Swing in the New Year at Ashokan Center dance fest

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason (photo by Dion Ogust)

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason (photo by Dion Ogust)

Can you think of a better place for the New Year’s countdown than a fabulous lodge surrounded by 374 acres of forest in the Catskills? If not, registration is now open for the New Year’s Eve celebration and camp at the Ashokan Center: festivities that begin on Wednesday, December 31 and run through Saturday, January 3. Hosted by the American folk and roots duo Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, the annual event draws between 200 and 300 people each year, some of whom stay for the whole shebang and some who opt for the dinner and dance or the dance party only.

This will be the 33rd annual ringing-in-the-New-Year event at the Center. “It’s kind of hard to fathom that it’s been that long. It’s a great thing that we’ve been able to do it consistently for that many years. Sometimes people ask, ‘Do I have to bring a partner; is it just for couples?’ A lot of singles come. It’s perfectly great to ask someone to dance with you. While there are terrific dancers who come, there are others who don’t dance very often – maybe just once or twice a year – and they’re out on the dancefloor having a good time. Anything is acceptable. Anything goes.”

Three days of almost non-stop music and dancing will begin with a four-course New Year’s Eve dinner (reservations must be made before December 22). After the 6 o’clock meal, a singalong will set the musical tone, followed by dancing until the wee hours. Sumptuous snacks will be served from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. to keep dancers fortified. “At midnight, of course, we all stop and sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to welcome in the New Year,” says Mason. “It’s a wonderful thing to have an exciting New Year’s Eve, but then get up the next day and the party is still going on! As opposed to: Everything’s closed and it’s cold, and you’re out of milk… so it’s great to be there and have the food and people and laughter and dancing still going on. And 33: That’s a lot of New Years!”

On Thursday and Friday, camp attendees can enjoy dance and music workshops and jam sessions all day long. Dance instruction in Cajun, zydeco, Lindy, West Coast, slow blues, contra and square dancing will be led by Vikki Armstrong, John Krumm, Kristin Andreassen, Richard Newman, Amy Burns, Cindy Overstreet and Steve Ryan. The music staff includes Peter Davis, Peter Ecklund, John Krumm, Tom Krumm, Clelia Stefanini and, of course, Jay and Molly and all the Revelers.

Three meals and a late-night snack will be served each day, and – you got it – more dancing will ensue each evening. The Center offers a wood-burning sauna to ease those overworked dance muscles. And if conditions permit, cross-country skiing and ice-skating are also available on the premises (with your own equipment). On Saturday, a 10 a.m. brunch will be followed by a Farewell Dance from 12 noon to 2 p.m.

Ungar and Mason are thrilled with the musical lineup this year. The Russet Trio (appearing on New Year’s Eve only) hails from Columbia County, with Aldo Lavaggi, Peter Madsen and Seth Travins playing traditional Celtic and Appalachian music for contra dancing, mixed with a little swing and waltz. The Revelers – Daniel Coolik, Glen Fields, Chas Justus, Eric Frey, Chris Miller and Blake Miller – have traveled several years in a row from Lafayette, Louisiana to Ulster County to be at the Ashokan Center’s New Year’s event. Theirs is what Ungar calls “deep-rooted Louisiana dance music”: the kind that can only be made by those who live it.

Locals with wide-appealing Americana-to-Motown flavor, Mike & Ruthy are mainly known as singer/songwriters but will be playing square dance music with Chris Eldridge of the Grammy-nominated Punch Brothers band, as Andreassen does the calling. Jay & Molly and their band Swingology, a seven-piece group with horns and rhythm section, will highlight the Golden Age of swing jazz standards, along with waltzes and contra dance music, a New England tradition. Mason says that there will be lots of room on the dancefloor in two main rooms, one for couples dancing – Cajun, swing, zydeco, country blues and waltz – and one for the square and contra dancing.

The reason they started hosting New Year’s Eve parties was a practical one, says Ungar. “As musicians, we’ve always had a New Year’s Eve gig. Then at one or two in the morning, we’d wind up trying to drive home on icy roads with drunks around you… so we created something where we can just stay and keep the party going!”

The Ashokan Center’s overall mission is to teach, inspire and build community through shared experiences in nature, history and the arts. “During the school year we host school groups that come to stay for two to four nights to experience environmental and outdoor education, living history, some music and literature of a wide variety,” says Ungar. “Over the past few years, with the economic downturn, it’s been harder for some schools to make this trip. But we’ve added seven new schools. It’s such a hopeful thing. Sometimes kids are exposed to nature for the first time: kids from the city who see the stars for the first time. It helps build the responsible citizens of the future to have these life-changing experiences. We’re excited about the resurgence in that area.” Ungar and Mason are also happy to expose the Center’s new executive director, Gina Gould, to her first New Year’s Eve at Ashokan.

Limited on-site lodging for the New Year’s Eve weekend may be available. For dinner menu and reservations, a full schedule of events and fees and other camp registration information, visit the website below.


New Year’s at Ashokan, Wednesday-Saturday, December 31-January 3, Ashokan Center, 477 Beaverkill Road, Olivebridge; (845) 246-2121, www.ashokan.org/camps/new-years-camp.

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