Dancing into the sunset

How a festival landed in Fruitport
Photo courtesy of Levi Guzman via Unsplash.

After participating as a contestant in Dancing with the Local Stars — a fundraising dance competition held by the Women’s Division Chamber of Commerce in Muskegon, Susan Halter decided she wanted to keep dancing by literally opening the dance floor and sharing the joy of creative expression to the public through a free, weekly music and dance festival. If you can make it to Fruitport’s Pomona Park during a Thursday in the summer, you’re invited to dance. The floor opens at 7 p.m. and this summer dance party is open to all ages and skill levels.

The First Steps

Dancing to the Scottville Clown Band
Dancing to the Scottville Clown Band Photo: Courtesy of Dancing Into the Sunset.

With a zero-dollar budget and six weeks to plan everything out, Halter set out to plan a music festival. “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing, but I’ll see if I can get some bands or DJs to get something started,” Halter said.

Dancing into Sunset – Fruitport’s Summer Dance Party is not the first music event to be pitched to the Village of Fruitport — but it’s going on its eighth year. In its first year in 2017, the festival had about 60 people attend one of its peak nights.

Halter’s passion to share dance and music was (can I say it?) fruitful. Attendees can find different dance crowds adjacent to each other, a chalk and hula hoop area for children, vendors, and a diverse lineup of musicians. The dancing isn’t limited to partner dancing — though there are plenty of opportunities. “[Once during] the Cupid Shuffle — the ENTIRE concrete had probably 100 people out there,” Halter said.

Young boaters dressed up for the Fourth of July
Young boaters dressed up for the Fourth of July Photo: Courtesy of Dancing Into the Sunset.

The lineup is adjusted each year after listening to crowd suggestions (Halter may walk up to you asking for feedback if you attend), keeping an ear out for what’s trending, and having bands reach out directly. “I don’t pick who I want to hear; I pick who they want to dance to,” she said.

While Dancing into Sunset is a free gathering (donations are welcome), the event relies on music sponsorships and bottled water sales proceeds. Without any sponsors, “The first year, they [volunteer musicians such as The Silverado Band] helped me out. Otherwise, all the bands cost,” Halter said. After the festival’s first couple of years, “I started booking more and more live bands, but obviously needed sponsors to pay for the bands to keep going.” Halter started reaching out to businesses for sponsorships.

After losing her longtime dance and life partner, Halter has had friends step in to help set up the area and texturize the concrete every scheduled dance night.

While cancellations, COVID-19, and holiday weekends have been a problem, locals have welcomed the dance party regardless. In recent years, there’s even been a backup location for nasty weather: Fruitport High School’s large cafeteria. This past year, the high school allowed parking and a shuttle trolley was available, which eased traffic congestion.

Every year, DiS hosts a military night around the Fourth of July, where colorful cupcakes and carnations are handed out to veterans. “That’s become a special night.” Halter shares that there are even some visitors who are in mourning but will listen in on their boats during the flag and medley ceremony.

Historic Dance Destination
Today, Pomona Park’s large waterfront hosts fishing, a boat and kayak launch, playground, sledding, and multiple traveling paths. But just over 150 years ago, a resort called Pomona House stood in this Fruitport park, drawing in visitors. After its second burning down in 1876, it wouldn’t be until the turn of the century that the railway company Interurban would build the wooden Pomona Pavilion.

A large advocate for Pomona Park’s music history, Halter leads announcements every week sharing the historical significance of the event’s location and welcoming new visitors. The Pomona (or Fruitport) Pavilion was built in the early 1900s and later sold to musician Frank Lockage who would host musical performances for decades. Eventually, a 1963 fire severely damaged the building and the bar next door. “It’s crazy how these big-name entertainers played in this pavilion,” Halter said. Artists who have performed in the Pavilion include Doris Day, Lawrence Welk, and Buddy Holly.

Music Memories

An evening line dance
An evening line dance Photo: Courtesy of Dancing Into the Sunset.

Halter’s local historian-friend Roger Dykehouse began attending the festival a few years in. One night, The Sea Cruisers played “Runaway” by Del Shannon and Dykehouse called Halter the next day.

“Sue, you had my wife in tears last night,” Dykehouse had said. Del Shannon was Blanche Dykehouse’s brother. The previous night she had “felt” his presence, she said. (Editor’s note: Look for “From Runaway to Runnin’ Down a Dream” in the July/August issue of Grand Rapids Magazine for more about Del Shannon).

Once, during a football delay, students were invited in to dance. “They came in and there was a line dance song going,” Halter said, “The way we looked at it, it’s the senior class being taught by seniors!”

Participants are able to sign a memory journal that gets passed around the crowd. “I want to capture the memories of people whose relatives had been in the original pavilion and new ones in the making… I did this so I could dance. But it seems like I’m running around making sure everybody is having a good time,” Halter said.

Luckily, dancing friends and makeshift “dance ambassadors” will catch Halter to offer support. If you’re at the edge of the crowd and need a dance partner or encouragement, don’t be surprised if they convince you to join in and dance your cares away.

For more places to dance, check out our curated list of dance opportunities: Where To Get Your Groove On.

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