BY LINDA MONDOUX
If you love dancing, there’s no better place to be than in charming Almonte, where classic big band sounds and a historic setting combine to take you back to the days of good old-fashioned fun.
Whether your thing is the Lindy Hop or the Waltz, you can dance up a storm beginning Oct. 30, the launch of the 6th season of the famous Sunday afternoon “tea dances” held in the auditorium at Almonte’s Old Town Hall. Organized by Standing Room Only, a 15-piece band with vocalist Sandy Faux, the dances have attracted a loyal following since 2006, with lovers of both ballroom and swing equally enjoying themselves out on the hardwood dance floor.
“If you dance to, or listen to, big band music, there aren’t many opportunities to experience something like this,” says Chris Thompson, the band’s drummer and the man in charge of promoting its tea dances. “It’s a very fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.”
Not only do you get to enjoy the rare thrill of hearing your favourite big band tunes performed live, it all happens in an authentic period setting.
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, about a 35-minute drive from downtown Ottawa, the Almonte Old Town Hall at 14 Bridge St. holds pride of place downtown. Built in 1885, the attractive “municipal gothic” style building rises three and a half storeys, housing public and private offices and an auditorium, which has been named one of the top music venues in Canada for its superior acoustics. In fact, the auditorium, with its vaulted wooden ceilings and professional stage, is regularly used by CBC Radio to record concerts.
While the tea dances are casual affairs, some dancers show up in period dress, with shirts and ties on the men and dresses and skirts on the women adding to the nostalgic atmosphere. Add in the ladies of the Ramsay Women’s Institute, who serve up non-alcoholic beverages and baked goods, and the blast from the past tableau is complete.
“It’s the sort of scene you would have seen 80 years ago had you walked in to the Almonte Old Town Hall,” Thompson tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “The only difference would be that today, there’s no smoking, and some women are wearing pantsuits.”
Dancers range in age from 20-somethings to 80-somethings, with the younger crowd mostly into swing, which has enjoyed a revival in recent years, especially on university campuses.
'Everybody loved the big dance floor'
Sophie Roy of Ottawa was among those who came out to the tea dances in their inaugural years, and recalls how much fun it was. “A lot of us were single, so we went in a big group. Everybody loved the big dance floor,” she tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It really brings you back in time.”
Roy, whose preference is swing “with a bit of ballroom,” doesn’t get out on the dance floor as much since a hip problem. But that hasn’t stopped the librarian from listening to the band or from singing its praises — she is particularly surprised and pleased that Thompson gave her swing group a song list and asked for their feedback and suggestions. “It just all adds up to a community feeling,” Roy says. “We try to spread the word.”
Thompson admits that what Standing Room Only is doing is “very unusual.”
“Very few bands hold their own events,” he says. “We started the tea dances as a way of giving the band a chance to play more. It’s a lot of work running an event — we rent the hall, we do all the promotion — but those tea dances have really put us on the map.”
The term “tea dance” comes from the 1920s and ’30s, when hotels in large cities would host afternoon dances, complete with a live band. Since no alcohol was served in the middle of the day, they became known as tea dances. Standing Room Only thought the name fit perfectly the afternoon music and dance event it had in mind.
Standing Room Only was founded in 2003 by trombonist and Almonte resident Catherine Illingworth. Though playing in the band is a hobby and not a full-time job, the introduction of the tea dances has meant more time spent in practice sessions. “It’s not the same band it was since the tea dances,” Thompson says. “When you have 80 people coming out and paying to hear you, it sort of lights a fire under you. So the band got better.”
So good in fact that tea dance fans are hiring the band to perform at various functions they are involved in, such as a recent military ball in Petawawa.
Standing Room Only, whose members hail mostly from the Almonte and Ottawa area, perform from September to June, with a couple of months off for the summer.
This season’s monthly Sunday tea dances, which run from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., will be held Oct. 30, Nov. 27, Jan. 22, Feb. 26 and March 25. The cost is $12 at the door — cash only.
Almonte has much to offer
When in Almonte, you’ll want to take in the impressive views of the Almonte Falls — dubbed Little Niagara in the spring. The best falls vistas can be had at the Victorian Woollen Mill lookout, a short walk from the Old Town Hall.
Almonte’s vibrant downtown and its many festivals are major tourist draws, with streets bustling on weekends with day-trippers sampling fresh-ground coffee, watching artisans at work and finding that perfect antique or oil painting. The Corridor Gallery at the Almonte library gives visitors a reason to come back — it features rotating exhibits of local and area artists.
For lessons on Almonte’s past, you can visit the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum at 3 Rosamond St. It’s located in the former annex of the Rosamond Woolen Mill. Built in 1867 and at one time the largest woolen mill in Canada, the mill is a National Historic Site of Canada. You’ll also want to visit the Naismith Museum and Hall of Fame, dedicated to Dr. James Naismith, an educator best known as the inventor of basketball.
You can find the museum in the lower level of The R. Tait McKenzie Memorial Museum located at The Mill of Kintail Conservation Area, another site worth the ride out to the countryside. The museum, located in a converted 1830s grist mill nestled along the banks of the Indian River, showcases the life of physician and artist Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie, who used the heritage building as his summer home and sculpting studio.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — October 2011