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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