Wanaka, the town that never stops dancing.
Nestled deep in the mountains of New Zealand, somewhere near Mt. Aspiring and south of Mt Cook, is a cozy little town named Wanaka. The smaller (and quieter) sibling of snowboarding central Queenstown, Wanaka is home to a lively population of Kiwis and a steady influx of working holiday visa holders, primarily French. It’s a small town, with a population of just over 7,000. The majority of tourists bypass Wanaka for the more popular Queenstown. They’ll never know what they're missing out on.
I first laid eyes on this house during a trip through the South Island in the winter of 2013.
On the corner of the town center sat a small white stone house wrapped in red vines. Directly adjacent was a gurgling stream that snaked around from behind the right side of a small hut, the former Wanaka jailhouse. The house itself was aging. The leaking roof and drafty halls whispered stories of old, when the house was home to the jail warden, and the tiny hut held all of Wanaka’s troublemakers.
But now, the troublemakers of old had been replaced with four young tenants: Wes, our old friend from Hawaii, and his three flatmates. We were planning on stopping through for a day or so. We deeply underestimated the magic of Wanaka.
We arrived on a winter night and were greeted by cheerful music and the smell of brown gravy.
“Hello hello!” two large, friendly eyes danced through a web of dark curly hair as a woman pushed her way around Wes to join in the welcome. Her name was Juliette, and she introduced herself with a hug as strong as her French accent.
On the side of the kitchen Chris, a young Kiwi waved from his perch in a window seat alcove. He was buried in work on his laptop, but his head was bobbing to the music that floated through the house. Wes and Juliette led us into the kitchen, where they were preparing dinner.
A note on the fridge announced the house’s current mission statement:
Things to think about
- We need to come up with a plan for wood for the fireplace.
- We miss Paz when he’s away
- When we are sober… it’s not normal.
- Our friends are awesome.
- Dancing and dishes in same times. Always.
While all of the statements were scrawled in various hands, there was no doubt who had wrote the latter. Juliette swayed between a cutting board and a pan, tossing vegetables into the pan in rhythm with “Happy” by CDC. As the song hit the crescendo, she leapt onto the bench and thrust her large wooden spoon into the air victoriously. “I need to be happy! Every, everyday! Yes! Yes!” My eye dropped from the swaying spoon to two large bruises on her legs.
“That’s normal,” chuckled Chris, as he followed my eyes, “dancing in a bar and she got a little too excited. Last night it was after a couple beers, but it happens even when she’s sober.”
By now Juliette had moved to the sink and was washing the cutting board and knife. Soap bubbles flew off her fingertips as she continued to sway in beat with the music. “Come, join!” she pulled Jamie into the middle of the kitchen and began spinning in the middle of the tiles.
A few copies of “The Wanaka Messenger”, the local newspaper, were strewn across the kitchen table.
“We mainly read it for the Crime Line section,” explained Wes, “that’s where the best stuff is.”
This seemed to be a grossly misappropriated use of the term “crime,” as the entries could hardly be counted as such. “Wanaka Gossip and Entertainment” seems like a more fitting title for the entries.
“A resident heard a knock on his door and opened it to find nobody there,” or stern reminders: “The orange cones around the construction of the new roundabout are not to be worn as hats when you’ve had one too many sherberts.”
The occasional drunken revelry provided some extra excitement. “Two miscreants took a tractor out of a barn on the previous week, and drove a few donuts in the driveway before leaving.” In a world full of tragically horrific headlines, the Wanaka Crime Line was a comforting reminder that there are still places of comparatively innocuous populations.
“I’m home!” The cheerful greeting announced the arrival of Paz, the fourth flatmate of the house. Paz was currently enjoying a month off work, playing disc golf and snowboarding on the slopes of Wanaka. He split his time between working one month in Australia, where the wages were higher, and time back home in Wanaka. He was followed in the door by Cam, his young Canadian sidekick.
“I mean, how hard is it to understand the rules of the game? You’re so f*ing stupid!” Cam exploded through the door behind him in a fury of impatience.
Paz smiled amicably until the corners of his mouth touched the fuzzy ear flaps on either side of his wooly lumberjack hat.
“We love Cam,” Wes explained as he turned to me, “because his remarks remind us just how not-normal we all are.”
Cam was a fresh high school graduate from Canada. He was staying on Paz’s couch for a few weeks before starting a job at the local ski resort, but had clearly already found his place in the house. It was explicitly understood that his outbursts of rage at the general lack of sense was actually his way of expressing of affection for this bizarre house and its residents. At least that was the general consensus.
Without warning, the music stopped. Chris hastily excused himself to the living room to address this issue. As resident DJ, Chris kept his small computer and a DJ setup in the living room. He took his job as house DJ quite seriously, and kept a steady playlist of music streaming at all times, morning and night.
“You don’t understand- it’s very important.” He admonished us as he bent earnestly over his setup, “the music keeps people happy, and when it goes off, people get antsy. I must fix this right away.”
Chris had lived in Wanaka his entire life, and spent most of his time working on his internet business. But his real love, his passion, was finding the perfect song mixture to convince even the most reluctant guest into a dancing frenzy.
Throughout the rest of the week, a slew of other people flowed through this house on a regular basis, constantly coming and going, but always present, much like the adjacent stream. The house’s warm vibes and music drew visitors at all hours of the day and night.
Over a fierce Tuesday night card game, the flatmates and their throng of friends decided to head off to the neighboring Mt. Aspiring National Park. We charged off into the mountains to spend a night in a cabin nestled within a breathtaking wall of misty mountains. Naturally, dancing ensued.
By Thursday afternoon, I was used to the drill. It started with a group of people sitting around chatting on the couches, and ended with everybody dancing; on the floor, behind the couches, on the couches, on the table. And it wasn’t sensual club dancing. Just fun, simple dancing. For a moment, everyone in the room became a child again, lost in a whirlwind of laughter, spinning arms, tapping feet, and literally jumping for joy.
On Friday, our last night, the town of Wanaka threw a celebration for the beginning of snowboarding season. Despite the fierce competition from Queenstown, the locals still held that their resorts had the best powder scene, and they were excited to show their spirit. Chris was DJing at the local pub, so we all threw on our coats and trouped through the snowy streets to follow our music leader. The bar was small, but the tables were packed with outdoor enthusiasts, working together to ease the load on the kegs. There was no doubt another edition of the Crime Line was in the making.
But Chris’s set had ended, so we headed home to continue the living room dancing into the night. I finally collapsed on the couch in utter exhaustion, but a remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sunny” came on. The upbeat mix coursed through my tired limbs and begged them to get up and dance for just one more song.
“It’s like eating potato chips,” laughed Wes with a knowing smile, “every time I try and go to sleep I’ll think to myself ‘I’ll go to bed after this last song, and then it quickly fades into another song that is just as good, I just have to stay for one more.”
Whenever I think of that house, I think of that song “Sunny.” For others, it was a different song. If there is a psychology to reading music and people, Chris must have an honorary Phd. He identified the songs that resonated with each person, and blended them together in a way that kept everyone on their feet. Paired with Juliette’s enthusiastic dance moves, it was perfectly irresistible.
Like all good things, our time in Wanaka had to come to an end. Jamie and I packed up our belongings and crawled into the camper van to continue our trip. I didn’t see them again, but the memories and happy feelings from that little town stayed with me. We drove past Queenstown on the way out, but I didn’t even care to look around. I already knew it couldn’t compare to the magic of Wanaka. I didn’t want to ruin it.
Three years later, I sat down to write this blog about the magical house of dancing. I got in touch with Juliette, who was now back home in France. She informed me the Wanaka house was being torn down.
“They will build a bar there…”
“Noooooo!” I cried.
“But a bar,” she replied, “think of it.”
It would still be a place of dancing.
But there was more. After she left Wanaka, Juliette had been in a bad car accident, and lost one of her legs. It was very hard, she admitted, but was still remained upbeat.
“I can dance, a little bit. I will always be dancing!” she added, as if she had read my mind, “I can’t live without dancing.”
“I think often of that time in Wanaka,” she added. “I probably wouldn’t be the same way in my head without it. It gave me a lot, and it stayed with me.”
She was right. Good times come to an end, places change, and people leave. We can't hold on to a moment in time, but the joy that is created in that moment and memory is yours to keep and hold throughout life.
And for those who have experienced the magic of Wanaka and still remember those moments of joy….
…they will still be dancing, too.