Portland Is Dancing Again
After 16 years in the service industry, Andrés López was ready to step behind the console. The New York City native first came to Portland with hopes of attending the Pacific Northwest College of Art; when that fell through, he took jobs at bars and clubs around town to pay the bills while he pursued creative projects of his own.
Just before the pandemic, López migrated toward music. When he DJed for the first time at a private party in rural Washington, he knew he’d hit on something special—he was definitely unpolished, but the experience made him feel like he was braiding waves of sound together like colors in a painting. Once COVID hit and López lost his job, he decided to pursue music full-time.
His first public-facing gig was in the summer of 2020 at inner Southeast’s Come Thru Market, and since then, as DJ ALoSo, he’s collaborated with “as many DJs as the city holds, quite frankly.” In March, he launched his own roving dance night, Fever Dream, and has seen plenty of others like it pop up in recent months. Add to that new spaces and an itchy mass of people eager to find light in dark times, and a portrait emerges: however shakily, Portlanders are dancing again. And they’ve got plenty of fresh places to do it.
Fever Dream, López says, is a “very club kid, party monster, Studio 54 deal where everybody gets to dress as quirky as they want and be as weird as they want.” There are emcees, turntables, garish lights, and go-go dancers. It’s an open-to-all situation, but the focus is on booking LGBTQ+ DJs of color—March’s kickoff party at Bit House Collective featured an all-BIPOC staff, and April’s bill highlighted exclusively nonbinary and women-identified DJs.
So far, López says the crowds have been sizable. Similar to the huge attendance surges DIY venues have reported this year, he’s seeing a lot of young people who likely turned 21 during the pandemic, plus nightlife regulars he’s used to running into at stalwart spots like Dig a Pony (which will change hands in June) and Church. To his delight, he’s also seeing new faces—an indicator that his weirdo-club-kid vision for the event is landing. “It makes me just wonder, where do all these people go? Do they even have somewhere to go where they feel welcomed? Because I’ve never seen them out before,” he says.
One place they can go: Pioneer Courthouse Square. As part of the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, a pop-up indoor/outdoor "Welcome Dome” opened in Portland’s living room in mid-April to host musicians and dance nights. Holding down many of those dance nights is DJ Ambush, executive director of the Numberz FM, who started his career 28 years ago in Philadelphia. His six-part series of Welcome Dome parties, which have spanned from reggae to house to R&B music, will end next Thursday with a backpack rap night.
“It’s been a pretty solid level of engagement,” Ambush says, though the extra-wet spring has been a slight deterrent. “People seem a lot more appreciative of the opportunity to get together and party—I feel like they take it less for granted.”
In his eyes, though, the state of Portland nightlife is still in flux. And he’d suggest its major players get used to it. “All sectors and industries are being forced to understand that COVID isn’t going anywhere. This is something that’s seasonal, it’s like the flu in the way that there are going to continue to be variations, so we’re just going to have to change the way we do things,” he says. He compares it to seeing a movie: in the before times, he'd go on opening night; now, if he goes opening weekend, he'll pick the less-crowded Sunday matinee. If venues and DJs can make similar small adjustments, he says, they’ll save themselves a lot of hurt.
For the most part, though, he’s optimistic about the current state of affairs. “People I’ve been working with have been cautious, but I feel like overall in the DJ community, people are like, ‘Hey, it’s summertime. We’ve got these rooftops, we’ve got these poolside situations, we’ve got these park gyms. Let’s get it.’” He’s looking forward to spinning new cuts from Pusha T’s It’s Almost Dry and Kendrick Lamar’s sprawling, just-released double LP, plus the inexhaustible thrill of hitting people’s nostalgia centers. “I always like to play songs that people forgot were dope,” he says. “I needle drop Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’ and a room goes crazy.”
In addition to Fever Dream and the Welcome Dome, nomadic dance shows new and old have been filling Portland’s social calendar: there’s Opal Underground, a new queer DJ collective that hosts regular events at Holocene; Soulhouse, a group of a dozen-plus musicians that play house music across town; pre-pandemic favorite Twirl at North Portland’s Kenton Club; and countless others. Much rarer, though, are new permanent venues. That’s not especially surprising: The financial risk is high right now. Prospective owners are worried about the nightlife bubble popping when the pandemic novelty wears off, and they're daunted by the idea of maintaining steady bookings and sufficient staff.
Not Blake Boris-Schacter. For the last thirteen years, the former corporate events organizer has dreamed of opening his own venue. In early 2020, his dream finally come true: after looking at more than 100 spaces, he signed a letter of intent for a spot in Chinatown. Then—you know. “Luckily for me, COVID hit just before I signed the lease, and I was able to not have any financial commitment to that,” he says.
But by May 2021, he reignited the search. He figured things were still quiet enough that he’d be able to land the type of spot that might have been beyond his reach prepandemic.
After one look at the basement of inner Southeast’s Melody Ballroom, he realized he was right. The former speakeasy, which has been standing since 1925, ticked a million boxes: it was windowless, which made it difficult to target for theft, and featured a massive dance floor of nearly 8,000 square feet. The building had a musical lineage that included several Nirvana shows, showed very little wear, and even the bathrooms were basically ready to go.
So last month, Boris-Schacter opened the Get Down, Portland’s newest permanent music venue, in the space. (He came up with the name nine years ago, before he knew about the Portland dance night of the same name, or the fact that you’d have to walk downstairs to access the venue.) It’s enormous, with an intriguing roller rink-meets-Miami Vice vibe, and the bookings have already swung wildly from singer-songwriter to hip-hop to hardcore electronic, with everything in between. “I’m not really a genre-based person, but I’m not one of those people who say, ‘I like all music.’ I like good music,” Boris-Schacter says of the programming.
It's been a dream come true—but this being 2022, also a bit of a bumpy ride. When he was shopping for spaces in 2018, banks were competing to give Boris-Schacter loans; by the time he closed the deal on the Get Down in February, only one bank was willing to work with him, and he had to put 50 percent down.
Once finances were settled and it came time to open, Boris-Schacter brought in friends from across the country. (“This isn’t like a secret dream I kept to myself. If anyone’s known me over the last thirteen years, they’ve heard me talk about my plans for doing this, so when it came to fruition, a lot of people flew in,” he says.) They had a lovely soft opening on April 2, and then five days later, a huge chunk of them—Boris-Schacter included—tested positive for COVID, which meant he had to attend his own grand opening from home, watching it unfold on security cameras and barking orders to employees over the phone.
Still, as he gets his feet under him, Boris-Schacter's enthusiasm is palpable. With very little advance hype, the venue has nearly sold out a number of shows, and its wide-open layout has made for an ideal party canvas. Boris-Schacter has been moved by the turnout, and by the genuine gratitude he's received from people who are relishing the chance to convene with strangers again.
“There was this moment where I had to sub out a security guard. I’m standing on the mezzanine, stage right, on the lip, just kind of looking out,” he says. “I see two people kind of spin-dancing together, I see an eight-person group hug, and I just see a sea of smiling faces, all in a 30-second period. To be able to bring that type of joy to people—it's just really something special.”