Jeff Krausel knows what’s going to get people on the dance floor.
“Celebration” by Kool & the Gang and “Gloria” by Laura Branigan (especially since the Blues’ Stanley Cup win in 2019) are definite crowd-pleasers. But when he plays anything from the “High School Musical” soundtrack?
“Everybody dances,” he said with a grin.
Krausel has been a fixture at Felice Cuores monthly dance parties for adults with developmental and physical disabilities since they began 20 years ago at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville. After a few years as an attendee, he became interested in helping Linda Lipka, owner of SounSational DJs, play the tunes all night and transitioned to a role behind the DJ table.
“I want to give them something to dance to and make sure that everybody is having a good time,” Krausel said.
Since 2003, volunteers from seven Knights of Columbus councils and ladies auxiliaries in west St. Louis County have hosted the monthly parties, which take place from September through May in the St. Clare of Assisi cafeteria. For a $5 cover charge, partygoers are treated to music, snacks and attendance prizes. Each month has a different theme — including Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day — and attendees are encouraged to dress accordingly.
Felice Cuores, Italian for “happy heart,” has grown substantially since its humble beginnings. The first dance attracted 64 guests. Since then, attendance has increased to about 200 monthly attendees, drawing in people from across St. Louis and the Metro East. Guests range in age from 18 to over 70.
Felice Cuores was paused for a year during the pandemic. Attendance has risen since dances resumed later in 2021. The most recent dance held on Nov. 11 — a Thanksgiving-themed event — had 136 guests and 38 volunteers. Members of the Trinity Clown Club offered face painting and balloon animals.
Gerry Villaire and her late husband, Bob, came up with the idea for the parties. The couple was having trouble finding social activities for their adult son, Andy, who has Down syndrome. At the time, Bob Villaire had said he wanted an event where people could get together and feel comfortable around one another. Andy Villaire still attends the dances.
The Knights and ladies auxiliaries chaperone the parties, allowing caregivers to do something else on their own, or they’re welcome to stick around. “We get comments frequently about how important this is to them and that they hope it never stops,” said Bill Lukas, a member of Ascension Council 11139 in Chesterfield who helps coordinate the dances. “This gives the caregivers some free time to have dinner by themselves, and they know they’re in good hands and they’re safe.”
The volunteers get a lot out of the experience, too. “When the night is over, of course we’re tired, but as a group, we feel so good about it,” Lukas said. Current and previous pastors at St. Clare of Assisi also have shown their support, often visiting and sometimes even getting on the dance floor. Before the first dance in September, volunteers attend Mass together at St. Clare of Assisi and receive a blessing, which Lukas said helps “to set us off on our journey.”
St. Clare of Assisi pastor Father Anthony Yates stopped by the dance in November with senior associate pastor Father Timothy Foy and Deacon Samuel Horan, a transitional deacon, to mingle with participants and volunteers. Father Yates said he’s inspired by the joy he sees in the faces of those having a good time.
“They have no cares in the world, it seems like, except to be loved, and it’s amazing that we can share that with them,” Father Yates said. “The Knights are the ones pulling it off — we’re happy to continue this tradition here and show our support.”
Rita Halpin with Ladies Auxiliary 9981 at Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield checks in participants and hands out name tags. It’s become a tradition for one of the regular guests to coax her out on the dance floor.
“It’s fun, fun, fun,” Halpin said. “If you can’t laugh here, you can’t laugh at anything. People will come up and give you a hug, and they’re all so happy.”
“If you’re in a bad mood, I guarantee after this you won’t be,” said Rodney Schnurr with the Knights of Columbus Council 12986 at Christ Prince of Peace in Manchester. “Everyone has the biggest smiles on their faces, and it’s very rewarding to be a part of this.”
Ellen Fern and Susanna Vogt chatted at a table while Fern’s daughter, Madison, and Vogt’s friend, Alicia, danced. Fern said her daughter “looks forward to it — she’s got it on the calendar and she just loves to come.”
Vogt was a live-in companion for Alicia and still helps her family as a caregiver. She drives from Lake St. Louis each month to bring Alicia to the dances, adding that “all month long, we talk about when the next dance is,” she said.
Claire Gardiner of St. Clare of Assisi Parish has nearly reached celebrity status at the dances. She cheerfully greeted everyone — friends from work and volunteers — with a grin and a hug as she moved around the cafeteria. She visited a friend with whom she shares a birthday on Nov. 16, and another friend gave her a birthday card she had made for Gardiner.
The best part of Felice Cuores, Gardiner said, is that “I get to hang out with my friends.”
>> Felice Cuores dances
The parties for adults with developmental and physical disabilities ages 18 and older are held monthly on Saturdays from 7-10 p.m. in the cafeteria at St. Clare of Assisi, 15642 Clayton Road in Ellisville. A $5 admission fee includes snacks, door prizes and music from SounSational DJs. Remaining dates and themes include:
Dec. 9: Christmas party with Santa and Mrs. Claus
Jan. 13: Welcome the new year
Feb. 10: Valentine’s Day party
March 9: St. Patrick’s Day party
April 13: Celebrate the Cardinals with Fredbird
May 11: Patriotic celebration
The dances are sponsored and chaperoned by the Knights of Columbus and ladies auxiliaries of west St. Louis County. For more information, contact Bill and Jan Lukas at (636) 537-9801 or Gary Smith at (636) 256-6786.