Call him the Widow Whisperer.
Caleb Young, 45, has made a career for himself helping octogenarians feel like they’re on “Dancing With the Stars.” The New York transplant’s Florida-based dance studio, Absolutely Ballroom, is the subject of the new documentary “Ballroom Confidential,” in theaters Friday. The film follows Young and his instructors for 16 days as they prepare students for a show. What starts as a PSA for the benefits of staying active in old age quickly turns into a portrait of elderly women finding their own identities.
“This director calls me and [says] how when his father died, he didn’t know if his mother would survive, and then she found ballroom dance,” says Young. “[It turns out] she was one of my students.”
In the early aughts, Young called Williamsburg home. He was performing as a singer-songwriter, paying the bills by bartending and waiting tables. But after watching the Twin Towers fall — from the roof of his apartment — Young became disenchanted with New York, and his relationship at the time ended. By 2003, he’d moved back to his childhood hometown in North Florida.
Knowing he was in need of a job, his mother pointed out a newspaper ad calling for dance instructors — no experience necessary. On a whim, Young applied for it, trained for a week, and got the gig. As his passion and skill level grew, Young finally opened his own studio in Ormond Beach in April 2011.
Today, Young has a thriving business with two employees who help him teach his roughly 40 active students. The students, who range in age from 23 to 97, pay $70 for 50-minute one-on-one sessions, most once a week, year round. The majority of the students are older than 50 — 30 to 40 percent of whom Young estimates are widows.
“I think the reason I connect so well with these ladies is that I treat them like people,” he says. “Some of these ladies, they can be quite intimidating when they walk in the door. I’ve just never been intimidated by them.”
But there’s a deeper reason Young is able to connect with these stately widows, as well — something many of them probably don’t even realize. In 2000, Young lost his own partner of seven years, Mark Pizzelli, to cystic fibrosis.
“I think I was the only one who believed he wouldn’t die,” says Young, pausing. “I think I was still at the ‘We are invincible’ stage of life.”
That shared pain has created a business for Young, which for his clients is about a lot more than dance.
“The majority of it is creating their own identity — not as a wife, grandmother or a great-grandmother,” says Young. “Just being who they are.”
Empathy can breed intimacy, though, and occasionally that’s created uncomfortable situations — for instance, one widow in the documentary admits to having been heartbroken when she found out Young is gay. Most, though, are just happy to have a sense of belonging and companionship.
Does that make the Widow Whisperer something of a social prostitute?
“Absolutely,” says Young, with a chuckle, noting the women will also hire him to be their date for social dances. “They’ll pass me around, like, ‘Here, dance with Caleb!’ I say that with great laughter.”