Sesame Dance Club celebrates 50 years as an outlet for lovers of Foxtrot, polka and waltz steps
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Maureen and Andrew Jamieson do the Cha-cha-cha during a recent dance at the Norse Hall, and the Sesame Dance Club celebrates its 50th anniversary with a big shindig June 3 at Norse Hall.

It's a Friday, and it's a big night. It's time to go out and dance. On Fridays every month since 1961, members of the Sesame Dance Club have gathered to do the tango, Foxtrot, rumba, samba, Cha-cha-cha, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Nightclub Two-step, polka, smooth, Quickstep and Viennese Waltz and any other dance movement involving another person. At 7 p.m. Friday, June 3, Sesame Dance celebrates its 50 years with a big gala planned for the Norse Hall, 111 N.E. 11th Ave., the club's twice-a-month home since 1974 and identified with the big neon 'Dance Tonight' sign.

Although having gone the way of recorded music, which members prefer, Sesame Dance will feature the big band Second Wind Jazz Ensemble on its big night. There'll be retro dress, retro admission price ($3) and retro tunes, but not retro clientele - when Sesame Dance opened, it only allowed singles.

'It's going to be a huge crowd,' program chairperson Caroline Wilson says.

Sesame Dance started with 10 people in 1961, grew to 371 by 1970, fell off and then underwent a resurgence with the popularity of the TV show 'Dancing With The Stars.' The club boasts more than 160 members and, as always, has an open-floor policy for the public - anybody can go and dance.

'It really is a night out,' says Portlander Anja Robinson, 73, a member since the early 1970s. 'I am a single - my husband passed away 19 years ago. I took a year's break, thinking nobody dances alone, and then I thought, 'I danced before him, why not dance after him?' '

Robinson joined Sesame Dance when its existence appeared tenuous, with too few members.

'Then they decided to try recorded music, which gave us more variety, and then membership started to grow,' she adds.

For Robinson, a native of Finland, dancing is a good form of exercise.

'Just imagine doing the Viennese Waltz. It's quite fast-moving,' she says. 'And, we do the polka and Quickstep, and then you think about the swing … all very fast dances. And, with the waltz and Foxtrot, you need control of your body.'

Sesame Dance is a melting pot of the young and old, couples and singles, 'and that's what makes it successful,' says club Vice President Ginger Remy of Lake Oswego. 'The past 10 years the dances have grown tremendously, and you can dance with pretty much anybody. But there are some couples who don't like to mix and mingle.

'You look forward to it. Most of us get dressed up a bit,' says Remy, 60, who joined the club 15 years ago. 'It's the end of the week, a nice social way to unwind. People are friendly.'

There are usually no shortage of male companions, Remy says.

'Ballroom dancing is the last bastion of male dominance,' she says. 'I find that I kind of like that. It's our job to do what he asks. He doesn't tell us, he asks us. He raises his hand to turn if we want to; if we don't want to, we don't have to.'


TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT • Norse Hall has been home to the Sesame Dance Hall since 1974, and now opens two dance floors for the club's 160-some members.

Good exercise

Sesame Dance brings in instructors on a routine basis; in fact, all instructors are invited to the June 3 bash, admission free of charge. They always find willing pupils.

'We're kind of a hub in that way,' Wilson says. 'At the beginning of each dance we have a one-hour lesson. Each night we have a showcase, two or three numbers for performers from a studio.'

Instructors tell people to start with the easy dances, like the East Coast Swing, Foxtrot and Cha-cha-cha, and then work their way up to the Quickstep and Viennese Waltz and others, 'which people don't generally learn until they've danced for a number of years,' Remy says.

Wilson rates the samba, which has an odd beat, and West Coast Swing, which involves tricky footwork, as difficult to learn.

Wilson doesn't believe any original Sesame Dance members still participate, although there are some 90-somethings who attend the dances. Wilson, 82 and from Lake Oswego, started with Sesame Dance in 1989.

There are other clubs in the Portland-metropolitan area. And there are some big dance competitions each year: City of Roses Ballroom Classic in March; Columbia Star Ball in May; River City Ball in July; Fall Festival in October.

People in their 40s are the ones who generally start to ballroom dance, Wilson says, because it's a recreation that couples can be involved in and it's a good form of exercise.

But, younger people are not apt to pick it up.

'Several of the studios have a lot of little children and high school kids who are learning to dance,' Wilson says. 'Then, they go off to college, and life takes them here and there. Most of the young people might go to a swing club, and salsa is very, very popular.'

It's still cool that a place exists in Portland where people actually go to dance.

'You don't see dancing in night clubs and hotels anymore,' Wilson adds. 'People who do ballroom dancing drink very little alcohol. They drink a lot of water. But, we have the lounge open at Norse Hall, a lovely lounge, and it gives a date-night feeling to our dances.'