Queer line dancing lessons to expand vibrant Salem dance scene

There’s a line scuffed into the hardwood floor of Kelly Williams Brown’s home studio, once a guest bedroom, tilled through several hours a week of dance practice. 

Whether she’s mentally mapping out choreography during her commute from Salem to Linfield University, or teaching a class at a local dance hall, Brown is almost always thinking about line dancing.

Now, she’s hoping to make the joy of line dancing more accessible, with a new series of lessons catered to the LGBTQ+ community and other folks who might need a comfortable place to find their footwork.

“It’s my hope that by bringing line dance to a space where maybe people who might not feel as comfortable in those dance halls come, that they too will get the line dance brain worm. And then they’ll realize that Honky Tonk and Silver Spur are really welcoming and friendly places too, even if they might look a little bit intimidating,” she said.

Starting Wednesday, she’ll be hosting queer line dance at the Southside Speakeasy, Salem’s LGBTQ+ bar at 3529 Fairview Industrial Dr. S.E., once a week, alternating Wednesdays and Fridays. 

The scheduled dates are May 15 at 6 p.m., May 24 at 7 p.m., May 29 at 6 p.m. and June 7 at 7 p.m. It’s $5 per person, and she hopes to move to lessons every Monday after June.

Brown grew up in Texas and Louisiana, which she said had more “ambient dance” than in Oregon. Growing up, she took ballet, jazz and tap dancing, and learned some line dancing in gym class. She moved to Oregon in the seventh grade, and spent her teen years sneaking out to go to a Portland’s all-ages gay dance club.

Brown works in public relations at Linfield, was previously a reporter at the Statesman Journal and has written books including “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 535 Easy(ish) Steps,” which is credited with coining the word adulting.

In 2022, one of her Salem neighbors invited her to go line dancing at the Honky Tonk Bar & Grill. She started going regularly, and was hooked by a visit to Silver Spur.

“I realized that I wanted to find dances, I wanted to learn dances. Part of that was going to the Silver Spur for the first time,” she said, and described it as the granddaddy of the region’s dance halls. “It’s very dazzling. It’s incredible to watch, and there was a really high level of dance… it was some of, honestly, the best dancing I’ve ever seen in Oregon.”

From that spark, she started going out to line dance at least three times a week and spent her free time studying the venue’s choreography she recorded on her phone.

“And then things got really sick when I converted my upstairs bedroom into my line dance studio with the help of my boyfriend. So then I was practicing at home too, and learning new dances, and now I probably dance 8-10 hours a week,” Brown said. She also teaches classes at Salem’s dance halls. “It’s really hard to overstate how much joy it has brought me on any number of levels.”

Since then, Brown said she’s learned a lot from the icons of Salem’s line dancing scene at the Honky Tonk and Silver Spur, which both have weekly lessons.

Brown said she loves the local dance halls, but wanted to create a queer line dancing space in Salem because some people feel uncomfortable with the other venues’ plethora of American flags, singing of the national anthem or prefer pop music to country.

In 2022, Honky Tonk made headlines as a “pit stop” for speakers on an anti-immigrant tour, leading to a confrontation with protesters. It has been under new ownership as of November 2023, according to state business records, and Brown said the new owners have been working to make the space more inclusive.

“I also am someone who really grew up in gay bars and in queer spaces,” she said, from Portland’s gay clubs to working on Bourbon Street in New Orleans during college.

Brown’s little sister, who she described as “dreadfully cool” and always ahead of trend, let her know about Stud Country, a nationwide queer line dancing phenomenon that mixes traditional line dancing, disco and new pop.

Last month, Brown was able to attend a Stud Country event at a Los Angeles club.

“It was so, so fun to be in that (line dance) environment, in a queer environment, because I had never gotten to have that,” she said.

Back in Salem, she and her dance partner showed the owners of Southside Speakeasy some moves, including an Ariana Grande number she learned at Stud Country, and the owners agreed to host lessons.

Dancers in Brown’s classes will learn a line dance to a country song, then apply those steps to a pop song. Combinations include “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles and “Shut up and Drive” by Rihanna, and Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria” with Beyoncé’s “BODYGUARD.”

Brown said there’s many different dances, but only around 20 common steps to learn with different counts and combinations.

Anyone’s welcome, and Brown said to wear whatever’s comfortable. A typical line-dancing scene will have a lot of cutoff jeans and leather-soled cowboy boots. She recommended buying adhesive suede for the bottom of rubber-soled shoes to help slide across the floor.

It’s one of the rare forms of exercise that allows for breaks to have mozzarella sticks and beer, she said. More importantly, she said it’s folk dancing that connects people at a time where a lot of people are feeling lonely.

“It’s easy to think a lot about our differences. Our differences of opinion, our difference in politics. It’s nice to have something where it’s like: ‘You know what? We’re just all here and we’re just all dancing, and it’s too loud to hear anyone’s opinion on anything.’” she said.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that Honky Tonk Bar & Grill is under new ownership.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.