Portland Rhythm Shakers: Early jazz at a local speakeasy

by McKenna Cardwell

Formed in 2013, The Portland Rhythm Shakers, an all-girls dance group, will make the trip from Portland, Oregon to Bellingham at the end of the month. Specializing in 1920s and 1930s jazz, the ladies are scheduled to perform at a Halloween themed version of a speakeasy.

Brought together by the love of dance, The Portland Rhythm shakers are made up of 10 consistent members who carve time out of their busy lives to come together and express themselves through the art of dance.

“It’s a physical expression of creativity that just feels good,” said Rachael Ries, who co-directs the group with Shana Elson. “I first got involved with the group when I moved down to the Portland area in 2009, but I’ve always been actively involved in the dance community. The Rhythm Shakers provided an outlet to do more performing and continue to dance.”

For the members of The Shakers, dancing and performing are passions that hold the group together, even when members are stretched from the demands of life.

“Girls can step off the team, but they are always welcomed back,” Ries said. “None of us are professional dancers and we all have other responsibilities and commitments. So there aren’t set practice times when we prepare for a gig. It’s whoever is available that gets involved.”

Practices are held in garages and living rooms or wherever they can find the space. The Shakers spend practice times developing the choreography, learning the steps, and finally perfecting the movements as an entire group. Creating their own original routines provides the girls with an opportunity to learn a lot about dancing and body movement while teaching them the ability to transform an individual vision into a group performance.

Upholding authenticity of the 1920s and 1930s jazz movement is a crucial idea behind the group. Everything from the costumes to the choreography is designed to convey the feeling of the time period to the audience.

“Jazz music was revolutionary at the time, it really meant something to go to a speakeasy,” Ries said. “With prohibition and racial mixing, that era was really pretty radical. Today it’s a clean, safe way to spread the idea of community and is an outlet for creativity. We really like that idea of the juxtaposition between what it was and what it has become.”

The Portland Rhythm Shakers strive to make the best of the limited dance scene in Portland, performing at a monthly variety show, The Cat’s Meow, as well as various other gigs ranging from The Rose Festival to The Crystal Ballroom.

The flexibility of group involvement as well as seldom performing at paying gigs creates a difficulty when considering increasing shows. However that doesn’t stop The Shakers from discussing the possibility of attending bigger performances such as the Rocky Mountain Girl Jam in Denver or putting on their own original show. The girls also plan on offering a performance class in the upcoming year, an event they successfully pulled off in the past.

“Honestly though, we are all here for our love of dance,” Ries said. “I never have any trouble smiling in performances, which is something you are constantly reminded to do. When I get up on stage and start dancing I can’t help it, I just smile.”

For more information, see the Portland Rhythm Makers’ Facebook page. 

Saturday Night Spookeasy

WHEN: Oct. 29, 8 p.m. to midnight. Doors open at 7 p.m. All ages welcome.

WHERE: Secret location in Bellingham, revealed after ticket purchase.

HOW: Tickets are $22 each, available at http://bhamspookeasy.brownpapertickets.com/

WHO: Featuring: storytelling performances by Portland Rhythm Shakers, Aarun Carter and Jonathan Trawick (Portland’s swell western swing band Well Swung), guest Bellingham musicians Jenny Rose and Nat Lara as supporting sound to a burlesque routine by Madelynne Nore and Gabe Lukeris, plus a shadow puppet show by Savi Louise and Raggedy Fae of The Deacon’s Ruse, Doug Shafer of Portland’s Smut City Jellyroll Society and Bellingham’s Louis Ledford, with guest Bellingham musicians Robert Sarazin Blake and Thomas Deakin, The Gallus Brothers, with Bellingham Circus Guild extraordinaires Della and Wren, Deejays Marshall Gould of WWU’s Swing Kids and Alex Yan from Seattle. Erica Reed and Natalie Fedak of The Poem Store will be on hand producing tangible typewritten keepsakes on demand. Hosted by Pace Rubadeau and Sierra Ferrell.

Published in the October 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine