I had a home phone and a cell phone number for Boe Oddisey, known to most simply as the scarf dancer. The home number surprised me. In my own ignorance I assumed the man, with his wild hair and an unkempt beard, was probably homeless.
“This is Boe,” he answered cheerfully from his Capitol Hill apartment.
Boe doesn’t work, but he does spend a lot of time volunteering. On Friday, when I wanted to meet up for an interview, he was volunteering at a church soup kitchen. He also volunteers to pick up trash around the neighborhood. During our first conversation, Boe told me his life was an open book. No questions were off limits, no subject taboo. He said the same thing when I arrived at his apartment a few days later.
Boe is no doubt recognized by thousands of people who are total strangers to him. Like countless other Capitol Hill residents and bewildered tourists, I have a picture of him on my camera from last summer, dancing — mostly naked — through Seattle Center with a fistful of scarves.
When I asked if I could bring a photographer along for our conversation, he replied with a hint of amusement, “Yeah, I’m not camera shy.”
Presumably many others think of Boe as only a joke — a man on display to be watched and giggled at by anonymous passersby, exposed for the world to see. But when you enter his top floor apartment, you realize it’s Boe who is watching us. His living room window has the most commanding view of the city I’ve ever seen from Capitol Hill. On this Friday afternoon, Mt. Rainer was in full view, along with downtown and all of Capitol Hill sprawled out below Boe’s watch.
The apartment is packed full of his own semi-psychedelic artwork, books, and poetry stacked on homemade shelves. Within a few minutes of our conversation he took a phone call, one of several through our 90 minutes together.
“I’m talking to a reporter about my entertainment,” he said. That’s important to note. Boe sees himself, primarily, as an entertainer.
“I want to bring love though dancing,” he said. “I love to dance for people.”
Boe said he’s the happiest when performing, signing autographs, and taking pictures at the outdoor events he attends over the summer months. He said he’s passionate about giving people a new experience through his dancing. But the down times, he said, can be rough.
“The downside is, the music stops, the stage grows dark, and I’m all alone again at a bus stop,” he said. “I wish someone would whisk me away and take me home.”
The night before our visit, Boe had broken up with his boyfriend. A fight broke out that left Boe with a cut on his scalp and a near golf ball sized knot on his head. While Boe said he is clean and sober, he lamented that many in his life suffer from drug addictions.
In 2006 Boe’s longtime partner Scott Kassemeier jumped to his death following a series of psychotic episodes. The two had made headlines in 1999 when they filed a $1.05 million claim against the city of Puyallup after they were forced to leave the Puyallup Fair two years earlier. According to the deputy sheriff who asked the couple to leave, Kassemeier was wearing chaps and black bikini underwear “with a large amount of pubic hair and flesh exposed.” He got into a scuffle with the deputy sheriff, was subdued with pepper spray, and both were jailed for the night. For all his years of dancing in public among thousands of people, it was one of Oddisey’s few brushes with the law.
Boe primarily supports himself through public assistance. While he’s kept the same public housing apartment for over a decade, he spends a lot of time walking the neighborhood. Like many in Capitol Hill, Boe said he too has noticed a recent uptick in street crime.
“I think there would be less violence if this was still a real gayborhood,” he said. He recalled nights in the 70s and 80s at the now shuttered Golden Horseshoe, singing along to Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times” playing from the jukebox.
As he continued to talk about his favorite music, he walked over to his key board and began plinking notes from the theme music of Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind. “There’s something more than entertainment value in those notes,” he said returning to his chair.
With fall, it’s the start of Boe’s off-season for public dancing. In the summer, he can be spotted most weekends dancing with his “rig” — a disco ball fixed to a homemade PVC pipe contraption that he rolls around with a wire cart. Boe dances at street fairs, festivals, and basically anywhere people are gathering outside with a sound system. Pride, Hempfest, and Folklife are among his favorite events.
Boe’s dance style is always the same: hands swinging gleefully while clutching brightly colored fabric, his face beaming with a plastered-on grin, an almost entranced look that gives the impression he’s not much of a conversationalist.
As for his skirts and bikinis, Boe points out they’re not women’s clothing, they’re his.
“I feel more masculine in a skirt,” he said. “I wear a bikini for a place to put my wallet and my phone.”
In addition to being an entertainer, Boe is a poet. His emotions are raw and simmer close to the surface when he speaks. It’s clear he loves language and gets immense satisfaction from particular words and phrases. Boe is also prone to fleeting moments of despair — several times during our covresation his eyes welled up with tears.
Much of that came when talking about his past, stories that resembled something written by Flannery O’Connor — the southern gothic author who told stories of distraught religious zealots and their personal redemption.
As Boe tells it, his mother was horrifically abusive, both physically and emotionally, throughout his childhood into adulthood. As a result, Boe said he has struggled with mental and emotional issues for much of his life.
Boe’s birth name is Calvin Creech, a name he says comes from his parents involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. “I’m embarrassed by it,” he said. Boe was born in Port Orchard in 1947. He came to Seattle in 1971 from Port Townsend, where he was heavily involved with a church. He had convinced his mother to let him move across the sound under the caveat that he would work for her as a street preacher. Eventually he said he broke away from her and spent several years living in communal houses in the University District and then in Capitol Hill.
Boe says his passion for music, poetry, dancing, and art came after he suffered a seizure due to emotional stress. Another important turning point in his artistic life was coming out as a gay man. Here’s a sample of his storytelling style (boetry?) as told to me:
My mom controlled me and manipulated me very much.
I was her puppet.
A street preacher did I be. I was 27, way past the age of 23.
A street preacher did I be, I had to appease my mommy.
She said that she owned me.
So one evening I walked east along avenue number three.
When a cabbie man stopped me and said ‘Oh preacher man, talk to me.’
Subsequently again, subsequently again said the cabbie ‘Oh preacher man, talk to me’
The next day he stopped me and said ‘Oh preacher man, oh please, talk to me’
I said I had to appease my mommy. I ran, I ran, and to homophobia I did flee.
One day the wind seemed to whisper ‘destiny, destiny’
An empty beverage can blew down the street
Then the cabbie said ‘Oh preacher man, Oh preacher man, you really need to talk to me.’
As tears streamed down his cheeks.
So I got in.
(Formatting is my own.)
Through Boe’s troubled past, and the struggles he continues to face, he’s not bitter toward the world around him. He exudes compassion and a desire to pass as little judgement as possible on others.
“Do no harm,” he said. “I do everything out of love.”
We’ve posted more pictures of Boe Oddisey’s life and art on the CHS Facebook page.