Washington State’s official dance is taking center stage this weekend at the Western Dance Association’s 53rd Square Dance Festival and Salmon Barbecue at the Western Dance Center, 1901 N. Sullivan Road.
Dancers from around the Northwest will converge at the hall for a lively weekend of square and round dancing.
The festival opens to the public on Sunday with a salmon barbecue dinner including salad, roll, baked beans, fruit and beverage. Entertainment begins at 2 p.m. with dancers showcasing the different levels and styles of dance performed at the hall.
“We want the public to see what we use this hall for,” dance association president Carol Shopbell said. “If they’re interested, they can sign up for classes.”
The group’s first salmon barbecue was held in 1957 at Natatorium Park to raise money for a new dance hall. The Western Dance Association formed the same year as a means to handle the business affairs of the future hall.
According to dancer Betty Jones, the idea for the fundraiser came from late square dance caller Walt Baer.
He joined forces with fellow square dancer Jack Morrison, the public relations professional at Kaiser, to organize the barbecue. Baer, whose day job was selling fish at Empire Fish Co., got the salmon wholesale. Morrison taught the dancers how to cook the salmon on metal racks over apple wood, which is still being done today.
Jones, 86, and her husband Doug, 87 have attended all 53 barbecues. Her favorite memory of the first barbecue involves making coffee in a new galvanized garbage can over a Coleman stove.
“The can sprang a leak,” Betty Jones said laughing. “May Rowley was an expert making coffee using a salt sack, so she boiled the coffee.”
Both Betty and Doug Jones remember a large crowd at the first barbecue and every year following.
“It was important to make money at the salmon barbecue,” Betty Jones said. “The dances were profitable, but not that profitable.”
Dancers came up with creative ways to cut costs over the years. Betty Jones remembers collecting MJB coffee can lids and sending them to the company for free coffee makers, which they are still using today.
She also recalls fellow square dancer Eileen Ahrens raising cucumbers and pickling them in several gallon-sized mayonnaise jars specifically for the barbecue.
Attendees of the event should know modern square dancing is a far cry from the barn dances of the past. Today’s dancers move to modern music with more complicated steps. The basics of square dancing include four couples arranged in a square directed by a caller.
“Some people have a preconceived idea of square dancing,” Shopbell said. “It’s not just ‘do-si-do’ and ‘allemande left.’ It’s very intricate.”
For Grace Libby, 92, square dancing has been a big part of her life.
“Best thing we ever did was start square dancing,” Libby said, referring to her late husband, Wallace. “It gave us the opportunity to be active and meet a lot of wonderful friends.”
“It’s neat to watch,” Shopbell said. “That’s what Sunday is all about. We would love to have you come.”