The clacking of dancing shoes sprang off the 160-year-old floors of the Whatcom County Territorial Courthouse as community members gathered to swing dance to prohibition-era blues music on Saturday, Jan 19.
Set up against a partially exposed brick wall, the Hot House Jazz Band played to the all-ages crowd. Wood panelling lined the bottom half of the cream colored walls around the dance floor, and yellow chairs were pushed against the edge of the room, holding coats and resting dancers.
The event took place during the second half of a weekend dedicated to bringing community and life to the oldest brick building in Washington state, according to Hot House trumpet player Pace Rubadeau. The Hot House Jazz Band, dance instructors from B’ham Hop and the Bellingham Circus Guild all donated their time to the cause.
The event had a pay-what-you-can policy with proceeds going towards funding future events, Rubadeau said.
The oldest brick building in Washington, the Territorial Courthouse was constructed in 1858 and became the Whatcom County Courthouse in 1863. In between that time, the building was used as a general store, a bank and a warehouse, according to the City of Bellingham website. It is located at what is now 1308 E St. in Bellingham.
Rubadeau was looking forward to seeing dancers from many generations come together for the event, including members of Western’s Swing Kids club, he said.
“There’s a lot of minors in that collective, so that’s why I think it’s important to do all-ages events, so they can have that education and that experience,” Rubadeau said.
The Swing Kids members were excited to have a dance to go to in Bellingham, as they often have to travel to Seattle or Canada to dance, the club’s co-president Rachel Lewis said.
“Bellingham is a big dancing town, but there’s not a lot of swing dance events,” Lewis said.
When asked about her favorite part of the event, Swing Kids member and second-year Western student Rachel Montoya said that the club members were thrilled to get the opportunity to dance on wooden floors and with a live band.
The club used to host their meetings in the Viking Union Multi-Purpose Room, but since the Western Associated Students Bookstore has been relocated to that space, the Swing Kids now have to meet in a carpeted conference room on the fifth floor of the VU, Montoya said.
B’ham Hop instructor Damian Cade helped organize the event, and he taught a 30-minute swing dance lesson before the dance began. The dancers were led through various exercises to demonstrate hand positions, turns and how to both lead and follow with a partner.
“Whatever the music says for you to do, you can’t be wrong,” Rubadeau said during the lesson.
The room was soon filled to the brim with polka-dot dresses, suspenders and grins as dancers spun each other around to the music.
Members of the Bellingham Circus Guild performed in the courthouse the evening before on Friday, Jan. 18, with acts ranging from rope tricks and juggling to acrobatics.
Juggler Della Moustachella Plaster noted how the building’s low ceilings added an extra layer of difficulty to their acts, she said. Her head nearly touched the ceiling when she was juggling while sitting on her partner’s shoulders, as did the heads and feet of the acrobatic performers as they did lifts and flips during their acts, she said.
Despite the low ceiling, the guild’s performance entertained the crowd, eliciting laughter and applause throughout the show.
The county outgrew the building in 1884, and the building has served many different functions since, including a church and a newspaper press, according to the Access Washington website. Today, it is owned by Rick Tremaine, who rents it out for events.
“We are donating our time, because we believe in the space,” Rubadeau said.
He hopes the community can create lasting memories in the historic place, he said.
The Swing Kids meet on Wednesdays and host a dance lesson from 7-8 p.m. and a social dance from 8-9:30 p.m..
The Hot House Jazz Band hopes to host monthly swing dances at the building, and upcoming events will be listed on their Facebook page, Rubadeau said.
This story was updated on Jan. 29, 2019 to correct the location of funding proceeds from going to the Whatcom County Historical Society, to funding future events.
This story was updated on Feb. 1 to correct the day of Swing Kids meetings. The group meets on Wednesdays rather than Thursdays.