By Adina Bresge
The middle-aged man jives on the dance floor, glitter heels swinging like axes in the multi-coloured light.
His feet move in quadruple-time as the band scores his performance. He crouches down, launches into a plank, jumps up and spins around. He tips his top hat with a glowing-ringed finger, back of his faux-fur coat faced towards the crowd.
Dennis Whelan, 52, is hard to miss in Halifax nightlife. He has boogied every weekend for the past seven years, cycling through a rotation of establishments in endless pursuit of the beat. Dancing is not just an activity for him. It is therapy.
“My brain never stops. I have to analyze everything constantly,” Whelan says. He has attention deficit disorder and has suffered from depression. He tried psychologists and anti-depressants and none of it worked. Analyzing his analytical processes only made things worse.
“When I dance, I don’t analyze anything … I just go into a total non-thought zone, where I am in total harmony with the beat.”
Whelan discovered dancing in the midst of a midlife crisis. He and his wife had split, forcing him to move out on his own. He was financially successful from his trailer business, but he did not need more money. He missed his kids. What was he supposed to do?
He was on a date with a 28-year-old who dragged him to a bar, and he danced for the first time since his high school prom.
“I just became The Dancer,” he says. “I think we all have it in us. It’s a very tribal thing.”
Whelan is not gay. Not that it should matter, but according to him, it does. Men want to dance, he says, but they would rather linger on the sidelines than risk being labelled as “gay.”
On the dance floor, Whelan’s strutting masculinity cultivated a following.
“I was this big heterosexual male,” he says, “I wasn’t afraid to be flamboyant. I wasn’t afraid to move my hips.”
He is a patriarch figure to a cavalry of young male dancers. They refer to themselves as a “tribe.”
“Men, especially, have lost the ability to go out to do this tribal act,” Whelan says. “Think of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the disco era and John Travolta. It was cool to be a good dancer. And then it all came to a crashing halt.”
Whelan, for his part, is doing what he can to preserve the Halifax dance community, even at personal expense. “I want to use my money for something positive,” he says.
One of Whelan’s favourite haunts, The Seahorse Tavern, had a cement floor he found hard on his legs, so he bought the bar a new floor. There was so much hardwood leftover, that when The Seahorse moved to Gottingen, there was enough to cover that floor as well.
Every Thursday, he goes to see The Mellotones, a dance band at Bearly’s. “Dennis just kind of comes in like a peacock,” bassist Mike Farrington says, “and everyone turns around.”
The Mellotones used to play for money at the door of a club. Whelan always got in free, then he found out who he wasn’t paying.
He went back stage and reimbursed them for every ticket he owed. Farrington withheld the amount, but he said, “it was not small.”
When Whelan is not dancing, he is raising his 13-year-old daughter and his 15-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy. Four years ago, his wife committed suicide and he became a single parent.
Dancers from around the city rallied to help Whelan hold his family together—preparing meals, offering transportation, looking after his kids.
In March, Whelan and his children will move into the top floor of a two-story home in Bedford.The ground floor is reserved for three of his tribesman, with the potential for more.
He plans to install a dance floor.