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Strangeways unites art scenes through unpredictable dance parties

“We’ve now crossed the threshold where it is more strangers than friends.”

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Strangeways is a dance night that’s hard to pin down. Every fourth Friday of the month, it showcases music from the 1960s through today with a focus on indie, psych, post-punk and Brit pop, but there are always surprises in store. Each event page is sprinkled with a few paragraphs of carefully crafted prose that artfully entices curious dancers to join the fun.

These words are written by Jesse Ley, one of the DJs who make up the Strangeways team. He and Jeff Van Fossen began Strangeways after attending a bunch of dance nights themselves. Ley decided it would be fun to start one where they could showcase the music they loved.

They approached the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, who gave them the go-ahead to host a dance party. The BBT didn’t expect much, but the event turned out to be a success, and Strangeways found a friendly home for the next two years.

As the number of regulars grew, the DJ duo sensed the event needed a room with a larger capacity. The dance night moved to Spirit, in Lawrenceville, and that move also gave them the ability to play with visual elements. They recruited visual artist Marie Mashyna to create a reel for the event. The first was a stop-motion promo clip. Since then, her work for Strangeways has expanded from original videography in the form of dreamy vignettes, to editing and compiling found footage for each event’s reel.

In April, Strangeways turns 3 years old. As the event has grown, Ley and Van Fossen have been asked to create spin-off events. They’ve started Friday Night Fights, which pits two iconic artists against each other, bouncing between the music of each. Most nights feature an undercard “fight” and a main event, like Smiths versus The Cure, or Oasis versus Blur.

At a spin-off night at Belvedere’s — showcasing all femme-fronted music and entitled Babeways — there was a wonderful assembling of Pittsburgh’s wide range of creatives, poets, visual artists and musicians across the DIY spectrum, along with their supporters. The group filled the floor in an amorphous blob, weaving in and out of each other’s spaces, dancing with friends and strangers. The unity was tangible. And there was merch: CDs, vinyl and tapes filled the DJ table.

These inclusive moments are what Ley dreamt of when he and Van Fossen started Strangeways. “We want to cultivate an environment that draws a lot of different crowds and creatives,” Ley says. “We want it to feel much bigger than just hanging out a bar.”

“When we started Strangeways,” he says, “it was a fun way to gather all our friends. We’ve now crossed the threshold where it’s more strangers than friends, and that’s a really strange and exciting feeling.”

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