Sonny Newman’s Dance Hall on North 85th Street in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood will close at the end of May after 15 years. Eventually, instead of couples kicking up their heels doing the Argentine tango, the space will be full of people clicking at their keyboards in new offices.
There are places all over town where people follow their passions after a day at work earning a living, people who play music, paint, write and, in this case, dance for the joy of it. People are happier when they have some activity they can lose themselves in.
When a reader told me about the dance hall closing, I called Newman because I know there is a community of dancers for whom the space has been important for years, but when I sat down to talk with him, what kept my attention was his story of finding and following a life that fit.
Newman makes his living through his passion, giving tango lessons for nearly 25 years, choreographing dances and subletting the space he leased to other dance teachers. He was a dancer long before opening the dance hall, working various jobs to support his interest, doing all kinds of dance, folk dances from all over mostly, and he showed me a picture of him dancing ballet. Newman, who grew up wanting to be a cowboy, is 82 now and ready for the next phase of life.
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I spoke with him at his home in Fremont up in the loft he and his wife, Nancy, turned into a small dance studio for private lessons, and he said, “Life doesn’t always let you do what you want to do.” But he always tried.
Newman started out in Colorado. His parents moved around a lot, but the family mostly lived in a rural area south of Denver. His mother was the breadwinner. When Newman was 12, they bought a horse that he rode around the countryside delivering The Denver Post. A lot of the time, old men would come outside and tell him about their adventures on horseback.
His love of dancing began with that horse. “The freedom of movement I used to experience when I was riding a horse; I feel that when I’m dancing,” he said. Newman had the horse only for a year, then his mother brought him to Seattle. It was 1943 and she told him she was coming because there was work in the defense industry, but he didn’t find out until years later that she was really leaving his father.
They’d been in Seattle about a year when his father died. Newman was 14 and a student at Roosevelt High School and not particularly interested in the experience, so he took off and hitchhiked around the West for two years. Being a juvenile vagrant, he spent time in various jails along the way. You can meet interesting people in jail, he said.
His mother got him to finish high school by sending him off to a military school in Colorado that included horse riding in its program. He loved that part, and along with his love of the West he decided he wanted to be a cowboy like those men on his boyhood paper route. But since he wasn’t living in the best time for that, he found a substitute. After high school and a stint in the Army, he went to Washington State University (it was Washington State College then) to study dairy science, figuring he’d work with horses and other large animals, but he’d already started falling in love with dancing by then.
A girl he met in Seattle when he was 19 had taken him dancing at the Skandia Folkdance Club (now the Skandia Folkdance Society) and that made a folk dancer of him. At college in 1954, Newman started a dance club that’s still going, and married the girl, who was also a student there. Dance had a greater hold on him than she did, though.
He left her behind to go off to New York City, with $20 to make a career for himself in dance. He even got into Juilliard. He danced but couldn’t make a living at it. As a young dance instructor, he sometimes got into mischief with the ladies. An angry husband broke his jaw once in California. (On the positive side, he met Nancy on the dance floor, and they’ve been married 11 years.)
For a time, because he couldn’t support himself, he gave up on dancing and went north to chase adventure in the Northwest Territories. He canoed the Mackenzie River, cut logs and worked on ice breakers. But after 14 years he came back to Seattle and to dancing in 1985. He discovered tango, which began a revival around the world after the 1983 fall of Argentina’s repressive military government. Newman saw the show, “Tango Argentino,” in Vancouver, B.C., and was hooked.
In many kinds of dancing, you memorize the steps and repeat them each time. Tango, he said, is created on the spot every time through communication between the dancers, one leading and the other following. Talking about tango, he leans forward in his chair, smiling as he speaks. You can lie with words, Newman said, “but when you communicate with your partner through dance, you can only tell the truth.”
Newman hears from former students, even some from as far back as his five years teaching in New York after Juilliard. That, starting the college dance club and running the dance hall “makes me feel like my life has been a little bit important.”
Newman said this phase of his life was reaching an ending anyway. It’s not just that the lease is ending. He’s scheduled for hip-replacement surgery in July, and anyway he was tiring of what he calls the politics of dancing as a business. “I was the first to teach Argentine tango here, but now there are probably 20 people teaching,” he said. Other instructors like to pack a room with couples, but Newman said he likes a lot of space, enough to allow him to travel as freely as he did on horseback. They all have their philosophies about the dance and about teaching. There’s competition, of course. And there’s the business of renting space to other teachers. “That’s a pain,” he said, and it was sapping the joy out of being involved with dancing.
“The best of things come to an end,” he said.
“I’m waiting for that next door to open,” Newman said. “I have a sneaking suspicion there will be something else to do.”
He’s already started a writing class and is putting together stories about his adventures. Maybe Newman should call his writings “Traveling Freely.”
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com