Bellingham’s country dances have roots in the Seattle old-time dance scene. Sandy Bradley started calling a square dance series in the 1970s at the Inside Passage Tavern in Pioneer Square. The Gypsy Gyppo string band played fantastic old-time music for the square dances.
John Hatten started calling squares at the Inside Passage dances in 1975 and, when he moved to Bellingham in 1979, started calling square dances here. The Whatcom County Parks Department promoted dances and John called as far afield as Hovander Park, Blaine and Point Roberts as well as WWU, the YWCA, and other venues around the county. The old Geneva School (now the Whatcom Hills Waldorf School) was managed by the county parks and it became a regular dance venue. Local musicians included Larry Hanks, Laura Smith, Brad Reynolds, Laurel Bliss, John Clark and Linda Fox.
Mike Schway moved to Seattle in 1975 for grad school at UW and fell into the old-time music scene there. The Gypsy Gyppo squares at Pioneer Square’s Inside Passage were going strong, but Sandy Bradley was getting a little weary of calling to Pioneer Square riff-raff so she passed the caller’s mic to Jack Link and they asked Mike Schway to join them on fiddle to help fill the gap. Mike says, “What an honor! What a band!” He remembers John Hatten calling squares with the band at the Inside Passage.
In 1984, Mike moved from Seattle to Deming. The local Bellingham dances had been on hold for a few years. Mike put together a band called the Chuckanotes and started a third Saturday dance series at the Fairhaven Library in 1986 or 1987. The original band was Brad Reynolds, Linda Fox, Dave Doop, Alan Swensson, and Mike Schway on fiddle. John Hatten was the regular caller for these monthly dances, calling both contra dances and square dances. Later on, the Chuckanotes would occasionally have guest callers for the monthly dance.
At the same time, an old time dance revival was happening in Vancouver BC. Cameron and Susan Stewart were running a very successful contra and square dance series at Capri Hall in Vancouver. There were more than a hundred dancers at the Vancouver dances.
With just one dance a month in Bellingham, Bellingham dancers started traveling to Vancouver to their dances. Vancouver callers Cameron Stewart and Marion Rose would come to Bellingham to call, and Vancouver dancers would come to Bellingham dances.
There was enough interest in dancing in Bellingham that Marlin Prowell started a first Friday series of dances in 1989. Stringfever, a local bluegrass band, was the house band for this second dance series. This arrangement continued for a couple years, and in 1991, all the local dance organizers joined together to form Bellingham Country Dance Society (BCDS). BCDS would take over the scheduing and publicity for all the country dances in Bellingham.
Dance attendence was taking off. We had more dancers coming to each of the two dances each month than had been attending the single monthly dance previously. Dances became so crowded that we added a fourth Saturday dance series in 1993.
BCDS hosted a number of special dances over the years. In 1991 Flip Breskin started a Family Dance series once a month on Sunday afternoon. The family dances were sponsored by Bellingham Parks and Recreation department. In 1992, Bellingham Country Dance started holding a gala New Year’s Eve dance with elaborate decorations, sparkling cider, and raucous noise makers at midnight. In recent years we’ve had regionally and nationally known bands play for the New Year’s dance, like Syncopaths, Contra Sutra, and the McCassons.
Wild Asparagus with George Marshall started playing in Bellingham during their annual Northwest tour. In 1996, Wild Asparagus and Elephants of Style played for BCDS’s only dance weekend, “Call of the Wild”, held at Camp Huston in Gold Bar. After Wild Asparagus stopped touring nationally, George Marshall would bring nationally known bands to Bellingham each fall for a big special event dance. These special fall dances continue to this day.
We hosted the only regular ferry boat dance in the nation. Once a year, starting in 1993, dancers would gather in Anacortes and board one of the regular ferry runs to San Juan Islands. We would push aside the movable chairs, set up a sound system, and play for a dance as the ferry wound its way through the islands. We’d disembark once the ferry returned back to Anacortes. We continued this annual tradition until 2019 when the ferry system retired the last boats that had movable chairs and therefore dancing on a ferry was no longer possible.
BCDS held a dawn dance every summer starting in 1998. Held on the weekend closest to a full moon, the dance would start before sunset and continue non-stop until dawn the next morning. Three bands and three callers filled the musical slots, with food and snacks during the breaks between each dance set to keep the dancers going. Breakfast was served on Sunday morning when the dance ended.
In 2008 and 2009 BCDS held a “Day Dance”, an all day and evening event with dance workshops during the day followed by an evening dance.
BCDS held a couple of techno contra dances in 2015 and 2016 with Buddy System from the east coast playing for the dance.
The regular dance series was always held in the upstairs auditorium in the Fairhaven Library from September until May. Regular dances took a summer break because it was too hot in the auditorium in the summer. Regular dances have been held in the Fairhaven Library since the 1980s and continued at least twice a month until March 2020 when the dances stopped because of the COVID-19 virus.