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‘This place is a landmark’: Swing dancers mark the end of an era as Lee’s Liquor Lounge closes

Swing dancers dance to the Honky-Tonk Jump at Lee's Liquor Lounge. Below: Shannon and Bill Butler. (all photos by Simone Cazares/MPR)
Swing dancers dance to the Honky-Tonk Jump at Lee's Liquor Lounge. Below: Shannon and Bill Butler. (all photos by Simone Cazares/MPR)

by Simone Cazares

May 08, 2019

Every Wednesday night at Lee's Liquor Lounge, Shannon and Bill Butler gather a new group of people out to the dance floor for a swing dance lesson. They start out by teaching the core pulse of the dance and then move on to some basic footwork. The Butlers might throw in a few new moves here and there, but they like to keep things simple. After the lesson a band takes the stage and more dancers, of all skill levels, come out to Lee's to dance together and have a good time.

Shannon and Bill Butler have been running Swing Dance Wednesday Night at Lee's Liquor Lounge for over 14 years. They've taught over 700 lessons and introduced thousands of people to the dance. The Butlers and their swing night are loved by the community of dancers and musicians here in the Twin Cities, but one last dance on May 8 will mark the end of an era at Lee's. Even though business is going well, the bar will shut down May 14 — due, management says, to the loss of its parking lot and the construction of the new Southwest Light Rail. The closure is devastating news to the Butlers and the community they serve.

"This has been a place where I've been hanging out since the late '90s, and I'm really sad to see it go. That lot will forever be the parking lot that killed the venue as far as I'm concerned," Shannon Butler said. "[Lee's] is seen as an institution, not just locally, but if you've ever talked to anybody who's played here before or who's visited here, this is a place where they want to play, and losing it over a parking lot sickens me. But the truth is that there's really no parking around, and if you are a venue without parking in the Twin Cities, it's really tough."

Shannon Butler has made many memories at Lee's over the years. It was at the bar that sparks first flew between Butler and her husband Bill after he finished serving in the military, and she's worked hard to build a welcoming community for dancers of all abilities there. Butler wants to make sure everyone has a good time when they come to Lee's.

"It's a welcoming place and that's what I love about it," she said. "You'll see people of all ages and dance levels dancing together. It's not about who's the best dancer or who will push them to the next level. It's about hanging out, seeing live music, appreciating it and having fun. It's a very low-key, come-one-and-come-all community here that I wish I saw in more communities. I know when people first start dancing they feel kind of intimidated. We have a lot of people who have been to the lessons and don't need them anymore, but just go so they can meet new people and get them out on the dance floor. It would be amazing if all places were as welcoming."

Shannon and Bill Butler

Lynda Maas grew up in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis near Lee's. When she was younger, she would hang out at the bar frequently and even remembers her mom telling her stories about when she would go there herself. It had been a little while since Maas last came to Lee's, but she wanted to come back to support the Butlers one last time before it closed.

"It's just a really friendly environment," Maas said. "Everyone dances with everyone and that's really important. Shannon and Bill are just fabulous. They take people, put them in a different environment, and keep people coming back time after time. Everyone's going to miss it and I hope it will reopen one day."

Amy Huston of St. Paul has also been a longtime patron of Lee's. Coming to Lee's for so many years, she's seen the impact it has had on the community and is upset to see it close. While swing dancing will continue at venues like Rhythm Junction, TC Swing, and Uptown Swing, Lee's had a distinctive feel and many loyal patrons.

"Lee's was one of the only places that had rockabilly every night of the week," Huston said. "It's a very welcoming and reliable place and you don't think anything is ever going to happen to it. The fact that it is closing down makes me sick. This place is a landmark. We know people from out of state that fly in to play here. That's how much it means to them, and I'm gong to miss it."

Shannon Butler

For Shannon Butler, Lee's is more than just any bar. She's found support within the venue, even during her hardest times. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, the bar's owners hosted a benefit concert to raise funds for her treatment. At the time she didn't know what the future would look like, but the bar's staff along with the music and dance community came together to support her that night.

"I found myself without a job, no severance, couldn't collect unemployment, and we were kind of in a panic," said Butler, tearfully. "The bar owners, Craig and Robyn, let us do a benefit here. They opened up the bar on a night it was closed, they staffed the bar, they had somebody at the door for us, they had a sound person and let us set up cameras and do a livestream. It was really neat and the support we got from the owners of the bar was overwhelming. They hadn't owned it that long when I was diagnosed. To this day, I am still taken aback by their generosity. People who didn't really know me, except for checking out the night, and to be so generous was pretty overwhelming and I am forever grateful."

Whitney Zahn of Minneapolis was there that night. It was the first time she had ever been to Lee's and she remembers how everyone came together that night.

"Everybody, just hearing the story about her diagnosis, came together to make sure she was taken care of and I think that had a very lasting impact on the Minneapolis swing dance community," Zahn said. "We pull through to take care of our own."

For the final Swing Dance Wednesday Night at Lee's Liquor Lounge, Shannon and Bill Butler will start the night off their usual way by teaching a beginner dance lesson. The last dance will be a grand finale, featuring three bands who have been with the Butlers from the start, the Bad Companions with special guests Steve Clarke and Greg Huff, the Busted Down and Dave Wolfe with the Vibro Champs. But even though Shannon Butler is excited about the music, what would be most rewarding to her is to see her beloved community all come out one last time.

"I hope to see many of my old and new friends as possible," said Butler. "I would love it if some of the dancers who were fixtures here came back to hit the dance floor. It's going to be a great show, but what would make it better is friends old and new."

Simone Cazares is a student at St. Catherine University. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.