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Danceland Dig

by Dave Yanko

It felt like a wedding dance without the formalities, but different.
Diggin' the Land o' Dance.
Not long after we finished the buffet dinner the band hit the stage, young and old took to the dance floor and life got busier for two friendly guys slinging drinks from a booth at the back of the hall. But there was nary a speech, a tinkled glass nor a chicken dance at this gathering. And the ninjas, vampires and Team Zissou members sprinkled among crowd would have been quite out of place at all but the most curious of weddings.

No, this was a Halloween dance. Or in our case, a dance at Danceland—featuring two bands we wanted to see—that just happened to be taking place two days before Halloween.

A young girl I’ll call The Little Princess tripped the light fantastic right from the get-go, twirling and trotting either solo or with one of the easily commandeered adults sitting at her table. The Pear danced with friends and strangers alike while Angel Elvis (in skin-tight white with wings) preferred the company of a small clutch of friends, including a fellow in a black suit and a dark fedora festooned with little birds on wires (Hitchcock; I get it).

And while Spider Woman and Mr. Tux ‘n’ Tails glided around the periphery on what seemed to be an invisible magic carpet travelling an inch above the dance floor, octogenarians slow waltzed at the back of the giant dance hall. Everyone seemed to be having a grand old time in a venue that’s been hosting them for more than 80 years.

In these days of multi-purpose facilities and cavernous spaces promoted for the number of trade show booths and concurrent Christmas parties they can accommodate, and with names that change with the fortunes of business, Danceland stands alone. A guy and gal who had their first date here in 1961 could celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at Danceland a half century later. That’s just not the case with other storied dance halls like the late Trianon Ballroom in Regina or Temple Gardens in Moose Jaw, although both are commemorated in name by a seniors’ high-rise and a popular spa, respectively.

Debuting in 1928 and featuring a magnificent 5,000-square-foot maple floor constructed without nails and supported on a cushion of horsehair “for an unbelievable dance experience,’’ Danceland is an adored cultural asset in Saskatchewan.

Little Miss Higgins.

Located about an hour southeast of Saskatoon in the resort village of Manitou Beach, known in its early days as “The Carlsbad of Canada’’ for its purportedly healing mineral waters, Danceland was one element of what was then an international vacation destination characterized by spas, indoor pools, brothels, dance halls and booze. It’s said Manitou Lake received its name from First Nations people who believed the salty water could heal spirit and body. Today it's said you can read a book while floating on your back in the super buoyant lake. Presumably, you can do the same, year 'round, in the modern spa up the street.

Our 2010 visit grew out of a phone call from a friend who had heard Little Miss Higgins was playing at Danceland. He'd listened to her on CBC radio and enjoyed her lively music. When I checked Danceland’s website for details I was delighted to find this “blues/folk/roots singer with the soul of a flapper" was sharing the bill with The Deep Dark Woods, a great alt-country band out of Saskatoon whose version of the old soulful River in the Pines almost brings tears.

Word spread about the show and by the time we set off for Manitou Beach for our "Friday night dance at Danceland'' we were a two-vehicle convoy with half a dozen geezers in a van and five costumed twenty-somethings plus their wheel-woman (my sister) in an SUV. We partook of the tasty home-cooked buffet—“my husband did the mashed potatoes,’’ one of the cheerful ladies told us. Then we chatted and sipped on reasonably priced drinks until the dance got underway with The Deep Dark Woods taking to the stage shortly after nine. They traded sets and shared musicians with Little Miss Higgins before the two groups amalgamated for a fun finale. They'd played together before and it showed.

Apparently, there’s a sizable seniors’ community at the nearby town of Watrous and at Manitou Beach proper, and seniors were certainly in attendance on this night.
Birdman under attack.

Danceland management takes pride in hiring entertainers based not only on their musical ability but also for their “professional attitude.’’ This includes their willingness to play at a controlled volume so that “people can not only dance but also visit with each other throughout the night,’’ according to the website. The entertainment these days is orchestras, polka bands and country groups, with “younger’’ acts like Little Miss Higgins and The Deep Dark Woods the exception. Maybe that will change.

We had a swimmingly swell time listening to great music, chatting, people watching and of course “dancing at Danceland’’—lucky for us the band of black-clad ninjas that pierced our large dance circle to strke threatening poses from the centre repaired to the shadows without doing any permanent harm (there's conflicting testimony regarding claims of a short-term hostage taking). Nor did injury befall us during our late—for a school day—drive home through some pretty heavy fog. This, no doubt, thanks to our patient and careful designated drivers.

Danceland has had its ups and downs over the years—in 2001 there were rumours the then-owners intended to sell the venerable old dancehall to Albertans, who had plans to move it to Lacombe. That's when local residents Arnold and Millie Strueby put up the cash to save Danceland from the cross-boundary shoppers and keep it here in Saskatchewan, where it belongs.

Hats off to Arnold and Millie. Hope to see you again next year.

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