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Couple takes their love of dance to Clarence’s Eastern Hills Mall

Do I hear a waltz?

It’s a question you might ask at midnight in Paris.

It’s not a question you expect to be asking at 8 a.m. at Eastern Hills Mall, in front of a Dollar Store and a Payless Shoe Source that have not yet opened for the day.

But that is exactly where and when, several mornings a week, Tony and Laura Pegnia whirl around the floor.

On this one, Johann Strauss’ “The Beautiful Blue Danube” was drifting from a small boom box that sits on the tiled edge of a planter, half hidden in the ferns. The music was just loud enough for the couple to catch the rhythm, as the waltz gave way to the sultry strains of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” followed by Nat “King” Cole singing “Fascination.”

Eastern Hills is home to a community of mallwalkers, and they stopped to smile.

“I watch them every day,” Bob Delgosha said in his musical Iranian accent. “They’re so amazing.”

“Sometimes we put the cameras on them,” joked a security guard, Tom Owen.

After about five years dancing in the mall, the Williamsville couple are legend. The whole mall crowd knows them, from 91-year-old Otto Drachenberg (“He’s the mayor of the mall,” Laura Pegnia said.) to Lauren Topliffe, the mall’s assistant marketing manager.

Topliffe, a stylish young woman arriving for work wearing a chunky necklace and sipping coffee, still remembers the first time she saw the Pegnias dancing.

“I thought it was cute,” she said. “It was as if they were dancing in their own little world.”

Taking the first steps

A love for ballroom dancing can come out of nowhere. It was explored in the famous movie “Shall We Dance,” about a man who became obsessed with it and began sneaking away to pursue his secret passion.

The Pegnias’ story has played out in public. But it is just as dramatic.

He is a retired physical education teacher who taught for years in the Buffalo schools. “I was a jock,” he said. “Why would I want to dance?”

Divorced for 25 years, with two sons, he also never thought he would get married again. But everything changed one day in 1999, when a friend dragged him on a singles cruise on the Miss Buffalo.

“I didn’t want to go,” he said. “My friend said, ‘Tony, I’ve got two free tickets.’ ”

Arriving at the marina, he saw Laura crossing the parking lot toward the boat. She, a widow, was also going reluctantly.

“I said, ‘She’d be pretty if she would smile,’ ” he laughed.

That day, the Miss Buffalo turned into the Love Boat. Since then, for the Pegnias, the dance has never stopped.

Tony, with his respect for physical fitness, loved the discipline.

“What an activity!” he marveled. “Your mind is involved, your body’s involved. It’s all technique, technique and more technique. If you do it correctly, have the right technique, you’ll look like a dancer. It’s not the number of steps, it’s how you execute them.”

Laura, a longtime bicyclist who shared his love for athletics, was hooked too. On the road for her job, as an auditor for the FDIC, she practiced steps in her hotel rooms.

Tony, meanwhile, got the idea to practice at the mall.

Dancers have to practice their steps alone before they dance with a partner, he explained. And so he showed up at Eastern Hills for the first time alone.

A tall man with a gym teacher’s military bearing, he felt conspicuous as he arrived that first morning and took his first steps. Worried about plugging his boom box into a mall outlet, he ran it on batteries.

“Everyone looked at me like I was strange,” he laughed.

Before long, though, he began to feel the Buffalo love. He picked it up especially from the manager at the time of the nearby J.C. Penney store.

“She’d come out and say, ‘Love it!’ ” he recalled. “I thought, at least I’d have someone to go to bat for me.’ ”

‘Warm up? I’m lost!’

The mall makes a surprisingly good dance set.

“This is one of the cleanest malls I’ve ever seen,” Tony said.

The benches and ferns offer an opportunity to practice their “floor craft,” ballroom lingo for the way a couple learns to cross and circle the floor.

“Floor craft” is the reason ballroom dancers love to dance at different venues. The Peglias cross the border to St. Catharines, Ont., to dance at Club Heidelberg, which has a 6,000–square–foot dance floor. Toronto has a lively ballroom dancing scene, and on a recent weekend, they danced at the 30-Up Club there. “We wanted to learn our way around a different floor,” Tony said.

The Pegnias take private lessons, but experience is the best teacher.

Once, competing, they found themselves on a massive floor. “It was like three dance floors put together,” Laura said. “We were lost.”

Tony took up the story from there. “She said, ‘Make sure you warm up.’ I said, ‘Warm up? I’m lost!’ ”

‘She can move’

An hour has passed. The mall is awakening. The lights go on. The Pegnias dance a foxtrot to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and then start working on the rhumba.

“When you take that position,” Tony said, raising his arms as if embracing a partner, “your posture has to be relaxed.” But tall, too: “You’ve got to look big, keep your head up.”

His wife looked on admiringly.

“He was very stiff at first,” she said. “He had a hard time getting up on his toes and balancing.”

What are her challenges? “I’m not a very calm person,” she admitted. “I love the Viennese waltz, but it’s difficult. I like the quick step.”

Ballroom dancing not only gives you strength, it gives you courage. Laura, now that she has retired, has promised herself she will learn Italian – and how to play the piano.

The Italian lessons are still on hold. But the piano lessons start immediately.

“Right there,” she said, pointing down the hall to the Piano & Organ Center.

That way, she will have one more reason to go to the mall with her husband and dance.