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Big Bands Spin Sounds for Ballroom Steps at Maxi's

February 11, 1993|ROSE APODACA | Rose Apodaca is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Bring up the subject of social dancing and many aficionados reminisce on the ballroom variety: graceful turns and dips, fancy footwork--performed with a partner to the accompaniment of a big band.

In a time of laser lights, synthesized music and overpowering bass lines, that style of dancing might seem long gone. Bands are increasingly becoming small ensembles, even solo performers, who manipulate electronic devices and computers to create an array of sounds.

Although the rebirth of country has brought back partner dancing, not everyone wants to squeeze into a pair of Wranglers and listen to what is essentially countrified rock.

But would-be Fred and Gingers need not dismay. The glamour and fun of dancing East Coast swing to a live big band is very much alive and jumping every Sunday afternoon at Maxi's Grille in the Costa Mesa Red Lion Inn.

True, the majority of patrons who gather on Sundays at Maxi's witnessed firsthand the makings of the World War II era big-band sound. But this senior set doesn't subscribe to the notion that accumulating birthdays has to result in living a sedentary life.

One gentleman joked that no one under age 35 is allowed into the events. But he was proven wrong by the presence of several couples young enough to be the children and grandchildren of the crowd, including a 10-year-old duo who have been doing the jitterbug since they were 6.

And this crowd does not pussyfoot around. They know their step work: the fox trot, samba, cha-cha and variations of swing. For those less knowledgeable but willing to learn, local dance teacher Tony Scaccia spends an hour before the afternoon club program officially begins showing early birds how to move.

With the focus on dancing, the club's two pool tables don't get much action. Few stay seated once the bandleader raises his baton.

To accommodate the 250 patrons who attend weekly, there are three marble tile dance floors surrounding the stage and a fourth hidden in the back corner near the bar. Apparently most are unaware of this wooden parquet area, but that seemed to suit the lone couple or two dancing there.

Maxi's features four orchestras that rotate weekly, headed by Frank Amoss, Jimmy McConnel, John Henderson and Tracy Wells. Unlike some of the pseudo-big bands, which actually play a lot of contemporary Top 40 and '60s hits, these orchestras keep their playlists decidedly attuned to the golden era of swing. A Whitney Houston hit thrown in last Sunday didn't go over too well; many patrons decided to take a breather until a more jumping tune came along.

In addition to getting people out of the house on a Sunday afternoon, the goal is to keep the big-band sound alive and keep the musicians who play it working, says Cay Drake, the event's cordial hostess (she'll quickly match you up with a good dancer if you go alone).

With its large round bar, tiny round tables and cushy swivel chairs, Maxi's recalls Vegas more than those wonderful ballroom cabarets in old movies. But the scenario isn't totally cheesy. Golden lighting from modern mini-chandeliers, a clientele attired mostly in suits and dresses, and 16- to 20-piece bands performing against a backdrop of mauve velvet drapes lend a classy air.

For the $8 cover, patrons get a happy hour-style buffet at 3 p.m., featuring pasta salads and veggies. This crowd is apparently on a health kick, for the most part preferring sodas and sparkling water to bloody Marys and martinis. Explained one regular: "They have to keep their edge out on the floor."

Having fun can be serious business.

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