Dancing keeps couple in step

Rod and Marilynn Johnson are waltzing toward their 50th anniversay.

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WALLA WALLA -- The benefits of dancing are said to be many.

Better stamina and endurance, a break from the monotony of life, the chance to bond with a partner, an accepted community social event, a confidence builder.

In 2003 a studied published in the New England Journal of Medicine even reported that of all the leisure activities, such as golf or tennis, dancing was the only one that seemed to be related to a lower risk of dementia.

But for Rod and Marilynn Johnson, dancing was, and perhaps still is, a chance to fall in love.

"I wasn't looking for a girlfriend because I was going into the Army," Rod said on Saturday night at the Sweet Heart Dinner Dance sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

The couple had just finished their dinner and had about a 20-minute wait before the dance floor opened.

So they took the time to talk about how they met, fell in love and their love of dancing.

In was Christmas night in 1960.

Rod, then 22, was where he liked to spend his time, at the Oaks Park skating rink in Portland.

That's when he spied her, actually he got a darn good look at her, he said, explaining that back then most young women wore large long skirts.

"She fell down on the floor," Rod said, noting that as she came down, the skirt went up.

"It was funny. It was embarrassing for her. And I was sitting right there. And I was in love," Rod said. Then he added, "But don't put that in."

At first, Marilynn refused to skate with the young man she had just met, simply because he was too good.

"I did a lot of skating ..." Rod agreed, sometimes as much as six nights a week, "... I was good. I don't know about now. But I was then."

Eventually, Rod convinced Marilynn he would only skate backwards in front of her, so if she fell he would catch her.

Too her surprise, he turned out to be a little awkward on his skates.

"He can dance. And he can skate. But he was like all rubber legs," she said.

As far as first encounters go, both agreed something special happened on that Christmas night.

"There was magic that night, there was," Marilynn said.

Still, the 20-year-old wasn't ready to let this young man sweep her off her feet, and not so much because he was entering the Army soon.

"I was engage to somebody. So we were just going to be friends," she said.

Shortly after, that engagement got called off.

Marilynn explained that if someone could make her feel like she did in just one night, perhaps she wasn't ready to get married.

A couple days later she found herself agreeing to a friendly "Coke date." Rod prefers to call it a "pop date." But whatever you call it, a Coke date was the predecessor to lattes at the corner espresso shop.

That first date turned into dinner and a movie, and eventually a friendship grew and daily letters were received from the enlisted soldier.

There were so many letters that even the mail carrier commented one day when the letters stopped arriving.

Perhaps Marilynn had a gleam in her eye when she answered, "He's on leave."

Not just on leave, but he was back in town and spending time with Marilynn.

Eventually the couple got married while Rod was still in the Army. Then after he finished his service, the young man set off to study and work to become a wildlife biologist for the National Forest Service.

Over the years, Marilynn has been an entrepreneur of different sorts, and she currently operates her own rental cottage, a consignment gift booth and is a business stationery consultant.

In 1970, after the National Forest Service transferred Rod transferred to the Umatilla National Forest, the couple began to dance more regularly.

They joined a ballroom dance club, which wasn't exactly Rod's thing, being a country music fan.

Marilynn, however, was more eclectic in her tastes.

"I did the Rock and Roll dancing. I listened to Elvis and ... Oh, what was the name of that guy that died in the airplane?"

"Buddy Holly," Rod answered.

"That was him," Marilynn replied.

As they spoke about their relationship, their tongues seemed to tango with each other, with an occasional jab, lots of quick conversation and the occasional passion.

As for Rock and Roll, well Rod wasn't as eclectic.

"I like to hang on to somebody, not just stand there and wiggle and doing your own thing," he said.

Eventually he got to like ballroom dancing as much as his wife.

Then in the 1980s it was Rod's turn to lead, though both made it clear he has always led.

"You got to have someone who leads. And where you have a leader you have a follower ... You have to relax and let them have control," Marilynn said.

So Rod led them into country western dancing, and they even started their own club.

At first it was hard for Marilynn, which she made clear to her dance partner.

"It was really awkward to me. I would get so mad I would bend his thumb back," she said.

"She did," Rod confirmed.

Eventually Marilynn got to like country western dancing. And the couples became regulars on the local country dance floors.

"Every Friday night. I called it his Friday night fix," she said.

Today, this married couple who will celebrate their 50th anniversary in December said they don't go dancing as much as they used to. But over the years they have stuck with it.

"It gives us something to do all the time. It is the joy of doing something together," Marilynn said.

Of course there have been those other benefits of dancing their way through their marriage.

"Part of it was to release our tension. We had stress and dancing gives us something fun to do," Rod said.

One look at Rod, 72, who stood lean and tall with mostly silver hair, and was dressed in a grey corduroy jacket that filled out squarely in the shoulders, it was obvious his health benefited from this leisure activity.

And there are other types of benefits, such as allowing Marilynn to stake her claim.

"The other women absolutely love it when I am not there because that's the only time he will dance with them," she said.

Only the Johnsons can say if it is for love of dancing or for love of each other that they keep moving across the floor, gliding smoothly as if they were still on roller skates.

"It was funny. It was embarrassing for her. And I was sitting right there. And I was in love..."

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