According to musician, dancer, and Odd Fellow Will McDonald, “There’s a public-service aspect to providing people with a place to dance. It fits with the general theme of public service as part of the mission of a fraternal organization.” It also fits in with the origins of both the Odd Fellows organization and its odd name. The official story — according to the American offshoot, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows — is that when the altruistic fraternity was founded in 17th-century England, “It was odd to find people organized for the purpose of giving aid to those in need and of pursuing projects for the benefit of all mankind.”
Santa Fe Odd Fellows Lodge #2, the small building located on Cerrillos Road next to Fairview Cemetery, hosts a surprising array of dances. Almost every night of the week, the wood-paneled main room is open to people of all ages. Mondays belong to the long-running swing dance. Tuesdays and Sundays are devoted to international folk dancing. On alternate Wednesdays, the Megaband (an open contra dance band that brings together one to two dozen musicians for any given rehearsal) practices. Fridays are salsa nights with dance team Santa Rueda. Saturdays frequently feature a contra dance.
It’s easy to feel slightly intimidated by the pure variety of dance forms, but the easiest way to understand the individual intricacies of each is to attend an actual dance. Most feature an introductory class beforehand and are welcoming to beginners and experienced dancers alike. Some, most notably contra, even feature live music by groups including Albuquerque’s eclectic six-piece group Cheap Shots.
McDonald helped establish the first contra dance in 1990. “Somebody found the Odd Fellows, and it had a great floor. That was key.” He began renting the hall with a group of friends, including the late Richard Wilson, whose daughter Karina Wilson is one of the most active fiddle players in Northern New Mexico. “I’m always afraid her fiddle is going to light on fire,” McDonald said. Soon a number of other groups started renting the hall for dances, and the crowds kept growing. According to McDonald, the biggest dance took place in 1994 with an estimated 140 people. Then someone noticed a propane leak, the lodge was evacuated, and the dance occurred in the parking lot as firefighters investigated.
Back then, though there were more people passing through the doors of the lodge than anytime in recent memory, the actual number of Odd Fellows in Santa Fe was on the decline. Dancers like McDonald and Meg Meltz joined by request of the older members, at least in part to preserve what most of them consider to be the best dance floor in town. As Meltz remembered worrying, otherwise “the place would probably get turned into a Kmart or something.”
When she first joined, however, it was as a Daughter of Rebekah, not an Odd Fellow. The Rebekahs were the female parallel group of the order for many years. “The weird part was that women couldn’t be Odd Fellows, but men could be Rebekahs,” Meltz said. That later changed, and now both orders are open.
The new members infused the organization with new life and music. In particular, the Rebekahs capitalized on the swing-dance trend that was sweeping the country at the turn of the 21st century. Meltz credited Dorothea Migliori with the idea of donating proceeds from the lodge’s growingly popular swing dances to public-school music programs, thus fulfilling the Odd Fellow mission of aiding those in need. They were inspired by an impassioned plea from educator Roland Villa, who taught at Ortiz Middle School and had no money for the upkeep of his music program. “The first thing we did was buy a musical-instrument repair kit. He had instruments and couldn’t even fix them. So that really started it. We started putting money into the public schools, but directly to the teachers. If this teacher needed two trombones, we got them two trombones. If they needed sheet music, we got them sheet music.”
The initiative was so successful that it soon found backers off the dance floor. An experienced fundraiser named Lorraine Goldman joined the effort, and with her assistance the program grew to include five southside schools: César Chávez Elementary, Sweeney Elementary, and Ramirez Thomas Elementary schools, Ortiz Middle School, and Capital High School. Thanks to Goldman’s help, Meltz said, “We bought a drumline for Capital. We bought mariachi uniforms and started a mariachi band at Ortiz. At this point, we’ve given literally half a million dollars, so any child in those schools who wants to play an instrument can play an instrument.”
This charitable work seems like a creative and contemporary take on the Odd Fellows’ initial vision for assisting humanity, which was of a slightly more macabre nature. “When the Odd Fellows first came into being,” McDonald explained, “the issue of people needing assistance and having a proper burial was important. So the three main mission points for Odd Fellows from that time are to feed the widow, educate the orphan, and bury the dead.”
For this reason, the lodge is located next to Fairview Cemetery and still owns an adjacent plot of burial land. But even though a number of members are involved in the archaeological and practical aspects of the cemetery, the focus of Lodge Number #2 remains firmly aimed at improving and celebrating life — one lock, rock, or box step at a time. ◀
A monthly calendar of events at the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge #2 (1125 Cerrillos Road) is available at www.ioofsfnm.org.