Drika Overton already was an established dancer and choreographer throughout northern New England in the 2000s when she was forced to reconcile with a geographic fact: An ideal space for music, dance and other performances in southern Maine and seacoast New Hampshire just didn't exist.
So, she created one.
A dozen years later, The Dance Hall in Kittery is booked most Friday and Saturday nights with a variety of bands and musical acts, as well as dance classes during the week. More than that, the hall has helped to create a small but vibrant cultural scene in Maine's southernmost town, roughly halfway between Portland and Boston.
"I think, more than anything, Drika understood that the way to succeed was to create community," said Terie Norelli, vice president of The Dance Hall's board of directors. "And she'll always be a part of that community."
But all things must end, and so, too, has Overton's leadership of The Dance Hall. She announced last month that she was stepping back and turning over administrative and creative duties to the next generation.
"It's sad to me, of course. I'll have to get used to not being there every day," Overton, 70, said in a recent interview. "But it's in really good hands. It will live on. I have no doubt that it will live on because people have really embraced it in the community."
Eric Klaxton, who has been named interim artistic director, is no stranger to The Dance Hall. He's been a patron and performer for many years, most frequently with his New Orleans-themed band, the Soggy Po Boys.
He said he's excited to take on a creative role at the venue and plans to build on Overton's foundation.
"The Dance Hall from day one has been a listening audience," Klaxton said. "Audiences really show up to listen. It's not stuffy, everyone just kind of gets it."
He said a big part of Overton's legacy was supporting bands and projects that "may not have had a huge resume of gigs."
"That's been an important part of the Dance Hall mission ... and it will continue," Klaxton said.
Liz Fowler, a dance instructor who teaches classes at The Dance Hall and has been a regular at shows, agreed that Overton has created something special.
"I feel like it's a place where I have seen and heard some of my most favorite artists over the years," she said. "Some I knew ahead of time and some I was just introduced to ... but I always know I can take a chance."
A HALL TO CALL HOME
Overton grew up in the San Fernando Valley of California in the 1950s and '60s and didn't make it to the East Coast until she was in her 30s.
Her parents had moved to New Hampshire, and she eventually followed, first to Portsmouth and then Kittery, just across the border into Maine.
By then, she was a serious dancer but still had unfulfilled dreams. She had taken ballet classes as a child but didn't really fall in love with dance until she walked into a tap dance class in San Francisco after college.
"It was creating music and dance at the same time," she said of tap.
Overton performed and taught percussive dance in southern Maine and New Hampshire, and even into Boston and New York, but she never had a home, so to speak.
She remembered driving by the old Grange Hall in Kittery many times and thinking that its original maple floors and natural acoustics would make it perfect for a dance hall. It just needed some care.
When she saw a for-sale sign out front one day, she said, "it felt like it was meant to be."
But Overton couldn't afford to buy it. Banks weren't keen to give loans to a dancer, she said.
"But I had a dear friend, Cary Mabley, and she offered to buy the building if I would fix it up," Overton said. "None of this would happen without her."
That was late 2010. The Dance Hall opened the next spring.
"It was intended to be a rehearsal and performance space for me and my work and for other dancers, but it turned into something quite different and quite wonderful," Overton said.
She had experience producing and recruiting performers from her time working as house manager at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, and there was strong demand among the community to bring in culture. She knew the audience would be there, even when others were skeptical.
Each year, The Dance Hall has grown.
Fowler, a fellow dancer and instructor, said Overton reached out to her early on about coming to look at the space.
"I remember going and thinking, 'This will be fun for as long as it lasts,' " Fowler said.
Norelli said she and her husband visited the hall for many years before she was asked to join the board of directors.
"I think what I like most about The Dance Hall is that it's a very intimate space ... it feels like you're right there with the artists," she said. "And tickets are affordable, so you can try things you might not know anything about."
Klaxton, 33, grew up in southern New Hampshire and now lives in South Berwick.
His first introduction to Overton goes back to his teenage years.
"I always tell this story, but when I was 16, I went to hang out with my older brother and a group of musicians, you know to watch them play," he said. "It was at a dance party, and I remember it so well because it was the first time I got to sit in and play with them.
"What I learned after the fact was that the party was organized by Drika. That's how early her work has impacted my life."
Later, when Overton opened The Dance Hall, Klaxton was among the many performers she contacted.
"A lot of us were just trying out projects," he said. "And she was so gracious about using the space to support the creative community."
When he was approached about taking on a creative role after Overton departed, Klaxton said it wasn't on his radar at all. But the more he thought about, the more intrigued he became.
He had experience booking shows for his band and also helped establish a student-run record label club when he was in graduate school at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"What resonated was this idea that as artists we need to actively create opportunities other than waiting around for opportunities," he said. "We can do more for each other than for ourselves.
So when this opportunity presented itself, that seemed like a way to keep those ideas afloat."
Overton said she's hosted too many artists over the years to pick favorites, but there have been standouts. She met violinist Jason Anick when he was at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
"I remember thinking, I need to get him to come to The Dance Hall," she said. "So, he came and played a few times and the crowd just loved him."
Anick has since moved to Kittery.
Overton will still be involved in some aspects of the hall, including the Django by the Sea festival, which features regional and international Gypsy Jazz musicians each fall. And she has no plans to stop dancing.
"I've really wanted to get back to my work, even though I'm just a washed-up old tap dancer," she said.
Mabley, the friend who bought and donated the building, died last year. She was living in New York and hadn't been back in Maine for some time, Overton said.
"I was broken-hearted, because she didn't get to see it as it is now," she said. "I'm forever indebted to her."
Klaxton and others, meanwhile, said they are forever indebted to Overton for creating something that has become a true destination for artists and audiences alike.
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