It was one swank soiree.

Saturday night, more than 600 people danced the night away on the Falls Bridge in East Falls, clad in everything from formal evening wear to weekend mufti.

This first "Dance on the River" was sponsored by the East Falls Development Corporation (EFDC).

The fete sur le pont featured four hours of live music, hors d' oeuvres, open bars, dance instruction, and commemorative portraits.

As they made a regal red-carpet entry, guests were greeted by Lorina Marshall-Blake, honorary co-chair of the EFDC.

"I'm an East Falls greeter," she said, quickly pointing out, "not a Wal-Mart greeter."

She had great expectations for the evening.

"We're going to be bigger than the bridge," she said.

A bash with big goals

"People. Love. That. Bridge," says Gina Snyder, Executive Director of the EFDC.

"It's a real identity center for the neighborhood," she continues, adding that "people all over the city know it."

She hopes the Dance on the Bridge will not only raise East Falls' regional profile, while spurring patronage of local businesses.

"We want to show people how nice [East Falls] is and why they should come back," said Snyder.

That's why the Dance on the Bridge used local businesses – The Café at the Mills for the edibles, East Falls Beverage for the beer, and the RGM Group for the signs and banners. In addition, a silent auction was held, with proceeds benefitting Roxborough's Schuylkill Center.

Credit for the event's concept belongs to Peicha Chang, proprietress of Falls Flowers. Citing a Cambridge, Mass., tradition of waltzing on a Harvard bridge every full moon, she wanted to do something similar in East Falls.

"Most people know this neighborhood as the place next to the chili pepper" she said, in reference to Johnny Manana's trademark sign at Ridge and Midvale avenues. "I wanted to do something to put East Falls on the map."

She presented her idea at a spring EFDC planning meeting.

"I opened my mouth," said Chang, "and here we are."

"It's pretty awesome," she said as she looked out over the crowd of people lured to the bridge by her vision.

A unique bridal dance

Among those attracted by Chang's notion were newlyweds Diana Archambeau and Tom Woerner. 

Hailing from Elizabethtown, Pa., they were hitched in Harrisburg Saturday morning and decided to spend their nuptial night at the bridge.

"I Googled 'things to do in Philadelphia'" said Archambeau, "and thought 'this sounds kind of cool!'"

"We like to party," added her beaming bridegroom.

As part of their matrimonial merriment they elected to stay in the wedding suite at the Crowne Plaza Hotel – just up the hill from the bridge – and will have their wedding reception in late September, followed by a two-week stay in Bermuda.

"It's a month-long celebration," said Woerner.

Their attire showed their festive spirit – a white tuxedo for Woerner and a white gown topped with a tiara for Archambeau.

She was hesitant at first about retaining her crown for the dance, but ultimately decided to wear it, as it was her "special day."

Taking a cue like any good groom should, Woerner looked at his bride and said, "I'm going to give you lots of special days."

A skeptic converted

Also on the bridge was Scott Aaron, scion of all-things-exercise in the Falls. Nominally of South Philadelphia, he "pretty much lives here" due to obligations at the family store – East Falls Fitness – and to his radiant companion Megan Taylor, late of Stanton Street.

Aaron's not a habitual user of the bridge, but the event surpassed all his expectations.

"The area needs more stuff like this" he said, and touted his own upcoming contribution to the scene – the 3rd annual Rest in Peace (R.I.P.) Run, to be held at the Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Taylor was equally impressed, but admitted to some skepticism coming in.

"You never know with East Falls," she said. "It's between two worlds – and is still trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up."

But she pronounced her concerns unfounded. "They've covered everything," she said, adding, "this is elegance."

Enhancing the elegance was the dance instruction provided by Leslie Mitchell and her husband, Kelly Ray, both of Dance Philadelphia.

They focused on ballroom and Latin dance steps, using both live and pre-recorded accompaniment.

Business was slow at first. "Nobody wants to be the first couple on the floor," Mitchell observed, but eventually "they all came out."

"A lot of people followed instructions amazingly well," she said.

Providing music for the evening was the Heath Allen Band, who played a variety of top 40 tunes and dance-oriented accompaniments.

An 'awkward' icon

Of the numerous bridges in Philadelphia, the Falls Bridge stands out as an anomaly. Philadelphia architect Ian Smith was so intrigued by the edifice that he wrote a book about it, entitled "Connections of Metal Fasteners: A Detailed Look at the Falls Bridge."

Smith was originally drawn to what he termed as the "extremes and anomalies" of the 600-foot long bridge. To him it suggested something unfinished.

According to historical records, the bridge – completed in 1895 at a cost of $262,000 – was originally intended to be a "double-decker", with a second roadway built above, allowing the bridge to accommodate both cars and trains.

These plans were scrapped for lack of money, resulting in an incomplete bridge with – Smith's words – an "awkward" quality.

But he was he was taken with Saturday's repurposing of the bridge.

"Any time cars can give way to people," said Smith, "it's a great thing for the future."

Same time, next year?

The future looks bright for the dance. By night's end, many were referring to the event as the "First Annual Dance on the Bridge."

"Everyone was just coming up to me and saying, 'We need to do this again!'" said Snyder.

She said the night had "the normal hiccups of a first event," but she believes the occasion will help define East Falls and as a catalyst for meaningful social exchanges.

A bridge, if you will.


for NewsWorks