LANDIS — For decades, small-town dance clubs acted as the heartbeat of rural Saskatchewan. Ask any senior, and they’ll likely recount their stories of dances that sparked marriages, children and entire family trees or regale you with stories of neighbours, old flames, cousins and distant relatives drawn to the dance halls every weekend regardless of the weather.
Now, the hundreds of once-thriving old-time dancing clubs, polka fests and country bands that dotted the prairies risk becoming a relic of the province's past as attendance drops and money dwindles.
But one club in small-town Saskatchewan, 130 kilometres west of Saskatoon, is fighting to keep the tradition alive. The Landis Fun Time Dance Club, run in a town that boasts a population of less than 150, continues to attract crowds for now.
“... for a number of years, the hall was full to capacity every time,” Leo Schwebius, a member of the club since its inception in 1988, said to the News-Optimist/SASKTODAY.
“I think it (Landis Community Complex) was limited to 200, and after that, you couldn’t get in, and that did happen.”
But why are more people today not seeing the appeal of spending an evening twirling around a dance floor?
One possibility is that the younger generation just isn’t as interested in dancing as their grandparents and great-grandparents. And with many of the more experienced, involved dancers getting older, it’s leaving a knowledge gap that is difficult to fill.
But it may also be a simple lack of interest that is causing the clubs to spiral. The sudden rise of technology and the internet may have taken its toll. Maybe, people are just happier staying at home and watching Netflix or scrolling Facebook than dressing up and heading to the local dance hall.
“COVID-19 had a lot to do with it. Up until COVID-19, we did pretty good. COVID-19 really wrecked the world. It wrecked everything around here … it really threw a curve ball into attendance,” Schwebius said.
“Even after COVID, well then you had to have proof of vaccination, and had to wear masks, and that deterred people from coming. I think it affected it, a lot of people were scared to come out.”
Even before COVID-19, in 2017, a dance with Leon Ochs playing music attracted 125 people. But sometimes, they had 58 or 42 people. Sometimes, attendance even dropped as low as 28 a night.
“We had a pretty good bank account at one time when the dances were going really well, and we’ve gradually lost a little bit of money. We can have two or three tough years, and we’ll still be going,” Schwebius said, laughing.
“If we go till we’re broke … if we can get enough people to almost break even, we’d be happy.”
Schwebius highlighted that difficulty getting people to help run the clubs and make midnight lunch also might contribute to a club wanting to close.
“We used to have as many as 10 or eight people to bring two loaves of sandwiches each. Now we don’t phone anybody anymore, we go and buy the lunches because you can't get people to bring lunch anymore.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard.”
Additionally, the cost of running a dance club has become increasingly expensive. The rising price of food for midnight lunch, gas for a travelling band, rent and electricity is causing some clubs to go extinct. Some club members even want to raise ticket prices above $15, while others worry that increasing ticket prices to meet costs will cut attendance further.
“Every year, we have a meeting to decide what we might need, how much stuff is gonna cost, and what we might need for admission.
“Bands got a little more expensive, travel got a little more expensive, gas is more expensive. Now bands cost $700 or $800. It just gradually went up.”
Despite the challenges, however, there are still those who were and have been determined to keep dancing alive since the club’s inception in the ‘80s, which began with a few yearly dances, including a New Year’s Eve dance. The now monthly dances, hosted on the second Friday of the month between October and April from 7 to 11 p.m., began a few years later.
The Landis Dance Club started in 1988 after the Wilkie club folded. The community complex built in 1980 had a cement floor until 1992 when the club began raising money and had a new floor built.
“There were lots and lots of people, and things went really well, and they made pretty good money,” Schwebius said, highlighting that the newly built hall in 1980 welcomed a new wooden floor in 1992, of which the club paid “quite a bit of it.”
“And actually, Bob Kobelesky and Dennis Keller laid most of the floor, and it’s got 2x4s or something underneath, with rubber padding, and that’s why the floor gives. It just made a wonderful hall out of it. The floor gives, it's the best floor around, and it’s because of the design," Schwebius said.
“When the hall opened in 1980, it was debt free. When we built it, they told us, ‘you are crazy. You will never pay for that hall. You will never be able to run it. You can’t afford to keep it open.’ Well, we fooled them, we’re still doing it,” Schwebius added.
One member of the club hires the bands, and another gets the liquor licence for the fall and winter, others take care of lunch. It seems more than anything small-town ingenuity and old Saskatchewan camaraderie are the lifeblood of the clubs, something that may be changing
“If we file in October for the first dance and list every date that the dances are going to be, we get the permit for $100 bucks for all winter. Not $100 bucks a dance, $100 bucks in total. It’s a nonissue.
“They (younger people) are not going to show up and I don’t know, if they're all older and not able to go anymore, how long are we going to be able to go,” Schwebius wondered.
“I think eventually we’re going to end up having to fold because we can't keep going. That’s going to happen, I think. We’ll have no choice … there are no younger ones coming. No one is taking their place.”
For those who are dedicated to keeping the old-time dancing tradition alive, the fight still exists. Every year, another club in small communities across Saskatchewan finally decides to close their doors, and decades of laughter, music and fun end with it.
“If we could get at least 50 people all the time, we probably could break even … we don’t want to quit.”
Perhaps the bigger question of whether a beloved prairie tradition and form of social interaction will survive for generations isn’t whether it will end but instead what we will lose when it does. But will dance clubs eventually die?
That’s up to all of us.