Liquor, Sin, and the Mobtown Code of Conduct

Dearest Turkeys,

It has been a long time since I’ve hurled one of my missives at you, due in part to the culmination of two and a half years of extremely annoying work trying to get a liquor license here at the Ballroom. Consider this the formal announcement. Yesterday the Board of Zoning Appeals granted us our conditional use as a tavern with live entertainment and dancing (that’s the formal language). Obviously, Mobtown is not a tavern, but that’s as near as the zoning code can get, since there hasn’t been an overwhelming demand for “ballroom” as a category for some time now.

The short story is this: Since opening in September of 2011 we’ve been negotiating with multiple city agencies and politicians to make this a possibility. We had to change a state law to allow this license within 300 feet of a church. We had to pass two city council bills. We had to build out a bar. We’ve spent dragon-level hoards of money. We still have inspections and red tape to deal with. The whole process has probably taken a combined 10 years off the lives of the staff. We were recently informed that no one in Baltimore City has ever done this before. It’s been an undertaking.

So, now it’s appropriate for us to tell you, first, why we’ve put so much effort into this and, second, how coming to Mobtown will be different in the future.

The dance/arts business is a cruel mistress, and while the ballroom has never lost money, we run on thin margins, and the business requires upwards of 70 hrs a week from several of the staff members. We want to be here for decades, and in order for us to take risks and put on interesting events, we need more cash than covers and dance classes alone can bring in. Just as important, we are extremely committed to making our events affordable to as many people as possible. Adding a different revenue stream (rather than upping prices) is the best way to do this. Liquor will also allow us to bring in more expensive bands, and keep us extremely competitive (which we have been so far) in paying the artists who work for us.

Beyond the practical reasons, we also believe that the worst mistake that arts businesses can make is adopting the family-friendly, non-profit, white-bread model. We run programming for real, human adults, believing always that too much of the world has begun to feel like Sunday school. We value learning, growth, and all of that positive shit–but we like to do it with a drink in our hands and a grin on our face. That’s the real reason we’ve fought so hard to open a bar.

So, we want you to come out and enjoy whatever aspect of the business appeals to you. Whether you drink or not, you’re welcome here. To make the place as welcoming as possible, and to protect the ballroom for the future (this liquor thing is a huge investment), we’ve written up a small document about our policies here. Some of this is us, and some of this is Baltimore City law. All of it is extremely important. It will be posted permanently on the website soon, but for now you can read it below. We love you all, turkeys.

Mobtown Ballroom Code of Conduct

Two Years of Mobtown Part I

Dear Denizens of the Mobtown Ballroom,

September is upon us, Lindy 500 has come and gone, and so has ILHC. Baltimore as a group has continued its long march towards infamy and acquired a hilarious and entertaining rivalry with the entire state of Texas. We’ve laughed; we’ve cried; we’ve shaken the money tree; we’ve paid our bills on time, fighting tooth and nail to do so; we’ve been in the news; we’ve got a documentary coming out some day. We’ve had fun the entire time, night by night, watching thousands of people roll through the ballroom, coming for all kinds of reasons. They make friends, they listen to music, they hang from the ceiling, they learn to belly dance. If we (given a few days off here and there) hold roughly 6 nights a week of programming–we’ve had something like 624 different events in the two years we’ve been open. It’s hard to believe, but we’ve had almost 300 individual dance nights.

This is a source of great pride for the small but fierce group of Mobtown staff and volunteers. We run with a skeleton crew, and the abuse on the people who make all of this happen (the majority of whom are not paid) can be pretty severe. That said, the quantity of sheer bullshit that the above numbers represent–the vast conglomeration of fun and shenanigans–is an accomplishment indeed. The ballroom is a kind of massive baby that a small group of people are constantly squeezing out of a heroic and unrested vagina (forgive me for this metaphor, but that’s how it feels). I want to talk about a lot of things in this post, but first I want to talk about that vagina and the people who do the squeezing.

Sommer and Dory: Both of these people are certifiably insane, but they are the founders of Charm City Swing and the grandparents of Mobtown. They’ve earned a well-deserved break, but when you see them, give them a tip of the hat, because they kept swing dancing in Baltimore afloat for the better part of a decade. They are now world-famous in their own fields. Insane, but world famous.

 

 

 

Sunshine: Colloquially known as Misha. Everyone knows that she operates with a near-pathological level of kindness and decency inaccessible to the rest of us; you may not know, however, that she comes in and cleans all of the bathrooms twice a week. She periodically manages to sneak in and clean the entire place from top to bottom. No one has ever asked her to do that. Some cruel person gave her a key, and I frequently enter the ballroom to find her on her hands and knees taking care of something that I would never have noticed. On Mondays, she comes in, does her thing, goes home, and then comes back to dance. Sunshine’s badass husband Josh sometimes gets roped into all of this, and you can occasionally find him expertly tailoring pieces of drywall for the holes that inexplicably appear in the bathroom walls.

The Awkward Teen Hunger Force: Christina, Leah, and Emily. They made their volunteer debut at the Anniversary last year, and acquitted themselves hilariously and well. They “man” the door throughout every Friday night dance and during all events. Not only do they do a good job, they have a fierce sense of ownership about working the bar and appear to be personally offended when I suggest that someone else get a shift. Sometimes they take pictures of themselves on my laptop and change the wallpaper. Ah, to be young.

Kelly Stallard: Monday night door wench. She gets paid, but she goes above and beyond when she makes hilarious promotional signs for T-shirts, classes, and events. Her capacity for dealing with the occasional annoying person baffles comprehension. She’s a strange one and we love her.

Dan Allan: Also known as “Dirty Dog Dan” (ask him for the story). You don’t see Dan out dancing much, because he’s busy, as he puts it, “doing science.” What he means by this is that he’s finishing a PhD in Physics and could tear down the ballroom using only the power of his brain if he had a mind to. Dan is one of the unsung heroes of the ballroom, because he has spent hundreds of hours building multiple iterations of the website, the last of which was finished yesterday and gives us NSA level analytics on class registration. He does this for free, because he’s a nice guy and because he gets to pepper the back end of the website with inside jokes and all manner of nonsense. We cannot speak too highly of Dan. If you’re ever looking to throw a parade in someon’s honor, pick him.

Charlie Wieprecht: Real name: “Bambi.” Charlie is a problem child and does everything begrudgingly, despite the vast amount of money we don’t pay him. He also runs the Sunday practice with Kelcy (see below). I don’t like saying nice things about Charlie (we have a special relationship), but if I was going to, I would say that he has an intense devotion not only to the ballroom but the Baltimore swing scene in general. He comes to every goddam night at Mobtown, helps out, then hits up ChileSwing as well. I’m pretty sure that every follow in the place, and a great number of the leads, have danced with him. He’s our ambassador and our mascot. If the ballroom had a flag, we’d have to put good ol’ Bambs on it. He also receives more abuse than anyone else, because it’s so thoroughly fun to tease him. He takes it like a stoic, and we salute him for it.

Kelcy Newell and Aaron Nicholas: These two work best in my mind as a pair, because their thick-as-thieves friendship is as solid as it is unlikely. Kelcy is a wildly liberal scientist, and Aaron a staunchly conservative dentist and businessman. Both of these cats have shelled out money on behalf of the ballroom in exchange for a “tab.” Kelcy runs the Sunday practice with Charlie. Both of them slaved away building our dance floor. Both of them have been intensely good friends to both Nina and myself. They are repaid with witticisms and dubious life advice, and are unlikely to get anything more substantial out of us. Sorry, guys, and thanks. You’re both doing extraordinarily well in life, and are of the rare sort who still manage to deserve more than you get.

Julia Golonka: Affiliated with the Awkward Teen Hunger Force but not a full member. Julia, though silent as the grave, is responsible for the documentary teaser that so titillated many people in Baltimore. She films things. She interviews people. She puts up with our constant failure to keep appointments with her. She seems to be an excellent egg, but is otherwise shrouded in myster.

Tim Fritz: Tim has helped out with almost everything at both Charm City Swing and the Ballroom over the years. He comes and goes when he pleases, but when he comes he always manages to be quietly helpful. Like Julia, he is a mystery.

Kelly Jo Stull and Isabel: These two teach Aerial and Belly dance respectively, and we owe them great thanks for being the rare kind of instructors who can attract students and maintain a damn fine program with very little help required. People like this are hard to come by. Very hard. The only problem with Kelly Jo is that she is, I shit you not, afraid of heights, and refuses to climb the ladder to rig the silks she hangs from. We find this hilarious and insane, but it takes all kinds.

Dani Easley: I call her Weasley. She teaches classes when necessary and kicks ass the rest of the time. Mostly silent, Dani becomes loquacious and profane when drunk, which we enjoy. We stole her from Albequerque, and the theft has payed off. The camera loves her, as you can see.

 

 

 

Nicole Munchel and Marissa Lanterman: Adorable and fierce, Munchel has done everything at the ballroom. She’s covered herself in glory as a teacher, and, if you’ve seen a picture of the ballroom on the internet, the odds are good that she took it. Nicole is also responsible for some of the more hilarious graphic design at the ballroom including a poster (with Marissa) featuring Nina Gilkenson as a bearded lady. You can’t beat that. Marissa took over for Munchel when the latter decided to galavant through Europe, and made some absolutely amazing flyers and posters, including last years anniversary poster. Together with Dan Allan, she created the soothing and muted tones of this very website. She’s been our roomate for a while now, and possesses the singular distinction of owning the only cat in the world that’s meaner than our cat. Veruca, someday Twyla will get her revenge.

Sarah Sullivan: Last, but foremost. No one at the ballroom has tangled with Sarah and not been better for it. She’s the third full-time staff member, and every day Nina and I sink to our knees and thank whatever dark forces compelled her to sign on. She’s at every dance. She teaches. She helps with the accounting. She runs registration. She works on the website. She watches the door. She cleans and moves tables. She fills in for things with zero notice. She books hotels. She talks to bands. She sells classes and event passes with a missionary zeal. Most importantly, she’s the kind of friend you don’t find often in life. Sarah, we hope that we make enough money to pay you a million dollars a month. Barring that, I hope we have the decency to fire you someday when you’re approached to run for President. Jesus. Also, this picture is from her Bat Mitzvah. You’re welcome, Baltimore.

There are other people who volunteer, but look for their props at the anniversary. For you cats above: Every day you help keep this place humming. We’re not curing cancer here, but I can’t escape the feeling that once in a while, in our better moments, we’ve all created something pretty meaningful at Mobtown. I think the city would be the worse without it, and I think the lives of a fair number of people have been spruced up because of what you do. There is enough toil that most of it slides by without recognition, but it’s never unnoticed. You certainly have our thanks, and, I’d venture to say, the thanks of the entire Baltimore dance and ridiculous arts scene. You all are the best.

Why the Century Ballroom Matters

Seattle’s Century Ballroom is in a fix. Having an assortment of emotions wrapped up in the place, it’s difficult for me to separate the personal from the private and tell you exactly why we need the Century to exist, so the following is a farrago.

For those of you who’ve never made the pilgrimage, the Century Ballroom is located on Capitol Hill in Seattle. It occupies 4 spaces on the second floor of an old Odd Fellows Hall: The ballroom itself, the east and west halls, and the newish Tin Table, a swanky bar and restaurant. Down the hill a ways they used to operate HaLo (Hallie’s Loft), but they shut it down in May of 2012 after taking over more space in the main building.

The Ballroom is now set up perfectly. A main hallway connects every room that they use. On certain nights you can buy a ticket that lets you pop between every dance. Because the bar is technically separate, events in the ballroom are often all ages, and the drinking crowd only has to walk about 10 feet to grab a nice, legal drink. It wasn’t always this way. As a teenager, they didn’t hold all ages swing dances, and I remember longing (in the way that a only a teenager can long) to be old enough to go to dance at the Century.

And that’s the point. In Seattle in the early 2000s, I could dance three or four nights a week, but it didn’t matter. There was something special about the Century, something that no one has ever replicated in the hundreds of dance studios and once-a-week venues that constitute the vast bulk of the dance scene in America. The Century still smells of something that we lost when the culture changed and the great dance halls and live music venues dried up. People go to the Century for a night out. They dress up. They dance with each other. On a Sunday night in Seattle, you can stand on the edge of the park on East Pine Street and listen to live swing music floating down from the second floor. You can watch hundreds of young people make their way to a Seattle institution. I’ve never seen anything like it.

In June of 2003, fresh out of high school, I heard that Greg and Jessica, the Century’s Lindy Hop instructors, were leaving. Fueled by the desire for glory, I sent Hallie Kuperman an email, and she agreed to meet with me. For reasons I cannot possibly comprehend, she let me teach her Lindy Hop classes. Then came the infamous Mark Kihara, Rachel Riese, and Mia Goldsmith. Together we helped rebuild a killer Lindy Hop scene in that place, but the potential had been lurking there all along. It was a real dance and music venue–not a studio. More importantly it was run by the inimitable Hallie Kuperman, who has, for 16 years, done the near impossible: She made a business out of old-school entertainment. A place with live music. A place with booze. A place to dance.

What makes Hallie so fucking impressive is that the Century operates like a business should. She has 50 full-time employees (yes, 50), and another 50 or so contractors, not to mention the countless bands and traveling instructors who draw paychecks. Hallie, and the few others like her, operate on the assumption that entertainment should be, well, entertaining. It should pay for itself, and give back to the community through taxes like every other business. Unlike all of the lauded non-profit arts organizations, Hallie contributes to the roads, schools, grizzly bear sanctuaries, and all of the other things we hear about on the news. The Century pays its dues in ways that others do not.

I say all of this to illustrate that, financially speaking, the Century Ballroom is a special case. The staff there does not cut corners. They run a large, legitimate operation that sees thousands of people through the doors every week. They give their customers one hell of a deal, and, like all venues, they run on an incredibly thin margin. That’s business. The fix alluded to above stems from an obscure tax per head on cover charges that was designed to pull revenue from jazzercise places. And no, I am not kidding. Jazzercise. The Department of Revenue recently decided to reinterpret this tax to widen its application (without alerting the business sector). They then selectively audited a few hotspots in Seattle and saddled them with massive back taxes (four years). In the Century’s case this was upwards of $200,000. They managed to cut it down to $92,000.

The obscure tax, by the way, is called “the opportunity to dance tax.” I like taxes. I think we should have more of them. But we sure as hell shouldn’t have a tax on the opportunity to dance. Not only is it a regressive, conservative, and insane sin tax, it is impossible to enforce, or even define, fairly. Do bars pay it if they have a juke box? If I dance in Starbucks, do they have to pony up? It’s hard to believe, but in other cities with similar taxes, there are music venues that will actively stop you from dancing. Google it. This shit is weird.

It goes without saying that small businesses, unlike the large corporations our government does so much to protect, cannot fork over this kind of money. Ever. More importantly, they should not be subject to the reinterpretation of obscure tax codes, as they are understandably busy running their businesses, paying their employees, and performing other useful public services. What makes the situation worse is that the Century staff in fact stumbled upon this tax long ago and inquired whether or not it applied to them. The Department of Revenue said no. Flash forward a couple of years, and the tax not only applies, but the DOR refuses to recognize the validity of verbal statements. They sure as hell want the money, though.

Thank you for sticking with me thus far. Obviously, something fishy is going on with Seattle tax policy, but that doesn’t explain why someone in Baltimore is telling you that this should matter on a national level. Injustices abound, and you have to pick your battles. If you dance or care about dancing, you should pick this one.

The larger dance community, and particularly the Lindy Hop community, is at a critical point in its development. We have thriving local dance scenes all over the country. We have huge international events that beam live streams of this shit into your living room. We have done so much to keep social dancing and Lindy Hop alive, but we’ve phoned it in hard on the local dancing. If dedicated, creative social dancing separate from ballroom and Arthur Murray ilk is to be viable going forward, we need to begin thinking seriously about dance as night life.

The Century has led the charge on this for 16 years while everyone else hedged their bets in the relative security of cheesy, mirrored studios. Great physical venues like Glen Echo exist here and there, but as cohesive night-life spots they can’t compete with the unified mission and vision of a place like the Century. They take dancing and entertainment seriously, teaching 20 or 30 classes per week, with multiple dances running every night. The For years, they have poured Lindy Hoppers into the scene, many of whom have gone on to teach elsewhere, build local scenes themselves, or, in my case, start another ballroom. It’s the goddam mothership, Bible, and guidebook rolled into one. Nobody’s done it better, and no one has a more pristine legacy.

These are practical matters for our scene. We need this place to exist, because, without it, the last example of the kind of place our we should and can thrive in will go by the wayside. Every Lindy Hopper I know has a kind of private fantasy about the Savoy, about a time when live Jazz filled ballrooms and night clubs, about a time when what we do now had all the gaudy trappings of legitimacy and class. I love the idea of the Savoy, but it’s never been quite as distant to me, and I think that’s because I grew up with the Century Ballroom. The trappings matter; a real dance floor matters; bands and a stage and the sense that the place you’re dancing in was made for the purpose–all of this matters.

Strip away all the extras, remove the beautiful Century from our scene, and you’ve got nothing left but a bunch of nerds taking workshops in a rented gym. The where matters. For 16 years the Century has stood for the idea that people should go out, mingle, dance with each other, and find some way to physically connect with that slippery monster art. It’s an old idea, but it’s a solid one; and we need it. Something rare and different happens there.

The Century’s success for such a long period of time testifies to the desire in the public for real, old-school entertainment. It also points the way forward for a class of people in the dance scene who are secretly starting to wonder what the fuck they’re doing. As the current cohort of professional dancers who started out in their teens hit their 30s, I’ve watched something interesting happen. More and more of them are taking a real interest in local classes, and many are making the initial attempts to become part-time leaders at home. Those of us who have chosen entertainment, dance, and music as vocations have severely limited our options. I am monstrously unemployable. In this context, Hallie’s example at the Century is a lifeline for artists who realize they can’t stay on the road forever. There is a way to continue pursuing what you love while living a more settled life. There aren’t many opportunities for dancers, especially dancers in this generation; the Cenury’s model represents a great one.

We need this place, and we need it bad. I left the Century in 2007, and through a variety of pursuits I’ve finally realized that, all along, I was chasing something like the excellence I knew there. When I finally helped build a miniature version on the opposite coast, it felt just a little like coming home. Normal places don’t do that to people, and the Century is no normal place. Seattle denizens: Don’t take it for granted. Everyone else: You don’t know what you’re missing.

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A Love Letter to Lindy Focus

So this happened.

In the course of ballroom affairs, it is sometimes expedient to wrangle our crew of squirrelly Lindy Hoppers, and take them from out our hallowed establishment in order to rain glory and fun on an out-of-town dance event. We are picky about the events we attend, because, in all honesty, some of them border on the annoyingly intense. Most of our (highly discriminating) patrons like to watch and take part in competitions, attend the odd class, and stay up extremely late dancing. But, for better or worse (for better, I think), our scene has veered in the direction of not taking itself too seriously, and we like to attend events that don’t find our island of misfit toys too off-putting.

So, every year, we make a pilgrimage to Boston Tea Party. We make another to the best competition event in the world–the International Lindy Hop Championships–and that’s where we take in our fill of world-class performance and ultimate dance-fighting.

These are excellent events, and ILHC has embedded itself deeply in our heart cockles, particularly because it is run by our own

Baltimore wants you at Lindy Focus!

dance goddess Nina Gilkenson. One other event, however, has earned a reputation for the kind of so-fun-you-might-die programming that we lust for: Lindy Focus.

Between Christmas and New Year’s every year in Asheville N.C., the extremely talented and experienced Lindy Focus staff throw a 5-day long party that their promotional material bills as “the happiest place on earth.” This kind of promotion gets the official Baltimore stamp of approval, because you just can’t say something like that about your event and not follow through. Other events are “fun” or “friendly;” I’ve attended Lindy Focus for the past two years, and am almost ashamed to say that a Lindy Hop event (a LINDY HOP event, for Christ’s sake) might actually be THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH.

Dances, venues, and events, from time to time take part in a kind of weird magic that is as hard to create as it is to recapture once lost. I’ve seen a host of events rise and fall, but Lindy Focus has, through the efforts of its organizers and staff, planted its flag deeply in the pinnacle of the Lindy Hop mountain, and put on one of the top events of the year time and time again.

Part of this has to do with their willingness to take absurd risks. Every year, they book the top bands and the top instructors. They spend the money, and they put in the time to make sure that no other event has staff as good or organizers as professional as Lindy Focus. If you’ve never organized an event, take it from us: Lindy Focus has balls of steel. It’s tempting to cut corners, and they don’t. Ever.

It must be a good event if it inspires a PDA from me.

More importantly, Lindy Focus’ weird magic is, I think, located in the intersection between the holidays, the length of the event, and their impeccable sense of what it takes to build a community. For me this event provides a welcome relief from the normal litany of holiday drudgery. You can escape family, awkward sweater parties, and the usual dreck of holiday celebrations and go to a place where they seem to remember that the reason for the season is above all fun. Hundreds of dancers gather together and, with the organizers help, create an atmosphere where, for once, it seems like everyone is there to celebrate something truly special. From the lowest pegleg to the most vaunted instructor, everyone takes care of, dances with, and cheers on everyone else. It’s really not about how good you are; it’s about what you can bring to the table as a fun, spanky, interesting person. Like no other event, they encourage you to make it your own, and they take care of the newbies, which can sometimes be almost tear-jerkingly beautiful. In 2010, they put the beginner jack and jill finals in the first band break on New Year’s fucking eve–on Primetime. The energy in the room went through the roof, and the beginners had a chance to be part of a community that is elsewhere fraught with too many gatekeepers and bizarre restrictions.

They help along this sense of community by making the event unusually long. Over the course of five days, everyone seems to settle in and relax. There’s time for drinking, hanging out with friends, and for the execution of numerous friendly pranks (never underestimate the value of pranks). There’s dancing galore. There are great competitions to enter regardless of your level. There are competitions to watch that will blow your fucking mind. And, on New Year’s Eve, when everyone dresses up and the thousand-person countdown to midnight commences, even a codger as persnickety as me can’t help but find that the hair on the back of his neck is rising and that he needs to pretend that he has something stuck in his eye.

Lindy Focus is a dance event, and we like those. More importantly, it’s a fucking beautiful experience, and we fucking love those. So do yourself a favor, go to Lindy Focus and ask for Baltimore. We’ll be the one’s having way too much fun–and hoping that you’ll join in.

One Year of Mobtown (With Some Thoughts on the Attitude with which you should attend the Anniversary Weekend)

Today, September 24th 2012 is the actual one-year anniversary of The Mobtown Ballroom. Of course, we will engage in no extra craziness beyond the normal Monday night mayhem, because we’ve booked a weekend long extravaganza October 12-14. You will be there. That’s a given.

As much as we avoid introspection, navel-gazing, and other such silliness, it’s not a bad time to take stock of what this place is, what it has been, and what we would like it to be. While there are changes we intend to make and ridiculous heights we hope to soar to, a year of running this business has helped solidify some practices and ideas that, though they began accidentally, we would like to stand behind and commit to for the next year.

 

  1. This is a business, and we intend to make money. When The Mobtown Ballroom was but a glimmer in our eyes, everyone said that an establishment of the kind we envisioned would have to be not-for-profit. We didn’t like this then, and we don’t like it now. Non-profit organizations do a great deal of good in the world, but we envisioned a place that does not apologize for the arts, a place where live entertainment and live music can be viable at a reasonable price. This means we decline the opportunity for a good deal of grant money (it’s out there, my god; it’s out there), but it means that we retain control of every facet of our programming. It means that we can put the money you’ve entrusted us with toward events that we truly believe in — toward events we would like to attend. We want you to come out because it’s worth the money; we want you to come out because your night is better here than it is elsewhere. The day we have to ask you to “support” us out of some misplaced sense of guilt is the day we should close our doors. You pay the bills here, which means it’s our job to support you, to spend that money where it really counts, and to show you one hell of a good time.
  2. We do not “own” this place. Our names are on the lease, and we call some of the shots, but, like good ol’ Obama says, we didn’t do it alone. I will never forget the people who spent months painting the walls and laying dance floor with us. I’ll never forget Sommer and Dorry throwing the full weight of 6 years of Charm City Swing behind the venture. Misha Massey cleans the bathrooms. Nicole Munchel and Marissa Lanterman do graphic design. Dan Allan does the website. Tim Fritts will, at some point, have done everything else. You can’t swing a dead cat in this place without hitting someone who has toiled behind the scenes to make the incredible number of shows, events, dances, and classes we have here happen. A place like this requires an astonishing amount of back-end work, and we, the proprietors, are certainly responsible for some of it.
  3. This place is not about the cool people. Any establishment that intends to stay alive must gird up its loins and fight against coolness, and here we try particularly hard to mix people up. We have dentists, doctors, and lawyers; we have students, dropouts, and unemployed artists. We even have some employed artists. Everyone deserves a good time, and everyone who walks through our doors and behaves with a modicum of decency, deserves to be given a fair shake. Our regulars are responsible for Baltimore’s friendly, goofy, and charming reputation. Don’t sit on your laurels — help us keep it that way.

Those are a few of the values that have developed over the past year, and which we intend to carry through the next. The Ballroom has developed an identity and a damn fine reputation, and we don’t want that to change. We do, however, have some intense new plans for the upcoming year. One of them is a secret, and the others will have to wait for an upcoming post (probably right around our anniversary party).

Now, here’s what we would like to say to all of the people who are not volunteers or staff members:

THANK YOU.

Thank you for spending your time with us. Thank you for throwing down your $5 cover charges week after week. Thank you for giving new ideas and new events a shot. So many of you treat the Ballroom like a second home; so many of you have offered encouragement and friendship to Nina and I. You set the tone in this place, and you pay for the bands, the performers, and the air-conditioning. The ballroom was built for you and it belongs to you. “Customers” is too silly a word to use for the people who really make this place happen. Without your energy, without your sense of adventure and fun, without your ridiculous antics and shenanigans (Oh! The shenanigans!), this would be a rather old and empty room full of volunteers sweeping up dust bunnies. With you here, it is, as far as I’m concerned, the best place on earth. You are the heartbeat of this venue, and every ding in our once pristine floor is a testament to your ridiculous awesomeness, your thirst for life, entertainment, and good old fashioned fun. Seriously, thank you.

 

With that in mind, let it be known that this year at the anniversary party, while we will of course engage in the obligatory reading of volunteer and staff names, we’re going to keep the internal bullshit to a minimum. You, our regular paying customers, are the fully acknowledged kings and queens of the Ballroom. We’ve got a hell of a show lined up for you in October, and we want you to enjoy it. When you walk through the door, remember that the party is for you. So strut — hard.

Get Ready to Clutch Your Pearls (and Give Us Some Input)

Gay Marriage? My Stars!

This is the first, and likely the last, serious post I will ever write. We prefer to traffic in fun, and fortunately fun sells. If you are interested in my standard-issue bullshit, wait until next time, and you won’t be disappointed.

This time, however, I would like to announce that The Mobtown Ballroom is about to go temporarily political. Maryland approved Gay marriage, and, one would like to hope, the whole state breathed a great sigh of relief. Rare and breathtaking are the moments in life when you get to see an extension of fine, humane principles. Whatever the dolts on TV may say, the most “traditional” of American values hearken back to the nastiest dark sides of European and Christian civilization. This is not a place in which we often experience the liberating effects of reason. We should celebrate all the more when, through the mind-numbingly dreary and painful efforts of countless unthanked people, something as elegant, clean, and reasonable as the right to choose whom one is to marry acquires public recognition. Issues like this do not admit of debate; they are not discussed with mutual respect between reasonable persons with differences of opinion. The fight for gay marriage is different in degree rather than in kind from the fight to end slavery, the fight for women’s rights, and, in general, the fight for any human being to move through life unmolested by archaic and backwards prejudice. We can respectfully disagree about the relative merits of the Beatles and the Stones and part friends. Gay marriage is, unfortunately, not like the Beatles or the Stones. If you, as an adult with an independent mind and the responsibility to use it,  can honestly fight against the recognition of basic human rights–you forfeit your right to be heard. Your children will take this for granted, and you will be attended, if at all, with pity and scorn, they way I listened as a child to my grandmother when she whispered about “the blacks.”

Not all traditional values are good, as evidenced by the Pope's hat.

The Mobtown Ballroom is an extremely small business, and our ex cathedra pronouncements do not reach a particularly large audience. As a part of the city that we love, however, it is necessary to

1) State unequivocally that we not only support gay marriage/gay rights but we will maintain a welcoming and harassment-free environment for everyone who walks through our doors. This goes beyond gay rights. Act like a dick, and we will end you. Act like a dick because of racial or sexual prejudice, and we will end you twice.

2) Explain why this matters to you as someone interested in entertainment/dancing/living your life without the long hand of bigotry reaching out to make things boring.

3) Show you how we intend to put our money where our mouth is, and call for advice on how we can do more.

Why This Matters to You:

So, now that it has been stated, here’s one take on why this matters to your average city-dweller looking for a good time. Thebattle over gay marriage, and civil rights for that matter, is not an isolated issue; the forces fighting against these things invariably also fight for a mundane, monochromatic society stripped of everything that lends life flavor or contributes to your ability to make choices. They want to zip up your pants, ghettoize minorities, choose the music you listen to, the TV you watch, and what you learn in school. They want you to believe that you were born in sin, and that you should spend the rest of your life repenting for this fact, or (and here’s a fair alternative) you will be damned to an eternity in hell. They want you to listen to authority without question. By removing access to contraception, they insert themselves into the most intimate and human arenas in life. They want women to shut up and stay at home. They think money is the same as speech.

1 Man+1 Woman. You clearly haven't read the Bible. Those bitches had tons of wives.

These people hate all the best things in life, and, incidentally, they HATE FUN. Fun, it turns out, is liberating and relaxing. It is the very reason why we slog through all the nasty parts of life, why we make money, why we fight for the things that matter. Every progressive step in the history of humanity has directed us towards more ways to have, and more time for, FUN. The 40-hour work week, the 15-minute break, the right to spend your life with the person of your choice: These are small parts of the pursuit of happiness, and that shit is in the Declaration of Independence. As people who like to provide as much fun and happiness as possible, we feel pretty strongly that people need to be left to their own devices whenever possible, and we recognize that the same people who work to oppose gay marriage also enact inane zoning laws, insist on a state religion, give churches tax-free status, violate the environment, destroy the economy, and engage in all manner of oppressive knavery. These are the people who brought you sodomy laws and kept them on the books for a ridiculous length of time. They would like you to work hard for your masters, have occasional and bland heterosexual sex for the creation of more drones and go to bed early. They do not want you to be educated, intelligent, independent, interesting or fun in any way. Those things may make you happy, but they inhibit productivity.

These dudes do not look particularly threatening. Killer bees are threatening. Gay people are just fun.

Obviously, we should not tolerate this, and since the forces of monotony are currently fighting to overturn gay marriage in Maryland, we would like to contribute our meagre resources to keeping the assholes at bay. Here’s what we are going to do:

1) On Thursday June 14 the Fierce International Queer Burlesque Tour is coming through Baltimore, and they will be performing at The Mobtown Ballroom. Details are coming soon, and we are committed to donating all of the Ballroom’s profits from the show to Equality Maryland (check out their sight at www.equalitymaryland.org for some killer information). These people are fighting the good fight, and we should help out.

2) We are going to offer our space at no charge to Gay and Lesbian rights organizations who wish to host a fundraiser or engage in any kind of shenanigans that support the cause.

3) We are asking for your input on anything else that we can do. If you have a suggestion or know a group that we could benefit in any way, email michael@mobtownballroom.com or nina@mobtownballroom.com, and let’s get the party started.

Boom.

 

 

Embrace the useless NOW! (With an addendum on why you should attend the MOBTOWN VARIETY SHOW and an endorsement by Oscar Wilde)

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”

-Oscar Wilde

In the average day most of us brave a tempest of platitudes, advice, criticism, plans, and good, old-fashioned common sense. You have to budget money, pay your bills, respond to emails, and tolerate the tiresome discourse of the well intentioned and responsible.  We plod through this average day in the belief that, despite all evidence, these activities constitute an investment in the future.

If, for example, you go to medical school and work extremely hard, you may in fact someday become a doctor. Then you work long hours, make lots of money, have some kids, leave behind a legacy of excellence, and
people will say beautiful things at your funeral. On the other hand, maybe right after failing an exam in your second year of med school, you find yourself extremely distressed, so you call me to have a drink. As you get out of your car in Reservoir Hill, a roving band of feral cats overpowers you and you never make it to the front door. When I leave to go to the ballroom in the morning (let’s be honest, in the afternoon), I find a pile of bones and tendons, licked clean by the raspy tongues of countless man-eating felines.

In this case, everyone at your funeral laments your untimely passing, and I secretly make cat jokes about you in the office. This could be your story. Doesn’t it make you question the value of self-imposed misery in the service of responsibility? Doesn’t it make you wonder why you are working so hard to become something, when, at any moment, death could swoop down on ebony wings and make you a byword in The Mobtown Ballroom office?

DON’T BE A BYWORD IN THE MOBTOWN BALLROOM OFFICE.

Instead, you should consider that all of the useful, lauded activities in life are only a scheme devised by Republicans and Sunday school teachers to keep you from making the most of life, the terminus of which is most likely a journey through the guts of a cat. And there is only one cure for the boring, responsible life: uselessness.

Take it from me, a professionally useless person. I spent most of high school cutting class. When I went to college (god knows how), I resolved to study the most useless things I could find: English and Philosophy. When those threatened me with employment opportunities, I switched to Greek and Latin, making good and sure that no one would ever coerce me into turning something interesting (books) into something boring (teaching/a career). I went through almost all of grad school without reading a single scholarly article. When I was offered the chance to publish something, I turned it down. I spent most of my last year in grad school looking for a venue big enough to become The Mobtown Ballroom. After we opened the Ballroom, I got a quick interim job that allowed me to look extremely professional while making wise-cracks about Rick Santorum
on the internet:

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my entire life the only things I have ever been able to fasten my attention on are beautifully, voluptuously, rapturously useless things.Some of these things are related to what people call “art,” but let’s avoid that term, because art is a word people attach to amazing things to make them boring and respectable.  Also, when we talk about “art” we sound pretentious and douchey, like someone in a sweater vest:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The world is full of douches, trying to make your life boring. When you find something interesting, they call it art, thereby make it boring again. What they don’t understand is that every second you spend doing something you enjoy for its own sake is a splinter in the buttock of lameness. When you enjoy something without a dull ulterior motive, you redeem a moment from the long march towards responsible death-by-cat and hurl a cheerful anathema in the teeth of a universe bent on killing you and repurposing your material for the creation of Republican politicians.

DON’T LET THE UNIVERSE (AND THE REPUBLICANS) WIN—DO SOMETHING USELESS NOW.

We at The Mobtown Ballroom are committed to useless, and highly entertaining, activities, and to that end we have focused all of our mental powers on creating a variety show that will take uselessness to a whole new level. On March 31, at 8:00 p.m. sharp, the curtain will lift and for 1.5 hours we will regale you with amazing feats of skill, strength, talent, and inanity that will make you forget all about paying your student loans. You will want to join the circus. From 9:30 until we damn well please, we will have a soul dance party that will keep you dancing all night and make your upcoming quarterly reports seem trivial.

To sweeten the pot, Lily Susskind of the Effervescent Collective will teach a FREE workshop on silly dance moves. It doesn’t get more useless than a free workshop.

Here at The Mobtown Ballroom, we admire uselessness intensely, so I guess we have Oscar Wilde’s approval.

OSCAR WILDE WANTS YOU TO ATTEND THE MOBTOWN BALLROOM VARIETY SHOW.

What an endorsement.

 

Nina Gilkenson Wins Ultimate Glory

Henceforth and forevermore, dear readers, the MobBlog will highlight and glorify pretty much anything that a member of our scene does. Win a dance championship? Glory. Knit a killer sweater? Glory. The first installment in our Ultimate Glory series pertains to the former, because the smokin’ and highly-lauded Ms. Nina Gilkenson has conquered in the Lonestar Invitational Champions Invitational in Austin Texas. That’s right: First place, dancing with the best of the best. Her partner is Nick Williams (go to his website to see a lot of very strange pictures), and you can see them go out in the jam at 2:45 in the video. The whole finals is definitely worth watching.

Dancing in the Town of Pigs and the Importance of the Social Goulash

It has been nearly six months since we moved to our current location, expanded all our programming, and sought to bring unheard of amounts of dancing to Baltimore City. Most of our regulars are familiar with the story, but we haven’t had the time to explain how we chose the particular location and why we like dancing deep in the city–with everything that entails.

Thanks to The Wire (one of the greatest shows in history, by the way), outsiders have a rather dark view of Baltimore City, but residents know better. The entire place is not a wasteland of guns and drugs. Some hot shit happens in this city, and it has a very real, very greasy charm. When I first moved here from Seattle–that hypoallergenic apocalypse of REIs, Software, and white people–Baltimore felt like the Wild West; dangerous at times, sure, but the kind of city you can make a home in. Baltimore is delightfully decayed, and it’s begging for people with a little elbow grease. I assumed that this was the city’s well-kept secret, and that the residents understood that the seedier aspects of the city presented an attendant opportunity.

It came as somewhat of a surprise to me when our move gave rise to a few concerns about the neighborhood, as I assumed that people living in Baltimore understood what that means. These have mostly faded away as our regulars have come to realize that Pigtown is as safe as your average city neighborhood, but there is no hiding the fact that you’re more likely to find trouble here than in the suburbs. We like it that way.

Simply put, we love life in the city. We love that it provides the opportunity for all kinds of people to mingle. We love that it is heterogenous, hairy, and sincere. We think life is too short and the opportunities the city affords too valuable to retreat to the outskirts and do business in the safety, banality, and boredom of a strip mall. In the suburbs you have secure, well-lit parking lots and buildings from the 80s with fluorescent lights and drop ceilings. No one will question you, nothing will challenge the way you think or act. You can nestle nicely into your cocoon and find a stasis of mutual approval with your like-minded neighbors.

This is dull.

In Pigtown we are within blocks of a candy store, a wings and waffles restaurant, an ethiopian restaurant, a pizza joint that sells cigarettes, a liquor store with bullet-proof glass, a nice coffee shop, the B&O Railroad museum, a Caribbean Bar, and NICK’S ROTISSERIE, an establishment that sells the truest chicken in the world. I mean it when I say it: That chicken brings you closer to god. If churches started offering it during communion, America would convert in droves.

But this is only the beginning. By choosing to dance in the city, we now have one of the coolest venues in the country. This shit is 120 years old, and has one hell of a history. We have black and white pictures of greasers playing pool and bowling in the back building. We are across the street from an old bath house with separate entrances for men and women. The Baltimore dance scene has resurrected a beautiful but broken building and turned it into something kick-ass. Pigtown, by the by, is also the most diverse neighborhood in the city. We’ve got black people, Asian people, white people, hispanic people, gay people,  and people I couldn’t even attempt to identify. It’s a goulash of opinions, social positions, educational levels, and occupations. On staff we have a world-famous surgeon and mathematician team, a gypsy Lindy Hopper, a renegade classicist, and Tabitha Holliday, a self-described “Dominican, Haitian, Caucasian, and African American.” This shit happens in the city, and it is shit that we couldn’t make up. Spending time in a place like this is how you avoid the numbing monotony of life with people who resemble you. It’s what the city is about. It’s what Baltimore is about.

Several things have made me immensely proud in the last six months. Sommer and Dorry took a chance on a venue deep in Baltimore. Our dancers came out in droves, parked in the city, walked in the city, and rubbed shoulders with the people who make up the city. Pigtown welcomed us, helped us get the zoning we needed, and is now pleased as punch to see the street filled at night with dancers frequenting the neighborhood, eating damn good chicken, and swilling whatever those demonic blue drinks are that Amy serves at The Calypso Cafe.

The magic latent in Baltimore–with all its crime, its history, and its sagging rowhouses–is inextricably linked to the insanity, risk, and potential of living and working here. We believe in this city, and we believe that by staking a claim in it our dancers have done something small to roll back the tide of crime and boring bullshit that takes over when people give up on the social goulash.

 

Competitions, Events, The Cult of the Amateur, and a Coda on the Slow Dance Smackdown

As we approach the first-ever Slow Dance Smackdown at the Mobtown Ballroom, it seems worthwhile to mention why we continue to host a variety of silly contests and the occasional serious one. Several of the more popular social dances have grown tremendously in the past 15 years, and this has created a sub-subculture of competition/event travelling that has, in many ways (and quite innocently), detracted from the quality of local dance scenes. Not many Baltimore dancers have been around long enough to remember the extinct era of parochial dancing, but I can attest that there was a time before youtube and the explosion of national events. There was a time when your local dance scene was all you knew. There was a time when you had access to only one set of instructors (if you were lucky). There was a time—I shit you not—when you stole your best dance moves from a VHS copy of Swing Kids.

This was a terrible time.

In this glorious year 2012 AD, the average beginner improves 3 times as fast, largely because they have access to multiple different instructors and because the internet (which I will consider a form of witchcraft until the day I die) can deliver you free footage of some seriously hairy shit:

If I had seen this video in the benighted days before youtube, my brain would have exploded. The national dance scene, the internet, and the profusion of competition-related events have made yesteryear seriously quaint, and I cringe at the thought of going back. All the same, I think we could do without some of the side-effects.

1)      The best and most committed dancers in a particular scene sometimes aspire to national rather than local glory. Instead of building their own community, recruiting students, and making the sexiest dance scene possible, they join the ranks of the regular event-hoppers. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but the trend isn’t sustainable. Events feed off of the legions of dancers who cut their teeth in small scenes and are looking for a special experience. If no one is developing and maintaining local and regional dancing, events have no pool of dancers from which to draw.

2)      Local dance scenes become victims of insane price inflation on the part of semi-itinerant instructors who are not committed to living in and teaching regularly in one area. Travelling brings a special, but dubious, cache to these kinds of instructors, who use this status to prey on unsuspecting locals. They won’t stick around, and they probably won’t dance with beginners, but they will certainly charge $100 an hour and let you worship them. Baltimore, thanks to its shocking good nature, has managed to avoid much of this chicanery, but I am horrified/amused by the number of calls I get from mediocre couch-surfing dancers offering their services at something near the price Skye and Frida would rightfully charge.

3)      Obviously the above phenomenon gets my goat, but I don’t want to sound persnickety. We avoid these scam artists at The Mobtown Ballroom, because we would rather train up our own local instructors and reward the people who live in and are committed to dancing in our scene. Nina Gilkenson, one of the fanciest Lindy Hoppers in the world, teaches most of our Lindy Hop classes, but in order to do so she gives up some seriously lucrative teaching opportunities abroad. Nicole Munchel, Brian Behe, Melanie Bryant, and Ranya and Hikmet in the swing scene are all committed to making sure that each class is covered by a quality teacher, and all of them invest heavily in the students. Our salsa maven Tabitha Holliday does the same. Sommer Gentry and Dorry Segev, Charm City Swing’s founding fathers, use their insane professional travelling schedules (he’s a surgeon and she’s a mathematician) to relentlessly promote Baltimore dancing. We love events, and we love to travel–but when we leave Charm City, when we go to events, we go so that we can bring something new back to our home scene, where the real dancing happens. We like to promote from within.

Conversations on this subject led me to wonder why we don’t have more serious contests in Baltimore, why don’t we create a friendly competitive atmosphere right here and work to make this a city where so much hot shit is going on that events have to compete with us. We are therefore proud to announce that in the coming months, we will be hosting more ridiculous (and affordable) hijinks than ever before. The first of these will be The Mobtown Ballroom’s Slow Dance Smackdown. Everyone’s invited. It costs ten dollars per couple to enter, and all the money goes to the winners. The finals happen to live music, and we’re going to get someone to record this shit, so that the rest of the world can bask in our youtube glory.

Most of us who dance in Baltimore are amateurs. We have other, more important, pursuits in life, and we do not intend to spend our time popping around the country or ever, ever sleeping on someone’s couch (we have standards for christsake). We don’t necessarily care about the threadcount in vintage clothes or whether Dean Collins pulled in on 2, 2.5, or whatever. Most of us will probably never break down a vintage video frame by frame. At the Mobtown Ballroom, we believe in the amateur, the part-timer, the hobbyist, the well-rounded, renaissance man. We can program computers with one hand and swing out with the other. Our sprezzatura will knock your socks off, and we will graciously welcome all contendors at our Smackdown on the 27th. Prepare to be devastated by the cacophonous thunder of our unrivalled amateurism….and then we’ll all dance around to Lady Gaga.

And just as a preview of future glory, fall 2012 might just bring you a bigger, burlier kind of Smackdown. Stay tuned.