Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Aspen Blues Recess 2011

A week where around a hundred beings came together and created a beautiful culture based on connection, creation, and dancing. Blues dancing.

Blues dancing was the initial common ground that brought us together. And from that our community was born.

A community where freedom is frequent, sleep less so, and clothing optional.

I experienced my first blues recess back in March in Portland (warehouse, coffee house, rave-venue). The blues recesses are events planned by Justin Riley where people from across the nation come together to dance. Simple as that by definition - but a lot more in reality.

That’s how I explained it to the people of Aspen when we were blues-busking (dancing in the street) to make some cash for dinner. We were a curious site, dancing on the pavement. And they had questions before they handed us the contents of their wallets generously.

Are you a team?
Nope. A bunch of individuals who came together to dance.

How do you know each other?
Through dancing.

Where are you from?
Seattle. Portland. San Francisco. Austin. D.C. Denver. Albuquerque. Ukraine. Russia. Mexico. All over.

And what are you guys doing?
Blues dancing – partner dancing with African roots.

And what are you doing in Aspen?
We’re traveling around Colorado, not just Aspen, going from location to location, creating moments, memories, and letting all things go. Environments have been sought out and created by the organizer, Justin, that can only be described as magical.

After my first blues recess, the Urban Blues Recess, I was hooked and ready to connect with this community again. Post-UBR, people had violent reactions to what had happened. Some hated it and what it had been (insanity) and others had fallen so deeply into this life that coming out of it was like being woken up by being thrown from your down bed into a near-frozen lake.

To get to Colorado, a lot of folks flew. But after cost calculations, I realized that wouldn’t be as feasible as I’d like it to be. So I found three other girls and we decided to make the 2,473 mile journey together.

We didn’t know each other before – although we had some sort of knowledge of each other. I had met one of the girls, Amica, one morning of UBR when we had created “the Creature” and I had run into Kyle at Gasworks during Honkfest a month prior.

The three main characters of our caravan, the Natal Group, in addition to me were Kyle (age 18 of Seattle), Amica (age 19 of Portland, originally Albuquerque), and Christi (age 19 of Corvallis). Despite our internet communication prior to departure, I don’t think any of us expected strong bonds to form. In fact, I think we all expected something brinking on the worse. We were prepared to stomach through over 40 hours in a car with other girls (that’s where the danger lies) – doing what we had to do to get where we had to be.

What was originally just an obstacle or the journey turned into an event of note itself. Oh how we bonded. Oh how relationships were formed! These girls became dear to me within a day and, from there, we only got closer. I don’t even know how to convey in words what happened in that car.

When we finally got to Elsewhere (the first environment the blues recess presented to us), we burst through the round hobbit door in hysterics, hands held together, not prepared for the transition from road trip to blues dancing. One would have thought that we would have wanted to get time from each other, but it was on the contrary. Through the night we kept finding ourselves back together in the straw or sprawled on the floor.

Elsewhere was our first stop on this journey. Elsewhere Studios is the full name. Elsewhere is, genuinely, one of the most incredible places I’ve been. Every element of the house is a work of art. From the textured copper sinks to the painted walls to the free standing tubs to the closest with the throne toilet. Elsewhere was created by and artist, Willow Wind. The layout is full of nooks and crannies to explore and holes to sleep in. There are lofts and ladders and a small corner room that hosts just a bed. The solid wood floor was the best dance floor of the week. But it wasn’t just a geometrical house. The yard is worth note too. Heading out the back door is a multilayered lawn that encouraged gathering and mobbing. A giant bus is parked to the left and suited up to host a handful. A gingerbread cottage sleeps an artist in residence. A creek (pardon me, ditch) runs thru. A hairpin turn slanting down turns to a straw path that leads to a hammock, chicken coop, and the crown jewel of the yard, the hot tub. The hot tub is an old wooden half-barrel whose water is heated with a wood-burning stove. Everything is surrounded by trees that create cool shade heated by a warm breeze that push the leaves about mesmerizingly when you try to take a nap.

And we danced and lived and explored. This is the recess.

All of this happened in the small mining town of Paonia that managed to hold as much charm as it had churches. The next morning our parade of lovelies took the streets by musical storm to the park where our infectious culture spread.

1.5 miles away was another world and our next environment, the Trading Post and the fields and woods behind it. As the old folks of Paonia (who I met) would say, the Trading Post is where “those hippie people” go. It’s a store at the end of a long gravel road in the country selling all things local, organic, and healthy. The kind of foods that hippies (whatever that means) feast off of. Beyond the Trading Post was a field with a few wooden settings to nest in.

On Friday night, the calm landscape turned surreal as gentle lights shone from the trees and gauze created a ceiling-less room. This was our ballroom. The tall-grass was beaten and trampled down by our rhythmic, pulsing movements into a makeshift dance-floor that got better as the night progressed. We felt peace. And we felt alive. The term “magical” is appropriate here to describe our temporary existence that night.

In the morning, we ate breakfast on the gravel road next to the car from a communal bowl, danced again in the sun, and packed out to head for the mountains, 7,9620 feet higher in elevation than what I’m used to back home, following the Crystal River.

At mile marker 25 on Highway 133 we pulled over for some would-be-cliff-jumping the water had not been so high. As clothes were shed, the cops made an appearance. I guess they had nothing better to do than crack down on “those darn naked hippies,” except they never actually scrambled down to us (bit of a hike). Someone would pass the message along, screaming, “Cops!” and everyone would rush for their clothes. Within 30 minutes the community was back to where they were and eventually the cops would return, look over the cliff, and call out again. We lounged in the sun and plunged into the reservoir of the River.

Our next refuge greeted us with a sign boasting a population of 83 – welcome to Marble. Our arrival instantly increased the town’s population by 1.5 and we nestled down at the local Mari Daes campground. Marble is the most literal town I’ve encountered. Marble, that’s just about all there is to this town.

An old, broken down marble mill site was where our community connected and grew that night. The rough lay-out of the old factory was still there with one, jagged marble wall set as a backdrop before the looming Elk Mountains. Marble dust was sprinkled on the floor, smoothing out each turn we kept and keeping track of the patterns of our heavy feet.

The soundtrack created that night was one uniquely for us by the marvelous Mr. Moo (Milo Hayden of Portland). A classically trained violinist gone creative – he had created rich tracks over which he played live for us, matching the mood of the dancers.

Sunday morning came quickly and we were whisked to the final destination – Aspen, Colorado, a popular resting place, apparently, for celebrities. Out of the woods we came, down from the mountains, our classy crew – and claimed the patio as our dance floor. Before dancing, though, we set up camp at Difficult Campground. What a fitting name.

The Natal Group of four had set up our tent next to her river in a small clearing – without a rainfly – before setting off to the main city of Aspen. The locals admired us from a distance and up close – and pulled out their wallets to donate to the “Feed the Dance” and “Tips” box. The local coffee shop gave us a bag of enormous cookies. We were fueled by the generosity of the city. As the moon rose, our own band of Olympian musicians laid down the melody of the night. We responded to their song in the way we best knew how and danced on. When the live set was complete and the onlookers had wandered away, a local bar welcomed us to take their dance floor and sound system. For an hour or two more, we kept moving as long as the music was playing. We were violently shaken back into reality, though, when the bar’s DJ was required to take back the floor for the regular attenders. Grinding-drink-bearing girls and stumbling men invaded and the beats no longer inspired our movements but discouraged them.

It was time for the dancers to find a new home. Our organizer, Justin, had set up this night to be for clubbing. All except one of the clubs were not an option to the 21 and under crowd and the one left over didn’t intrigue any of us after the required cover fee. Four of us wandered around to find the only place we could find that would take us in until 2 AM, when the ABR-crew had rented out a club for our own dancing pleasure. A bit of searching and we found, way up on the second floor, New York Pizza. Open till 2:30 AM it was perfect. It wasn’t long before the small restaurant was filled with other blues dancers, looking for a place to hang out before the final late night dance of the week. Amid bites the downpour began and we couldn’t forget the rain-fly-less tent back at the Difficult Campground.

Without a sign of letting up, we realized the rain was something we were going to have to deal with and packed into the car for a near-solemn drive to see how things looked. How did they look? Puddled and wet. Flooded and inhabitable. Time for redistribution. One male had joined the group and he took charge in redistributing the would-be-soggy girls. Two of our group would join him in his two-person tent and I was connected with a tweed-wearing sir and a lovely from Australia in a blue tent that could only be reached by “forging the river.”

With everyone settled, we got back to Aspen in time for the opening of the club. Underneath the town, it was a long metallic round tunnel shaped room, like an airstream trailer or something from a Star Wars ship. The floor was sticky. And it was time for the final dance of the recess. A few local clubbers remained as we took the floor. They groped and slammed against each other. We connected, seamlessly moving together with non-verbal communication. They squatted right next to us and stared from their low-perch on the dance floor. We closed our eyes and moved on.

It wasn’t long before our wonderful DJ decided it was time to take over the club in totality. Classic blues was turned on and the locals started to lose their dance-inspiration. We took away their club music and their bodies turned confused, no knowing how to move to the powerful, rich, authentic voices that hadn’t been auto tuned or set to electronic beats. As they filed out, we spread out.

At one point, when I was dancing with Amica, a man came over. Amica was at a state of being protective (and sick of the pursuits of drunken men) gave him a flat-handed shove. He wasn’t agitated as he said he needed to talk to us in the corner. It took me three seconds to identify him as the bar tender. As we were about to move with him, Jae, the DJ of the moment, came over and said, “Not those two,” pointing to us, “those two.” And our eyes followed his finger to two girls smashing against each other.  They were asked to leave the club. We were amused. Highly. Once the club was our, the DJ brought our beats back, although not fully leaving the classics behind, and for the last time, in my company, the hundred or so of us connected and moved together until 5 in the morning.

After the dance, long story short, it too my crew until around 5:45 AM to find our “lost car.” For twenty minutes, I ran the streets of Aspen in search of a silver Volkswagen Jetta. Getting back to the camping ground, we were exhausted as the sun came up. I forged the river to find that, in the tent where my stuff had been stored; my belongings for the night were gone. I doubled checked with that it was my tent and indeed it was. Then I took a second look at the sleeping back the tweed-jacket-sir was sleeping in. Very familiar. My sleeping bag. As the rain continued to sprinkle, I tapped on the tent of the three in the two-person tent and they quickly welcomed me in. The amicable, hospitable Sir and owner of the tent made it his duty, that night, to be a comfortable bed for the three girls. With just one sleeping bag and blanket between the four of us, somehow we (as in I) managed to rest up. Around three hours, if we were lucky enough to have slept, we woke up stiff, cold, and damp. Well, that’s what I think we were. I know I myself was content, sore, and satisfied.

Whereas, after UBR there was no transition from dream-state to reality, the rain was a bit of a shake-up and introduction to reality for us. What would have been a long, sprawled-out-dawdle to leave camp to head back home turned into a quick, quiet, efficient, and non-monumental departure. By early morning we were gone, having only said good-bye to five people maximum.

The Natal group, plus Sam, reunited one last time in Aspen for an overpriced breakfast, before conquering the road. The final Natal-moment occurred when we sung out, “You and I,” to each other, swaying to our own voices in the middle of the coffee shop. The group was cracked into two has Kyle left for the Denver airport. The remaining three of us jumped back in the car and we made the seven hour trip to Alpine, Utah for the night, where we rested and recharged with the family of a friend of mine.

Tuesday was the final day of travel, just 796 miles, to Portland. Just outside of the city, the perfect sunset occurred along the Columbia River – the perfect closure to our journey together. When we got to Portland, plans changed and we stuck together for one more night.

It was on Wednesday, at 2:50 PM, that I boarded the Amtrak train for Seattle. Three hours to reflect. And then I was back in the wooden structure that I’ve been taught to call home. Although, quite honestly, I felt just as at home in the straw or curled up in that tent as I do safe under my grandmother’s quilt in Seattle.


  1. Beautiful photos! Do you mind if I use the first photo on a poster to advertise blues dancing in Tucson?

  2. This Photos ARE amazing! I'm a blues dancer in Seattle and I was wondering how you learn about all of these amazing events?

  3. Thank you!

    Word of mouth.
    Google searches.

    Next event of this sort is:


Your words make me grin.

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