Hot Ballroom

The entire “urban core” of Mt. Vernon, Missouri, is smaller than the average city block. Crumbling from years of neglect, the flimsy-looking cluster of buildings sits empty with the exception of a few quaint novelty stores selling quilts and strawberries. What used to be the grocery store is for sale. Lawrence County’s jail is right around the bend.

The town, just off Interstate 44 between Springfield and Joplin, is home to around 3,700 people. Most other people see the McDonald’s and the gas station right off the highway exit and think that’s all there is to the city.

It’s a funny place for a tango ballroom, and an even funnier place for a tango ballroom that draws instructors from Buenos Aires and dancers from places as far away as New Orleans and Portland, Oregon, where presumably there’s no shortage of dance opportunities.

And for the second year in a row now, Karen Whitesell has hosted a national tango festival — to rave reviews. After this year’s Meet in the Middle National Argentine Tango Festival, the first weekend in August, a pair of visiting tango instructors from New York posted pictures on their Web site. Scenes from the weekend included couples of different races striking sensual poses and assuming close embraces, the ladies wearing cleavage-showcasing dresses and racy hosiery that one might imagine a touch scandalous for the likes of Mt. Vernon.

After all, billboards around town instruct drivers to “OBEY GOD” and direct tourists to the nearest attraction: Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage.

It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon when the motherly Whitesell leads me out from her elegant ballroom to the balcony of her vibrantly restored 1890s building to show off the rooftop view.

“It’s very urban for such a small town,” she comments. “But my view, instead of a skyscraper, is a feed store. &133; During Apple Butter Makin’ Days, I sell sandwiches and drinks up here. And I look out on all the parades.”

Whitesell’s balcony is sort of like a bizarre place where Amelie and The Last Picture Show meet: full of magic and an unlikely sense of possibility, but still desolate and bare, the essence of the dusty Midwest.

But Whitesell talks about her well-attended festival as though it were the most logical thing in all the world. See, there aren’t a lot of single men her age in Mt. Vernon, and she’s having a hard time finding a tango partner, to put it mildly. The only way she can show people what tango is like and to make them really feel inspired by it is to bring in dancing couples. And by bringing in couples who are also coveted instructors, she draws a decent turnout from cities across the country.

Mt. Vernon’s newspaper doesn’t cover Whitesell’s events, and the townspeople don’t come to her milongas, though they appear grateful to Whitesell for fixing up a downtown building and seem to enjoy browsing in her stained-glass studio and shop on the first floor. There, Whitesell’s currently doing commissioned work on a lamp to hang over someone’s pool table; it will depict a reclining nude. This is the sort of work that pays her bills.

Whitesell doesn’t let the locals’ lack of interest in her smaller weekly tango events get her down. At least she tries not to. “When big cities don’t get but 100 people, how do I expect to get more than a handful? I bet I have the highest tango-per-capita,” she says.

She knows her location is a bit strange. But this is where she lives, dancing is what she wants to do, and she doesn’t give a damn where she does it.

Whitesell became interested in Argentine tango not on a vacation and not in a ballroom, but on her family farm — while watching 60 Minutes one evening back in the 1990s. “Here I find myself divorced. I’m lonely and deprived of touch and feel,” she offers candidly. “I see this dance, and I think, that’s me. That’s everything a single woman could ask for.”

A lot of people probably saw the same 60 Minutes episode. And a lot of people probably reacted similarly to news that the spellbinding dance was dying off with an older generation: They told themselves they’d learn the tango and help preserve it. But Whitesell, a lifelong self-proclaimed farm girl, really did it.

“When you’re between things, you’re game to do anything,” she notes. After attending her first tango workshop in St. Louis, Whitesell signed up for her second — in Argentina. From there, she went to one festival after another, traveling the United States, hopping from tango lesson to tango lesson, studying with the best instructors.

Her grown children expressed concern. “My kids got so mad,” she says. “They said, ‘Nobody takes that many vacations in a year.’ And I said, ‘It’s not a vacation, it’s a mission.'”

She knew it was time to settle down again, but she wanted to find a place where she could live, run her stained-glass business and dance. She found the building in Mt. Vernon, which was close enough to the family farm that she could look after her aging parents.

The first time she saw the building, its windows were boarded-up. “It was pitch-black. I came up here with a flashlight, and it was, ‘Yes, the floor is here. Yes, the ceiling is here. Yes, it’s the original woodwork.'” Refurbishing the building took about a year, with Whitesell acting as engineer, architect and contractor.

She says she would have put that much work into the ballroom even if the only crowd dancing there consisted of herself and another person. People tell her she’s poured too much money into the building, but she tells them it’s her home and asks them how much they spend on their homes.

Whitesell has been doing the same sort of grassroots “urban” revitalization that captivated Kansas City’s arty population several years ago, but she’s had no like-minded community surrounding her. Now, though, a medical clinic is setting up shop in downtown Mt. Vernon, in part because the doctors saw what she had done with the stained-glass shop and tango ballroom. “I’m really proud that I’ve helped bring another business to town,” she says.

That’s not all she’s bringing to town. The second weekend in October, an Argentinian milongero whom Whitesell calls “the real McCoy” will perform on her patio during Mt. Vernon’s event of the year — Apple Butter Makin’ Days.

Exactly the kind of thing people travel internationally to experience.

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