It doesn’t take long to strike up a conversation at Clayton Hall. Not when the Surrey Fiddlers are playing and the joint is jumping.
Oliver Juhasz is the first to flag me down. A bubbly semisenior who’d likely be the life of any party, Juhasz admits immediately he’s addicted to these monthly get-togethers. "I’m crazy about fiddle music. I love the music and I love to dance. I never miss it."
"Without me, they don’t even start," he laughs. One table over are Pat Fretwell and Frank Hompoth. They’ve known each other since last August, says Frank, and are currently "dating." "Yep, she feeds me supper once in awhile and that kinda stuff. She’s a great cook!"
They agree it’s the fiddles that bring them back, though Pat says she likes rock and roll and other types of music too.
Frank tells me the dance everyone’s doing is the "heel and toe polka," and I tell him it looks difficult. "Well, I’ve been dancing a long time. I even went to the Arthur Murray Dance School way back when."
Agnes Sihikalo calls me over. She’s from Glasgow. Been here since 1959. Was married to a "Ukranian" – hence the last name – though, she cautions, "He’s gone now."
Agnes says she’s come to the monthly Fiddlers dance for "four years and a bit. Ever since I met Edward." She points to her friend in the adjacent chair. "He’s a great dancer. But he has Alzheimer’s now, so he’s getting a wee bit slow."
Edward doesn’t say much and justifiably so, but when I spot the two on the floor a few minutes later, it’s clear he hasn’t lost a step.
The music stops – the first time it’s done so in 90 minutes – and I spot the apparent leader of the band heading over to the kitchen. He’s a comparatively youngish dude with trendy, messy hair. He wears a white shirt with black tie and black vest. It’s a coolly polished look.
"My dad and grandfather both played the fiddle, and I learned to play at eight years old," he says. "When we moved from Alberta to B.C., this (the BC Old Time Fiddlers Association, or BCOTFA) was one of the first organizations we found. I’ve been a part of this particular club, Branch #5, since ’85, really, and have been playing non-stop ever since."
His name is Mike Sanyshyn, and he’s a very big deal in the fiddling world, winning both the CCMA and BCCMA Fiddle Player of the Year titles, ripping it up regularly as a studio musician and playing with "name" acts such as Aaron Pritchett.
Tonight, though, as he does the first Thursday of every month when Branch #5 stages its "Old Time Dance," he leads the tight 11-piece band at Clayton Hall. It’s a regular gig for Sanyshyn, and he genuinely digs it.
"It (the BCOTFA) has really been such a warm community. They welcomed us with open arms.
"I’ve grown to have many friends throughout the years and there’s been many fiddle players who I’ve admired and they were my mentors and are to this day.
"This is what I love doing and believe in." Back out in the hall, I zero in on Ed and Nicky Manson. They gave me a cheery hello earlier and I figure they’re up for a quick chat. I figured right.
"We’re here for the exercise – good for the heart," Ed laughs. But Nicky quickly chimes in. "I met him at a dance 61 years ago."
Sixty-one? Shocked, I ask if they met when they were infants, but Nicky says they recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. I say I don’t believe her, but Nicky fires right back. "We were married 60 years ago this month. And we’ve been dancing ever since."
Turns out they live in Maple Ridge and make the trek to Surrey for every dance. Indeed, they attend two or three dances every single week throughout the Fraser Valley. Now that’s hardcore.
I soon settle myself in the centre of the floor. I sit down for some nice low perspective photos, and quickly realize I’m a dancer magnet. Couples and foursomes make their way toward me, only to spin and twirl directly over top of me. Seems I’ve added an element of challenge – and humour – to their usual routines.
My photography done, I bid my goodbyes to the folks I’ve met and head for the door. There, taking tickets, answering questions and essentially running the show is the president of Branch #5, Evan Sanyshyn. Father of bandleader Mike, Evan’s been involved with the BC Old Time Fiddlers since his move from Alberta in 1985.
I ask if he’d rather be on stage, but Evan seems comfy in his role as supreme leader. Branch #5 now counts 45 members, he tells me, 16 of which are band members. These monthly dances, though, are open to everyone who can pay the $3 admission charge and has a hankerin’ for old-time dancing.
I quiz Evan on the obvious dearth of alcohol at the event. "We don’t really want it," he replies. "People drink too much and then they don’t really enjoy themselves dancing. And there’s often issues with people who drink too much. These people here tonight, they enjoy dancing without the alcohol."
That they do. I take one last look and see the floor is packed. Ed Manson is doing some fancy thing with wife Nicky, and they make it look old-hat. That’s what 61 years experience gets you.
For more info on the local fiddling scene or the next Surrey Fiddlers affair at Clayton Hall, call 604-576-1066. The hall is located at 18513 70th Ave., Surrey. The dances happen there on the first Thursday of every month, except July and August, starting at 7 p.m. Goble@shaw.ca