It’s such a great community, because once they like you, they treat you just like family.”
With so many elders gone, it was now up to the younger generation to keep the dance alive. “It’s kind of the baton being passed to me,” he says.
The scene continued building steam as fall turned into winter — the class that Kevin Collins restarted in the summer with a handful of students had nearly 30 just before Christmas. Some members of the scene talked about stepping back in January to avoid the omicron variant surge; Nate Vaughn and his partner stopped going out altogether because they knew too many dancers who were still unvaccinated. But if the clubs were open, plenty of dancers would be there to keep ballroom alive in Detroit.
J. Lester Feder, a 2020-21 Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow at the University of Michigan, is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Michigan.