Hallie Kuperman has kept the wheel to the grindstone for over 18 years, offering a safe space for social dancing – both swing and salsa – at her location, Century Ballroom all while facing huge rent increases, the 2008 recession, and an unexpected, balloon state tax burden. Hallie said that experience is not unlike her experience as a lesbian, where living is persevering.
The building – Oddfellows Hall – sold seven years ago at such a high price that the new owners threw out all the tenants formerly inhabiting the building. Hallie was the only business owner who was able to manage the rent increase and keep her space, though every little success is incremental and profits are meager. “Nobody’s ever going to build a beautiful building like Oddfellows ever again, because they can’t make enough money off of it,” said Hallie. “We barely make our nut. We’ve been scraping by.”
While Hallie, herself, has some empathy for the owners’ costs, much of Capitol Hill agrees that they didn’t need to be as nasty about their rent hikes as they have been. In fact, Hallie has noted that there is quite a bit of turnover in rentals in the building, and thinks that is an indication that the ownership is going for maximum money and that they are shortchanging themselves with vacancies instead of building a long-term stable rent environment.
In early 2013, the Washington Department of Revenue all of a sudden smacked a number of Seattle event spaces with a “dance tax” that auditors said should be paid. Century Ballroom was initially billed $250,000, which got reduced to $92,000, but Hallie still had no idea how she was supposed to come up with that money!
Supporters of the Century Ballroom were able to fundraise almost $100,000 to pay off the tax, but it didn’t stop there. After tireless lobbying, numerous demonstrations, and countless petitions by opponents of the tax to prevent the inscrutably worded tax* from destroying Kuperman’s business and others like it, she can finally breathe a sigh of relief: the so-called ‘dance tax’ is dead. Or, more accurately, at least put on hold until 2017.
Hallie didn’t start out to run a dance venue. She says, “My first career was as a stage manager and lighting designer. I grew up in New York City in Manhattan. My father was a film editor and producer. I went to a great arts school, St. Louis, Webster University, where they had a stage management program for undergrads. They’re connected to St. Louis Rep and St. Louis Opera. I went on to work in props and stage crew.”
“I moved to Seattle, and got a job with the Bathhouse Theater. I (also) started working as a booking agent for choreographers. I worked on getting more support for dance, in general and started a program called The Foundation for Choreographers, a non-profit, and chose five choreographers to support, give them free rehearsal space, rep them at conferences, give them health benefits. That lasted about a year. Since I was stage managing for dance tours, I learned lighting design to keep costs down for productions.”
Hallie is the type of person who gets into things in a big way. So, she learned swing dancing when she arrived in Seattle, and from there she started learning how to teach from other swing dance teachers. She began Swing Girls to, in her words, “teach lesbian, gay, bi- and non-homophobic people how to swing dance.”
“Twenty plus years ago, I wanted to teach gay people more than two-stepping. I loved Lindy Hop. Swing Girls rented space in Oddfellows for class. 90 women showed up for the very first class! And I thought, ‘Whoa, I think we hit on something that was missing in our neighborhood!’ The neighborhood as in the gay community. For a handful of years, we ran Swing Girls. We did dances, workshops, classes, pretty much what all dance companies do. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, either stage managing or teach dance. And I really wanted to teach dance for a living. I loved teaching dance.”
“The Century Ballroom idea came out of wanting to create an environment that included wining and dining and was beautiful. Where you could have food and drink at the same time, and be welcoming of everybody. When I thought about the Ballroom, I was coming from a predominantly gay community, but I didn’t want to open a gay club. I wanted to open a club that was accepting of all people. The great thing about social dance is that it breaks down barriers and I thought I could be a good role model for the world out there, where you could come somewhere where the owner happens to be gay, but everyone is welcome.”
Hallie’s vision always included food. She started out with an adjunct coffee shop that just served breakfast and lunch. She called it the Century Ballroom Café. “Swing dancing became very popular and we grew to more classes, more rentals. The café didn’t really grow that much until we found someone who wanted to have a small restaurant, more of a known chef. That’s when we added evening service.”
Now, she runs one of the busiest social dance venues in the city (and the restaurant, The Tin Table). But every year, summer comes around. “It’s very quiet during summer. We don’t have anything to fall back on.” It’s a hard time to make those ends keep meeting. Also, the Ballroom and the restaurant aren’t air conditioned and sometimes, that’s a real draw back. She continued, “Every advancement takes careful budgeting and planning. Every year, we have something we tackle. This year is helping people find the restaurant and cooling it off.”
*Per a September, 2013 Capitol Hill Times article, “The tax itself was the result of an addendum made in the early 1990s … aimed at the growing industry of aerobics and jazzercise, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the Department of Revenue began to interpret it to include nightclubs and dance studios.