Arden Johnson Starts Group Dance Lessons

In the mid-1970’s a couple of movies, “Urban Cowboy” and “Saturday Night Fever,” called attention to the latest national dance fads: Country Western and Disco.  Here in West Lafayette, the role of  “John Travolta” was played by Arden Johnson (1923-1988).  While the popular dance music was “Coca-Cola Cowboy”, “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” Arden decided the time was right for more complete adult dance education in greater Lafayette.

Arden was a member of the faculty of Purdue’s Department of Physical Education, Health & Recreation Sciences.  In 1976 he started ballroom lessons at Morton School in West Lafayette with a small group of adult students.  Arden was both an accomplished dancer and a skilled teacher.  He was masterful with groups, getting people moving and building enthusiasm in a comfortable, fun environment.  Roz Sutherland was Arden’s dance demonstration partner and Ellen Snellenbarger handled class registration and fees.

Arden Johnson Founds JRDC

Keeping the increasingly popular classes going was not enough for Arden. To keep people learning and dancing and to build momentum and enthusiasm for ballroom dance, he knew that the social aspect of dance had to be addressed.  This is how Johnson Rags Dance Club was founded.  Arden knew that to maintain and build interest, enthusiasm and skills, social dance students must have a comfortable place to practice what they had learned…a place where others shared and encouraged their interest in social ballroom dance.  Arden was so committed to ballroom dance that he personally provided much of the necessary financial support for the club for the first three years.

In 1976, JRDC had 37 charter members.  Two current club members were on that charter list: Charlene Speaker (rejoined JRDC in 2005) and Jules LerzakJules is our JRDC-champion-charter member with 30 years of continuous membership!

JRDC Charter Members

Arthur, Sarah
Bartlett, Dick & Mary Ann
Butler, Frank
Butler, Larry & Mary
Casson, Eric & Peggy
Cornwell, Frank & Juanita
Dilling, Ray & Eileen
Ervin, Jerry & Edith
Hartman, Jim & Cindy
Hinds, Bob & Anne
Johnson, Arden & Trula
Johnson, Jeff
Lerzak, Jules & Grace
Lerzak, Tim & Mary
Livelsberger, Dallas & Peggy
Lundstrom, Bob & Anne
MacKellar, Warren
Meyer, Robert
Snellenbarger, Ellen
Speaker, Ben & Charlene
Spencer, Rick & Teresa
Sutherland, Roz

JRDC Meets Educational and Social Needs

The club records show that by 1979-80 the club was really getting organized.  Officer roles and duties were being defined.  A charter was ratified at the November 3, 1979 dance.    The charter states that the purposes of JRDC are “fun” first, “fellowship” second, and “ballroom dance opportunities” third: opportunities to learn, opportunities to share, opportunities to encourage others, and opportunities to promote ballroom dance.

The 1979-80 season included 5 dances for $25 a couple.  Thanks to Arden’s teaching talents and to some timely coverage in the Journal & Courier, enrollment in Morton School classes soared to 400 people by 1978.  The popularity of Arden’s classes helped grow the club.  By 1980, JRDC membership stood at 114.  Ten 2006-07 club members appear on the 1979-80 JRDC roster: Jean & Arnie Cooper,  Jan & Dan Ketterer, Edwin Layer & Virginia Smith, Jules Lerzak, Elizabeth Davis, and Ruby & George Tsao.

Also in 1980, Arden decided that it was time for the club to stand on its own financially.  He reached a financial agreement with the officers and like a child come of age should, JRDC went forward, bound to make it without the promise of parental bailout.  Arden continued to play a lead role in the club and he continued to teach his popular group classes until 1983 when he left Purdue to return to his native Minnesota.  He died in November 1988 in St Paul, Minnesota.

JRDC Meets Financial Challenges

JRDC struggled financially the first three years without Arden’s financial subsidy.  At $25 per couple, the club relied heavily on admission fees “at the door” in addition to membership dues to cover the expenses for the five dances.  This proved to be considerably harder to do without Arden there to write a check for any dance that lost money.  Ellen Snellenbarger often recalled “sitting at the top of the stairs at the Grotto praying that one more couple would come in the door so we would break even!”

In 1983 President Doris Graefnitz, Vice President Irene Seders, Secretary/Treasurer Ellen Snellenbarger, and Member-at-Large Larry Swartz developed and implemented our current membership and financial structures.  These officers did their homework.  They knew the Grotto would comfortably handle approximately 60 dancing couples (120 members).  They knew they needed  $3,000 to cover the expenses of five dances.  The membership fee for 1983-84 was set at $50 per couple, double the 1980 rate!  They wrote and distributed a letter making the “dire need” known and challenging anyone interested or involved to step forward and commit to fully fund the budget with membership dues.  They made it clear that if they fell short, the club could not continue.  These reforms put the club on sound financial footing and have kept us solid ever since!

The twenty-three successful years that have passed since this group of officers took on the risks of reorganization are proof of their vision and wisdom!  While we owe credit for our club’s beginning to Arden Johnson, we owe its survival through its tough formative years to this group of leaders and to the members who answered their challenge…many of us in JRDC today can trace our membership back to that critical 1983-84 reorganization.

JRDC Matures and Grows

Finally on a solid financial and organizational foundation, JRDC continued to grow and change.  Starting in 1980-81, all club dances were held at the Merou Grotto.  The 5-dance season grew to seven.  In 1998, we added a May dance at the PMU Ballrooms on a trial basis.

In 2000, after 20 years meeting at the Grotto, we relocated the club dances to the Greater Lafayette YWCA, where we continue to meet today.  At the YW we enjoy “dance-floor-level” parking, entrance and restrooms.  We gained dance floor space allowing us to grow club membership from the 120 maximum at the Grotto to our 2006-07 roster of 158 members.

Our last season at the Grotto, we had a schedule of 7 regular dances October – April plus the trial May dance, then renamed the “Miss Ellen Ball”.  In 2001, we moved the “MEB” from the PMU Ballrooms to the YWCA and made the May dance a permanent part of the schedule.  A September dance was added 2003.  In 2005 we expanded the schedule to include a June dance.  In our 30 years, we have doubled the schedule of regular monthly dances.

JRDC Adds New Year’s Eve Event

But that is not all!  One of the brightest spots in our recent history was the addition of the New Year’s Eve dance starting December 31, 2005.  That dance was made possible by Marilyn & Jim Anderson.  The 2006 New Year’s Eve Dance was sponsored by Ruby and George Tsao.  JRDC is grateful for the Anderson’s and Tsao’s generosity and their vision and challenge to add New Year’s Eve to the JRDC tradition!

History of JRDC New Year’s Eve Dance presented by Harry Smith at the 12/31/2016 dance:

One of the brightest spots in our club’s history was the addition of the New Year’s Eve dance in 2005.   Historically, many JRDC members had spent NYE at a big public event hosted by the Merou Grotto.  The evening started with a steak dinner followed by 4 hours of dancing to the music of Ruth Morgan and capped off with breakfast at 1am.  The Grotto NYE dance, fondly known as the “Grease Ball” met its demise in the late 1990’s.

In 2004, Jim Anderson asked the club officers to try hosting at NYE dance.  He and Marilyn wanted to create a local NYE ballroom dance opportunity.  As past president, Jim knew the club could not afford another dance.  So, he backed up his proposal with a generous offer that he and Marilyn would fund the cost of the dance if we hired Ruth Morgan for the music.  Jim told me, “You know how to make this happen.  We’ll cover the cost to get it started.  We’ll see if it grows into something permanent.”  The officers enthusiastically agreed and the Johnson Rags NYE dance was born 12/31/2005.  To keep the ball rolling, Ruby and George Tsao sponsored the 2006 NYE dance the same way.

Ruth Morgan continued to play for our NYE dances until her death in 2010.  Tonight, the music around the Black Hawk Waltz at second break will be from Ruth Morgan’s recordings.  Bill Tandy played NYE from 2010 through 2014 when he cut back his schedule for health reasons.  We are grateful that the Mike McCarty Trio stepped in to our 2015 NYE gig last year and they are back tonight, starting a great new tradition!

By 2007, we incorporated the NYE dance into the club budget.  In the first few years, we realized that NYE and the 2nd Saturday of January can fall just a little over a week apart.  That is why we have no January dance.  We also soon moved our December Dance Buffet to the NYE dance, making NYE the event it is tonight.  (And thank you all for another stellar pitch-in buffet!)

Here we are tonight at our 12th NYE dance.  In this 40th Anniversary year, we honor the Andersons and Tsaos for the vision and generosity that got our NYE traditions started.  Ruby and George now live on the west coast, but the follow our club activities on-line and visit when their travels bring them to Lafayette.  Jim Anderson is our longest sitting active past president.  And no one here remembers JRDC without Marilyn & Jim.  Jim is recovering from knee surgery, but we are so glad that Jim and Marilyn came to enjoy another NYE with us tonight.  Jim & Marilyn, thanks for starting the JRDC NYE tradition.  Happy New Year!

Ellen Snellenbarger, JRDC Secretary/Treasurer

In 2000, we lost our Secretary/Treasurer, teacher and friend, Ellen Snellenbarger.  Ellen served as the club’s first Secretary/Treasurer from 1976-79.  Rita Manis served as Secretary/Treasurer for 3 years from 1980-1982.  Then Ellen agreed to return to Secretary/Treasurer role as part of the reorganization of 1983.  Ellen remained in that capacity until her death in March 2000, serving a total of 21 years as JRDC Secretary/Treasurer!  If Arden was our founding father, Ellen was surely our sustaining mother…a rock-solid, constant leader through most of our club’s history.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

With 43 years of experience as a club, we thought we knew how to manage things and deal with constant change. The COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges that put our club to tests beyond anything any of us had ever imagined.

March 2020-June 2021 dances cancelled except for April 2021

In addition to the dance cancellations, the pandemic presented opportunities to re-imagine and improve JRDC. Smaller membership. Dues decreases. After 20 years at the YWCA and several years of contemplating a venue change, we moved to TAF Wells Community Cultural Center effective with the October 2021 Dance. Dropping of September and NYE Dances. Return of the January monthly dance. Significant band changes and increased use of recorded music.

JRDC Looks Forward

Like many of you, Connie and I joined JRDC in that pivotal 1983-84 reorganization season.  JRDC’s charter priorities of “fun, fellowship and ballroom dance opportunities” have enriched our lives in many ways.  Sometimes, I wonder if the good folks I have named in this account had any idea that their actions would lead to something so successful and long-lived.  Hind-sight is 20/20 and words like “wisdom” and “vision” are mine, not Arden’s or Ellen’s.  I guess they would say that they simply did the best they could with what they had at the time.  I know they would say “This is a dance club, not a history lesson.  A dance club is only as good as tonight, next dance and next season!”

Forty six years later, here we are still dancing the Black Hawk Waltz to Arden’s record (which was probably 30 years old when we started)!  This milestone year makes us stop and think about how we got here, how far we have come together and where we are headed.  But mostly, this is a milestone to be celebrated.  Fun!  Fellowship!  Let’s dance!

Harry Smith

November 17,1996

Updated February 10, 2007, hds

Updated January 14, 2017, hds.  See also: Officer History

Updated October 13, 2022

JRDC 30th Anniversary Newsletter page 1

JRDC 30th Anniversary Newsletter page 2

JRDC 20th Anniversary Newsletter

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