I’m sure that I’m not the only one who welcomes good ideas for healthier ways to have big fun at the turning of the year, so I guess we all owe a debt of gratitude to Jay Ungar and Molly Mason for carrying on the long-running tradition of the New Year’s Eve Dinner & Dance Party at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge. Not only can you eat a fabulous alcohol-free feast and listen to top-shelf swing, bluegrass, Cajun, blues and roots music, but you also get to work off every calorie that you took in at high velocity while socializing with an energetic crowd. Contra dancing in particular has been defined by its aficionados as the Granddaddy of speed-dating: You’re pretty much forced to flirt with everyone in the room sequentially for about 15 seconds of direct eye contact at a time.
From 8 p.m. on into the wee hours of January 1, there will be live music playing concurrently in two separate rooms. This arrangement allows the swing dancers – who tend to be somewhat more technically proficient – to jitterbug freely without squashing the tender feet of neophytes, who are likely to find the contras, squares and waltzes less daunting to master in a single evening.
Besides Jay and Molly with their band Swingology, the lineup of performers includes Jay’s daughter Ruthy Ungar and her husband Mike Merenda, also known as half of the Mammals; the Red Stick Ramblers, a Cajun band hailing, naturally, from Baton Rouge; New England-style contra dance crew the Emulsifiers; and multi-instrumentalists Peter Davis, Harry Aceto and Dave Davies. And worth the price of admission all by himself is the smokin’ jazz cornetist Peter Ecklund, who among other big-name associations has been the cornerstone of David Bromberg’s horn section since the 1970s. The last couple of times that I’ve seen him perform, Ecklund, now age 65, has appeared rather frail as he walks slowly onstage; but the illusion evaporates the instant that his instrument touches his lips. Prepare to be blown away!
If all you want to do is dance, you can show up at 8 p.m. on the 31st with 25 bucks in hand, no reservation required. An additional $25, by prepaid reservation only, gets you dinner at 6 p.m. Here’s the menu: cranberry-stuffed chicken breast or vegetable-and-tofu cutlet entrées, green and yellow string beans, steamed carrots, jasmine rice, baby garden greens salad, cherry cheesecake and assorted beverages. Late-night snacks of guacamole and chips, cheese and veggie platters, assorted crackers, fresh fruit and bread will fuel the dancing fools. Non-alcoholic beverages are available all evening, so there’ll be no reason to squabble over who’s going to be the designated driver.
In fact, this is a totally kid-friendly event, with children under age 12 getting in for half-price. If you don’t want to hoist your sleepy toddler over your shoulder to face the ride home, then consider springing for the full weekend Fiddle & Dance Camp package. For dinner reservations, more information and online weekend reservations visit www.ashokan.org, call (845) 246-2121 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The Ashokan Center is located at 477 Beaverkill Road, off Route 28A in Olivebridge; visit www.ashokancenter.org/directions.shtml for driving directions from various ends of Ulster County.