Many things have changed around the Century Ballroom since it first opened in 1997 in Capitol Hill’s Odd Fellows Building, but the vision Hallie Kuperman had 20 years ago remains.
“I wanted to mix the worlds of people who partner dance,” she said, adding that she aimed to create a LGBTQ safe environment where people could dine, dance, and drink.
When Century first opened, Kuperman was very focused on queer only classes. She has broadened Century’s community in the decades since but said, “It’s still important to me to have the gay community find this place.”
“What I hear over and over is the asset that Century is to the community,” she said. “I believe dance as being healing for people — in the bigger picture I feel we’re creating a safe place.”
Kuperman, the Tin Table restaurant (born 2009), and the dancers who call the Century home will celebrate 20 years of the ballroom throughout February.
One of Kuperman’s fondest memories at Century is of a charity fundraiser event held for a friend. Century hosted “Dance Your Pants off for Lorraine” a night of Lindy Hop, Balboa and tango — Lorraine’s favorite dances — to raise money for her cancer treatments in 2015. Kuperman said everyone came together in support. “It wasn’t just dancers; it was the entire community.”
The event was just one of many times Century has stepped up to help. It has also served as a community center, hosting caucus gatherings for the presidential election in 2016, and arts community meetings through the years.
This year, Century Ballroom and Kuperman will be honored for the work they’ve done with Plymouth Housing Group. For eight years, the organizations have partnered for Seattle Dances! — a dinner and dance competition that has raised millions of dollars to house the homeless. The event raised $650,000 last year.
Making it 20 years on a changing Capitol Hill has required resiliency. Kuperman said the toughest challenges seem to come back to back. The building was sold to a developer in 2008 and with that came a long run of building renovations, new tenants, and changes to parking, which hit Century hard.
Just as the dust started to settle, Century was hit again. This time with $90,000 in “dance tax” penalty fees. “It was a complete waste of energy,” Kuperman said. “It took us out of what we do for a long time… but with the dance tax, we actually changed a law, and that was pretty phenomenal.”
Five years ago, CHS talked with Kuperman about the ballroom’s 15th anniversary:
CHS: How did you first get involved with Century Ballroom?
Hallie Kuperman: I used to own a company called Swing Girls for the gay and lesbian community. Actually, it was based out of what is now The Century Ballroom. The swing dance scene at that time was limited to all ages dancers; no alcohol, no food, no fun dance. We came in and promoted social dance across the board.
CHS: What changes have you seen over the years? Has Century suffered from the recession? Has there been a bounce-back recently?
HK: Not really. It’s the cheapest possible form of entertainment. Classes cost between 4-7 dollars. When rent tripled, we went to seven- on the weekend maybe ten. But we didn’t suffer in the same way [as other businesses] since we provide not only a way to exercise but also socialize and create a sense of community. Classes are actually bigger now than they have ever been.
CHS: This sounds like a really great business during the cold dark winters in Seattle.
HK: We try to offer something that people can do and want to do a couple times a week. We make it affordable. I am such a proponent of health benefits of social dance. For folks that don’t do the snow or go to the gym, we offer an alternative. It’s great physical activity. You can’t think about anything else when you’re dancing. It’s very different from other sports where you wait on the sidelines. Throughout the entire time you’re dancing, you’re very present. When social dancing, you have to be completely in tune.
CHS: Do you provide classes for couples? Or is it primarily for singles?
HK: We’ve fostered [couples only classes] recently. In the past we never had couples only. We would always rotate partners in class. My belief is, the more you dance with other people, the more you learn. But then I realized, some people aren’t learning to dance because they want to dance with other people. They want to dance with their partner so we started offering them recently. But in general, there are more single/rotating classes. Often times people come to class with friends.
CHS: How do you find your teachers?
HK: Most of our staff has been students. Often times, staff will leave and in their place recommend students. So we give them a trial, we watch them teach. See how it goes. We have a lot of instructors, across the board we get responses about the clarity and enthusiasm of our instructors. I have a lot of trust. Actually 100 percent trust in them. They know more than I know now in the ways of other dances like the Lindy Hop.
CHS: What’s your most popular class?
HK: That’s hard to answer. Salsa and swing are probably the most popular. Each dance appeals to different people.
CHS: Surely you’ll have a cake at this weekend’s celebration. Any wishes when you blow out the candles?
HK: Our goal is to continue to do what we do well; get the community at large out there. Utilize everything we’ve got for the community. Stay knowledgeable. The environment [of Century Ballroom] is important to me. When I dance, I want a big floor, not a seedy bar, or a pick up spot.
Now, in its 20th year, Century might be facing a new challenge as the Odd Fellows building is again up for sale. Kuperman is concerned with how the potential sale could push rent in the building even higher. She said she is beginning to realize the ballroom might not be around forever.
If the past is any sign of the future. It will take a lot to bring down Century and the people who have made it thrive.
“All of the people who have worked here have their stamp on this place,” Kuperman said. “The dedication to this place from the people who work here is just heartwarming. And each one of them is damn good at what they do.”
Kuperman said Century is big in a way she and her team never expected, and they realize with upcoming changes, they have to be careful.
They will kick off their month long celebration this week on Friday, February 3rd with OutDancing: A Swing Girls Reunion, a nod to where it all began. Throughout the month, Century plans to feature something for everyone with live music dance nights, dance classes for the beginners, and special performances from two New York City bands the last weekend in February.
The Century Ballroom is located at 915 E Pine. You can learn more at centuryballroom.com.