On the ball: Chautauqua community to get swinging with Ladies First Big Band tonight

Chautauquans of all ages turn out to dance the night away during the last Amphitheater Ball in 2009. Daily file photo.

Chautauquans of all ages turn out to dance the night away during the last Amphitheater Ball in 2009. Daily file photo.

The Amphitheater Ball is back in full swing.

The popular Institution tradition returns at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amp with music by the Ladies First Big Band and dancing by Chautauquans of all ages. Coordinators will remove the Amp’s lower bowl pews to create a dance floor.

But there’s more. In a new twist this year, Chautauquans Dianna Ploof, her husband Ben Harden and their son Adam will offer a free, 45-minute group swing dance lesson prior to the ball for everyone who wants to sharpen their skills. The lesson will start at 7:15 p.m. in Smith Wilkes Hall. In addition, the Handens and Ploof will offer a 15-minute refresher during the concert’s intermission.

Chautauqua’s School of Dance students will also make an appearance at the event.

Chautauquans who attended the Amp Ball last year will recall that the concert was enlivened by the spontaneous appearance of the young dancers. Tonight, dance students have been invited to join with their fellow Chautauquan terpsichores, encouraging everyone to get involved in the merriment.

After the beginning of the season, Associate Director of Programming Deborah Sunya Moore made arrangements for linking the concert, the dance instructors and the young dancers on the fly.

“It’s a good example of matching resources and programs to produce what should be a memorable night of fun,” Sunya Moore said. “We’re very pleased to be able to facilitate this, and look forward to greater similar collaborations in the future.”

The Ladies First Big Band is no stranger to the Amp stage: Tonight’s concert will mark the 16-piece, all-women ensemble’s third appearance at Chautauqua in the past four seasons. Band founder and bassist Jennifer May said she and three friends founded the Ladies Big Band in 2001 in Buffalo; their first concert was to honor Women’s History Month the following year.

“We all love coming to Chautauqua,” May said. “The Amphitheater stage might be our favorite venue.”

May has sent the band’s set list to Ploof and Handen so they can tailor their dance instruction to tonight’s music.

“We’re going to play some swing classics from the big bands of the 1940s and 1950s,” May said. “But there will be songs from many others, ranging from Sinatra to Bruno Mars. As they say, we aim to please all ages.”

Last year, charm and cuteness broke out all over the dance floor as grandparents danced with grandchildren, couples moved gracefully, and the dance students wove among those in attendance.

May said the Ladies First Big Band is one of less than a dozen all-female groups of its size in the United States. Most of the members are teachers, so their availability is limited to summer vacation and weekends during the school year.

“We usually can rehearse at least once a week,” May said. “It’s really a labor of love for us to perform.”

Ploof and Handen are familiar to many Chautauquans from the swing and cha-cha lessons they have offered as Special Studies courses for the past four years. The couple began visiting Chautauqua 23 years ago, have been property owners on the grounds since 2010 and often visit off-season from their home in Pittsburgh.

“Dianna and I have been coming to Chautauqua since just before our son was born,” Handen said. “We started out staying with friends up here. We developed a family tradition of coming here over New Year’s. We would especially look forward to tobogganing down University Hill toward the lake.” The couple met in the Connecticut River valley in central Massachusetts.

“I actually grew up in that area,” Ploof said. “I was a pre-med major in college but was drawn to assisting adults with developmental disabilities. I worked in various jobs in social and human services.”

Ploof worked full time (and danced when she could) while earning her Ed.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“All my life, I have loved to dance,” she said. “My mother taught me to dance, and to this day, when I dance I think of her.”

It was in Amherst that Ploof met her husband — at a dance club.

Handen remembers.

“There was a reggae band playing that night,” he said.

Growing up in Glens Falls, New York, Handen enjoyed summers working on and around Lake George. He majored in natural science at Johns Hopkins University, and while earning his bachelor of science, started working with children with developmental disabilities.

Since 1986, the couple has lived in Pittsburgh. Handen is now a full professor on the research faculty at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic after an earlier position at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Ploof is also on staff at Western Psychiatric in the primary care for children unit.

Dancing is a natural collaborative release from the stress inherent in the couple’s jobs.

“We have always enjoyed dancing,” Handen said. “Neighbors in Pittsburgh danced in competitions and sort of mentored us. There is an athletic challenge to competitive dancing that appealed to us, and we continued with it. We took lessons from pros.”

The two have never competed, but they still take lessons nearly every week, Ploof said. Not to get too clinical, but “dancing helps with synapses,” she said.

In Ploof and Handen’s experience, “everyone dances” across all generations.

“It’s not a romance, looking-for-a-date scene,” Ploof said. “People are there because they share this passion for dancing. It’s a common thing. Almost everyone remembers when they were beginners, so people shouldn’t be concerned about being new.”

Staff writer Deborah Trefts contributed to this story.