Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/9/2021 (298 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It's Friday night at the Palomino Club, Winnipeg's most infamous and resilient nightclub, and for the first time in 18 months, the dance floor is filling with bodies. At first, they huddle together in groups, women in tank tops swinging their hips and flirting a little as they mingle with whoever is nearby.
A young man wanders over to where myself and a colleague are sitting. His eyes are framed by a dark cap and a black mask. He gestures at the empty space on the dance floor around his group of friends: "Do you guys wanna help expand the dance floor a little bit?" he asks, in a voice somewhere between hopeful and shy.
In a minute, I tell him. Let me finish this drink, I'll be there in a minute.
The young man won't have to wait long, and he won't have to wait for me. Maybe it was the Beyonce tune bumping on the speakers that did it, or maybe it was just the moment, like a dam breaking to let loose a river that had stayed choked since the beginning of COVID-19. Either way, moments later, the dance floor explodes with people.
"You got your dancers!" I call to the young man, as a woman grabs my hands and pulls me into the fray.
The music swells, the bodies shake, the floor pulses and vibes. Some of the youth here tonight weren't of legal age the last time bars allowed dancing; now, they get their first taste. Close your eyes, and it feels like every memory of a night at the club before the pandemic; open them, and you remember that everything is still different.
A security guard weaves through the crowd on the floor, making tugging gestures at his face to remind people to pull up their masks. Some of the young women pout; some of the men, too. But the security guard is built like a medium-sized bear, so when he tells people to do something, for the most part, they do.
Yet as the guard walks away, the masks begin to slip down again. Everyone here is fully vaccinated; under the new public health orders they had to show their vaccination proof at the door, and match it with their ID. They are young and hungry to mingle; they want to look at each other, and want to be seen.
On stage, DJ FIN-S — real name: Brad Goodman — lifts the microphone to cajole them back into compliance.
"Just a reminder, if you're on the dance floor you still need your mask on," he tells the crowd, for the first or the eighth or the 12th time that night. It's hard to keep track of how many times, he says later, but giving them that reminder is a lot better than what he had to do before.
For months, Goodman had played comparatively sedate DJ sets at the clubs. He'd spent his whole career learning how to build up the energy of a crowd and get people to dance; suddenly, during the spots of time when bars were open but dancing still wasn't allowed, he had manage the vibe to keep them sitting down.
Yet sometimes during those months, he says, he'd get lost in his work and his mind would drift off, and when he looked up he'd realize in a panic that he'd amped the energy up too high, that a dozen people or more had risen from their tables and started to dance, pulled by the instincts of bodies that ached to move free.
Those times, he had to jump on the mic to tell them to stop dancing, and scramble to deflate the energy.
"For quite a few months when we were open last year, if people started dancing too much I had to play the worst music in my computer," he says. "I'd have to turn the music down, play something super mellow like an acappella slow song from like, the '80s. It was terrible. It goes against everything we stand for, as DJs."
Now, on Friday night at the Pal, Goodman can finally put his skills to their full use. He tried to start the party on the bar's licensed patio, just to make it a little safer, but "the crowd wasn't having it," he says with a laugh later; after all these months without being able to move this way in public, they wanted a real dance floor, inside.
Just before 11 p.m. he moved indoors to the main stage. Within seconds, the dancers started coming.
"That was quite the experience," Goodman says.
It wasn't the only place downtown that was grooving. Just as Goodman was setting up and a few blocks south along Main Street, Blue Note Park was already in full swing, as the Dirty Catfish Brass Band swung through a late-evening set of New Orleans-inflected tunes under a gentle night sky.
Patrons there had been waiting for this night. Ever since the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club's outdoor beer garden opened in late spring, dancers have slipped out the door and into the back alley outside the venue; for the first time on Friday night, they filled up the open space at the front of the stage.
The crowd was joyful, and eclectic. Twentysomethings grooved next to silver-haired couples; one man bopped along on a prosthetic leg. At the front of the stage, Milana Schipper beamed as her shoulders undulated with the melodies of the band's trumpets and saxophone, turning to share a laugh with her friends as she swayed.
Schipper is from Winnipeg, though she lives in Montreal now, where it's "still Footloose," she said with a laugh, no dancing allowed. So the timing of her trip home this week could not have been better, she agreed. Even just being around other people moving felt liberating, and what more can you ask than a night of friendship and dance?
"I'm having the time of my life," she said. "It feels extremely good. I'm here with my best friends in the world. I work in health care so it's been a year, it's been a year for everyone. And this is my favourite band, and it feels like home, so I feel amazing."
So let the record show that when dancing in public came back to Manitoba it came back like this, with the full range of its potential: beautiful and chaotic, hesitant and joyful, flirty and messy and fun. It will last as long as the numbers allow, which could be measured in days or weeks or months.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that each moment like this has to be enough.
At the Palomino, a woman on the dance floor crooks her finger to beckon me closer, throwing her arms around my shoulders as she slides unsteadily to the beats. "I'm so not a bar person," she yells, although in practice she omits the word "person," but slurs a sound close enough I can tell what she means.
Is she happy that dancing is back?
The woman frowns and leans forward, until her ear presses warm against my cheek. "What?" she yells.
IS. SHE. HAPPY. THAT. DANCING. IS BACK?
Her eyes flare wide above her mask. She leans away, shakes out her hair and throws up her hands.
"Oh f--- yes!" she calls out, and then she hollers something else, but whatever it was is buried by the bass and the beat. Then she spins off, rocking her hips over bent knees, and as a circle of dancing bodies spills over her wake I lose track of where she shimmies off to. I lose myself in my own rhythm, and never see her again.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.