Who We Are – Waltzing Through a Lifetime

Mariner’s Point resident found his love, fulfillment on dance floor

Senior man posing for photo

Gunnar Johnson will tell you he’s a lucky man. Lucky in love, lucky in wartime, lucky on the dance floor.

“When you’re doing the kind of dancing we were, when you have your own routines, it’s the greatest thing,” he says. “You’re floating on air.”

One night, 70 years ago, two days before he would ship out to Korea, Gunnar met Eileen Balmer at a dance in East Haven, CT. Over the decades, they kept each other on their toes, waltzing and tangoing their way to fame on the ballroom dance circuit. They were creative and acrobatic, and they wowed audiences wherever they went. Then, as instructors, they enabled countless others to find joy on the wooden floor.

Gunnar, who’ll turn 91 in July, lost Eileen in 2013. The couple didn’t have children. Gunnar came to live at The Village at Mariner’s Point in East Haven, just east of New Haven, a little over a year ago. He’s lived his entire life in the area, near the shore of Long Island Sound.

Portrait photo of man and woman ballroom dancingA Chance Meeting

In 1951, Gunnar was home on furlough from the Army, heading for Korea in less than 48 hours, when he decided to attend a dance. He soon noticed a group of five young women sitting together across the hall. “The place was huge. By the time I got to the table, there were only two girls still there. I picked Eileen.”

“We danced, and I thought, ‘Holy cow. She follows really well.’” They kept dancing that night, and did it again the following night. “I asked if I could write to her from Korea. She said, ‘Sure.’”

He wrote, she replied, and the rest, as they say…

Gunnar served in Korea for a year. “I was a tank driver. I was lucky to come back. When I did, she was still available.”

They started dancing again and didn’t look back. They took lessons – foxtrot, tango, waltz, rumba – from a teacher who realized they were something special. “He told us, ‘You guys got a lot on the ball. You should go further.’”

So, they gave it a whirl, literally and figuratively. Their next instructor steered them toward competitions. Along the way, they married. Dancing in local and regional contests led them to New York City’s Harvest Moon Ball. They qualified for the finals in both waltz and foxtrot at Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. That meant they would compete in the finals at Madison Square Garden.

The couple had day jobs – Eileen as an executive secretary for AT&T, Gunnar as an auto mechanic.

On the night of the finals, “all of our friends came down to support us,” he recalls. He and Eileen won the waltz competition, which landed them a spot performing with other winners on TV’s popular Ed Sullivan Show. “It was so exciting. The hair stands up on my neck remembering it.” During rehearsals, the couple met a bunch of celebrities, including singer Robert Goulet, whom Gunnar remembers fondly.

Black and white photo of man and woman ballroom dancingTeaching, on Land and at Sea

The Johnsons eventually bought a building in Madison, CT, 15 minutes up the coast from East Haven, and opened a dance studio on the top floor. Occasionally in the summer, they found themselves working cruise ships headed to Bermuda. “We would teach in the afternoon and perform at night. It was awesome.”

Eileen became involved with the Madison business community, serving on the Chamber of Commerce board and receiving, along with Gunnar, civic awards from the Chamber and the local Jaycees. When it came time for Gunnar to move to The Village, a friend, Karen Kelly, helped pack up the house. She found an extraordinary collection of dresses Eileen had worn in dance competitions. The dresses were donated to the Yale University Drama Department in New Haven.

Gunnar is enjoying life at the Village at Mariner’s Point. “It’s a very nice apartment. It’s clean and up to date and well managed,” he says, noting that he enjoys the twice-a-week cocktail parties.  “I’m very lucky.”

In his apartment, he is surrounded by photos from his and Eileen’s time in each other’s arms, dancing across the second half of the twentieth century.  “I sit here and look at them and reminisce. We got to perform at some wonderful places. I was very lucky.”

In dance, he says, anything’s possible “if you have the right partner. Which I did.”

Portrait photo of young woman