The Magical Century Ballroom
I’ll never forget the moment I walked into Century Ballroom for the first time.
It was a Wednesday evening almost seven years ago, just a few minutes before my class. I was lost and it was raining. Eventually I found the door with the correct address and OddFellows Building in bold letters…yet I was skeptical.
Behind the door was a tall staircase! Where was the Ballroom? Tentatively, I started climbing the stairs, only mildly worried I was going to walk into someone’s apartment…
And then, I heard it. The welcoming sound of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing “Shout, Sister, Shout” beckoned me from the landing and I knew I was in the right place. I followed the music to the top of the stairs, and then left through double doors.
The sight of the grand, ornate, old ballroom took my breath away and I stood in the doorway grinning like an idiot. “Here?” I thought. “I get to dance here?!”
And I still feel that way whenever I cross the threshold.
For the last seven years, Century Ballroom has been my weekly beacon of hope, a place of joy and community. Not only has the majority of my dance education happened at Century Ballroom, I have also met many wonderful people who have enriched my life in so many ways.
I’m not the only person who has received such amazing gifts from the Century Ballroom; there’s a huge community of dancers in Seattle who have similar stories – some of them have been dancing there since day one, twenty years ago.
We all owe this amazing place to Hallie Kuperman.
Hallie Kuperman, the Visionary Behind the Magic
Earlier this week, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of sitting down with Hallie; she graciously allowed me to bombard her with all kinds of questions about how she managed to bring her vision to life.
Dining, dancing, romancing. That’s our thing.
From the beginning, Hallie really wanted to achieve two things. First, she says, “I really wanted a place [to dance] that was in a beautiful space that really represented the 30s and 40s – I was a big swing dancer.” Second, she wanted a place where the gay and straight communities could dance together. But 20 years ago, there wasn’t a place that fit the bill. Hallie was teaching dance classes in the gay community in the space that would later become Century Ballroom. When it became available, she put together a business plan – and off she embarked on a twenty year (so far!) adventure.
The business began as Century Ballroom and Cafe, which included the large ballroom and a small portion of what we now know as The Tin Table, with classes, a few dances, and lots of live music.
Hallie describes the original cafe as something of a scrappy operation. The kitchen consisted of a half-sized convection oven and a four-top stove. “We would cook dinner for up to 70 people off nothing. It was kinda nuts!” I asked Hallie if she had any experience in food service when she opened the cafe. She laughed and said, “I still don’t! After 20 years I would make a terrible cook or waiter. I have learned from great chefs, from great bartenders, and great front of house staff. I learned the business by doing it.”
Initially, Hallie had a business partner, but it quickly became clear they had differing visions for the Century Ballroom. Within a year, she bought her partner out and she has been the sole proprietor ever since. While the Century is 100% Kuperman’s, she attributes much of it’s success to Alison, who has been involved since the beginning. She says, “Without Alison, I wouldn’t run the business.”
With Hallie at the helm, the Century Ballroom has weathered many changes and challenges.
When more space was needed for classes, she built out a separate space on Pike and Summit, the much loved and “weirdly charming” Halo. Then, after the OddFellows Building sold, Hallie took over the spaces we know The Tin Table and West Hall, and eventually East Hall (the other large space on the second floor). Unfortunately, due to dramatically increased rent under new ownership, Hallie let go of both Halo and East Hall in order to continue serving her community of dancers.
And I really do mean community.
Every year, Century Ballroom and it’s staff partners with Plymouth Housing Group for a “Dancing With the Stars” style fundraiser called Seattle Dances. It’s hard work that results in a very fun and lucrative fundraiser.
In 2013, the widely despised dance tax hit Century Ballroom with a bill of over $90k in back taxes, which could have been fatal for the business, but Hallie rallied the community who so passionately loves the ballroom and raised well over the amount owed.
Century Ballroom is currently made up of the Main Ballroom, West Hall, and The Tin Table – which now contributes 50% of the revenue, far more successful than the original cafe.
The Road Ahead
It’s no surprise that Ms. Kuperman is constantly thinking about what comes next. In her own words, “There’s not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about what I need to do next to keep it fresh and ahead of the curve.”
And what’s next is more community and more food!
They are already in the process of resurrecting a Supper Club style dining experience – an intimate eight course dinner. According to Hallie, fourteen guests is the perfect number for talking to everyone. She was enthusiastic when she described the most recent dinner, saying, “We sat for four hours and just talked.”
She’s also planning “Family Fridays”, which will be open to all ages. She envisions family style dining in the ballroom with long tables with tons of food, everyone eating and talking together. (Sign me up for the first one!)
Throughout the course of our conversation, Hallie came back to the importance of community: the dance community, the gay community, and the neighborhood. All these communities are far richer thanks to Hallie Kuperman and the work she does at Century Ballroom.
Hallie provided so many amazing quotes during our conversation, but I’m going to close this out by sharing my favorite.
I believe in what we do; I believe in its importance. And it has saved my life over and over again. Random people come up to me and tell me what [Century Ballroom] has done for them. It keeps me going.