Century Ballroom1 (or, more simply, the Century) is a combination dance hall, supper club, and cafe located on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Temple building at 915 E. Pine in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Although the food served in the tiny cafe is delicious, and the ballroom has enough drawing power to attract higher profile acts (like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and folk singer Christine Lavin) than is standard club fare, the Century is primarily a dancing venue. The ballrooom is home to one of the largest dance floors in the city and hosts dancing events three or four nights a week, dance classes2 every night except Saturday, and occasionally hosts weekend-long intensive dance workshops with renowned dance instructors from all over the country (well, okay, they usually come from California, but, hey, it's something, right?).
The Century was opened a little more than four and a half years ago by Hallie Kuperman. Although the building has been around since 1908 (it was originally intended to serve as the main meeting hall for the Oddfellows), and was host to punk bands in the 1970's and raves in the 1980's, it had fallen into disrepair by the 1990's. With a shoestring starting budget of $2000, Hallie, (who not only runs the ballroom, but also teaches swing and salsa classes, is the co-founder of Swing Girls and the now-defunct performance troupe Swing This!, and generally makes the rest of us look bad by being a total dynamo) refurbished and remodeled until she ended up with the "Sinatra-esque"3 dance space where I spend at least two nights a week.
The dance floor is quite obviously the major focus of activity in the ballroom. The 2000 square foot expanse of polished wood is surrounded by the narrowest raised perimeter filled with round tables covered in simple white linen and a haphazard conglomeration of nice (read: matching and padded!) and functional (read: uncomfortable, of the folding variety) chairs. Dance-level decoration is sparse; long drapes made of some velveteen material frame the windows, there is a large, woody plant in the corner near the entrance to the bathrooms, and the front of the stage is mirrored. The balcony is more sumptuous, with thick, soft, maroon flooring and intimate two seat tables with a stellar view of the dance floor. The ornate old chandeliers are much more obvious from the balcony, although it is possible to catch a glimpse of them if you happen to be subject to a particularly deep dip at the end of a song. Those of you who do not live in the Pacific northwest can still catch a glimpse of the ballroom--the prom scene in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You was filmed there in 1998.
But enough about the space. The Century is a dance hall, and you can't talk about a dance hall without talking its dancers. The understated nature of the ballroom makes it particularly likely to pick up the character of the people inhabiting it. Of course, the character of the people inhabiting depends in large part on what kind of event is being held. Here, let me demonstrate (and please forgive me my swing bias):
On Wednesday nights the Century usually holds a 21-and-over DJ'd swing dance. The $5 cover charge buys you at least three hours of dancing (from 9:30PM until 12:30AM), plus admission into the thirty minute swing class4 starting at 9:00PM. Jim usually works the door--if you come a couple weeks in a row, he'll at least remember your face. A few weeks more than that and he'll know your name, too (and there's something so lovely about not being asked for your ID every single week). The Wednesday population, as a whole, is energetic, friendly, silly, more than a little flirtatious (in a teenagers-in-love sort of way), and surprisingly geeky when you get to know it. Wednesday night is typically about 1/4 really amazing, really intimidating dancers, 1/2 good dancers/regulars, and 1/4 relatively new people. The mean age is about 30 most weeks. The really amazing, really intimidating dancers generally arrive late and hang out in a small section of tables (and dance in the proximal corner of the ballroom) that is isolated from the rest of the ballroom because of it's location between the DJ booth and the bar. This is referred to as the "Hollywood Corner," because most of the people who hang out there dance Hollywood Style Lindy hop. Many of them dress to the nines in vintage clothing and two-toned shoes. Many among their number are dance instructors and amateur swing competitors. Most of them have been dancing for years and were the progenitors of the Seattle swing scene. Watching them dance...I think watching them dance inspires many new folks to keep coming back. Unfortunately, a combination of a tendency toward clique-ishness (many of the Hollywood folks won't dance with people from outside the corner) and the presence of a few snobby elitists (you know the type--they look through you as though you were made of ether rather than acknowledge your presence lest they have to dance with you) surrounds the Hollywood corner in a sort of unimpeachable barrier. There is also a small subset of amazing dancers who, for whatever reason, reject the values of (or are themselves rejected by) the Hollywood dancers. They are a lovely, friendly bunch. They generally sit up on the edge of the stage, and will dance with anyone who has guts enough to ask.
About half of Wednesday dancers (myself included) are of the regular variety in both attendence and skill. These are the people who you'll see nearly every week, who generally have scouted a particular table around which they regularly place their stuff5. While this group dances on pretty much the entire floor (except the Hollywood Corner), there is a minor trend for the better dancers in this group to dance in the middle of the floor, while newer folks dance closer to the perimeter. Usually this group is about half hardcore swing addicts who dance more than one night a week and take classes and half folks who've been dancing relatively casually for a really long time, but, for whatever reason, aren't quite up to the caliber of the amazing dancers. Most of the regulars have a repertoire including a large variety of basic stuff and a few flashy moves. However, the thing that really sets the regulars apart from the new people is their general ability to lead and follow. While they generally dance within the group of regulars, most of them have one or two liasons among the good dancers. It is at this stage that the dancers develop the ability to distinguish good and bad leads and follows, and, as a result, many of them start to get a bit picky about who they dance with. For the most part, though, the regular follows will dance with anyone who asks6, and regular leads will ask pretty much anyone to dance.
The remaining 1/4 of the Wednesday dancing population is new folks and unfamiliar folks. Sometimes these will be out of town visitors, but more often they are simply new people. Lately, a large portion of this crowd has consisted of salsa dancers who have ventured over to swing. As a rule, the new people at the Century are wonderfully excited and have lovely positive attitudes. In spite of their limited dance repertoires, they are delightful to dance with, if a bit timid. The new dancers rapidly separate into soon-to-be regulars and one shot swing dancers who are never seen again.
Admittedly, I've not yet attended a Thursday salsa dance, so I'll have to draw on my experiences with special event salsa crowds and what I've been told by those who attend the salsa dances to characterize the mood of the hall for these events. The Thursday salsa dance follows the same format as the Wednesday swing dance--there is a drop in lesson for beginners at 9PM, and a DJ spins salsa tunes starting at 9:30PM, all of which is available to you for a mere $5. The salsa crowd is generally larger, louder, and, on the whole, a tad younger than the swing crowd. Despite the somewhat younger general population, they seem more adult. I think this probably owes mainly to the serious, seductive, sultry character of latin dances. It might also be because of all the drinking; they drink so much more than the swing crowd that the normal barhand, Sandy, is forced to take on an assistant. At the salsa events I've attended, the crowd seemed to be about 2/3 young, hip professionals and 1/3 older people, mostly of hispanic (I forget which ethnic background term is currently politically correct, so I'm sorry if I've offended anyone with that) descent. Salsa females tend to wear shoes with unimaginably high heels, and their clothing tends to be a lot tighter than the vintage you'll see at a swing dance. There seem to be a lot of those angled hemlines happening for the women, particularly among the more skilled dancers. The salsa males generally wear black pants and black dress shoes. It seems that, among the young hip professional population, the more skilled the male dancer the more flamboyant the shirt7, although the instructors (who sort of fall at the periphery of this crowd) tend to be more sedate. The best dancers of this crowd seemed to spend much of their time in the area of the dance floor closest to the bar, and the area which, were it a swing dance, would be Hollywood corner. When I went out dancing, I couldn't get any of the young, hip, professional crowd to dance with me. This may be because I am completely incapable of taking myself or them seriously, so someone cooler than me might be able to insinuate themselves into that group easily.
The older dancers have a much more comfortable wardrobe, and a correspondingly more comfortable attitude. These folks seemed to appreciate that all of this touching is worth giggling about, and so it was a lot easier to find someone willing to take pity on a beginner when I ventured into the corner of the dance floor closest to the bathroom where their crowd seemed to have established itself. Unfortunately, I can't really characterize the salsa crowd any better than that without research that I am not entirely willing to perform.
Depending on the type of event, the special events held on Fridays will have the character of a salsa dance crowd, a swing dance crowd (although special swing events draw a much larger crowd than the regular Wednesday and Sunday dances), a combination of the two, or something entirely different. Usually you'll find a lot more people sitting down at the Friday special events (It's as if people showed up in order to listen to the band play or something! Crazy!). Perhaps owing to the increase in cover charge (with events ranging anywhere from around $10 to $30), the Friday special event population is generally older and correspondingly more sedate. Friday special events usually feature an appropriately-typed dance class (cha cha, tango, salsa, swing, etc.), and participation in these classes will cost you a few extra dollars. The classes are fun, though--usually most of the people in the class have no idea what they are doing, and as a result everyone helps everyone else out, and at the end you emerge with a few basic steps of a dance you didn't know. What could be better?
Sunday swing is sort of like Wednesday swing light. On most Sundays the Century holds an all-ages $5 swing dance with a DJ. Music starts at 8:30PM and runs until 11:30PM. In contrast to Wednesday swing, there is no introductory swing lesson, so there are generally far fewer new faces, and those new people that show up are usually friends of some regular dancer who finally wore down their resolve and convinced them to come out. The crowd is also much diminished, likely by the absence of alcohol, although some of this loss of population is replenished by the presence of younger dancers. Sunday dancers tend to be very serious about their dancing8,and it is fairly common to see a group of dancers huddled off in some corner somewhere trying to work out a flashy step or fun routine. This dancing orientation also makes for a much more casual wardrobe--a large population of the Sunday dancers wear comfy pants and t-shirts. The overall mood is still goofy and energetic, but more learning oriented than the flirty, flirty Wednesday dancers. I love the Sunday dancers, they are so hardcore!
There is something about this place that has captured my heart. The dancers are wonderful, the bands and DJs are talented and high energy, the staff is unbelievably friendly. Somehow, despite being shy and awkward and starting out not knowing how to dance, I've found myself a place where I don't get carded at the door, I don't mind spending two or three nights a week, where there are at least 30-40 people who know me by name and notice when I am gone. I can't help but think that this reflects just how keen and accepting these people are. My evenings at the Century Ballroom, more than anything else, have transformed Seattle from the city where I happen to live into the city that I consider my home. How can I help but sing its praises?
So, if you ever find yourself in Seattle on a Wednesday or Sunday night, try to make your way over to Capital Hill and stop by the Century. I'll be the girl in the red high top Converse. I am saving a dance for you!
1. Note to the reader: I am a swing dancer. The Century also holds regular salsa dances and events, and while I have been to a few of the salsa events, I wouldn't dream of claiming objectivity where salsa events are concerned.
2. Typically, swing classes happen on Mondays, salsa classes are held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and Lindy hop classes are taught on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Sundays. As of October 2001 the Century is also offering classes in a few swing variants; balboa and shag classes are taught on Wednesdays, and a boogie woogie class is held on Sundays.
3. As described by Caitlyn Cleary in "A Belle of a Ballroom." Isn't that a simply fabulous term?
4. If you've never been swing dancing before, the Wednesday drop-in provides a great introduction to east coast swing. The class is usually taught by Hallie, and usually covers the basic footwork and a few turns--enough to get you started, but not so much that a non-dancer will be overwhelmed.
5. What, you think tables and chairs are for sitting? No way! Tables and chairs are just convenient places to leave your stuff while you dance! Seriously, though, one of the most wonderful things about the Century is that, at the regular swing events, even in a large crowd of people you can leave bags and purses wholly unattended without fear of theft. The people who show up are dancers. They don't need to steal, they need to move.
6. For whatever reason, in most cases, dancers default to boys asking girls (or, at least, leads asking follows). Well, except me. I ask EVERYONE to dance.
7. One of male salsa dancers I saw was wearing one of those net shirts with nothing underneath. ACK! NIPPLES!!
8. Which does not imply a correspondingly serious attitude. Swing dancers are goofy!
Seattle Times, "A Belle of a Ballroom", September 29, 2000