May 2024 – Spotlight on Syd Newell, longtime musician, dancer, and nature-lover


by Kathy Story, PCDC Board President

I sat down with Syd recently to find out how she became involved in the contra dance scene.

When and where did you begin playing the violin? 

I grew up in Santa Rosa, California, where all public schools had music programs and orchestras. Even my grammar school had an orchestra. I started classical violin lessons at the age of 5. My mother was a piano teacher; she gave piano lessons to a violin teacher colleague’s daughter in exchange for my violin lessons. I always played in school and community orchestras and loved it. It was part of my identity. I also played piano and at one point learned the flute—because I wanted to be in the marching band, and you can’t play violin in a marching band!

How did you begin contra dancing? 

I became a contra dancer in North Carolina, where I lived before moving to Oregon. One of my girlfriends took me to a contra dance and I was immediately hooked. I went to every dance, every dance weekend, every dance camp for many years. When I knew I was moving to Oregon in 1989, I also knew there would be contra dancing where I was going. I looked for it, found it, and immediately joined it. At that time, the dances were at the Multnomah Arts Center, only a few blocks from my condo, and I’d host an after party once a month. My condo is quite small and we’d have 40 people crowded in and stepping over each other.

One evening I was doing a balance and swing and said to myself, ”I wonder how many balance and swings I’ve done in my life. I wonder how many more I need to do.” I had been dancing so intensely and so frequently that I eventually burned out and stepped back.

How did you begin playing for contra dances? 

Lori Shaffer and I met each other back in the ‘90s when we were both technical writers for a company near Hillsboro. As we got acquainted, we discovered that we were both classically trained in violin, though neither of us was currently playing. At one point, I suggested that Lori try contra dancing. I was currently on hiatus from contra dancing, so I didn’t take her to a contra dance; I sent her. Lori became a contra dancer, then got into contra dance fiddle playing and joined the Portland Megaband. She urged me to do the same. I was reluctant at first, but eventually, in 2005, I did ask Sue Songer to put me on the waiting list. I soon got into the Megaband and have played happily in it ever since. So I got Lori into contra dancing, and she got me into the Megaband.

Around 2006, Sue Gray, Rick Piel, and I formed a contra dance band: The Hat Band. Rick resigned after about a year, and Jon Neff joined us on guitar. Sue had to resign later for health reasons. For a time, Jon and I played as a duo, but now our third member is Meg Tapley on flute.

The Hat Band has some fun, unique tune sets. Tell me about that.

Sue created our popular Klezmer set that starts with “Gypsy Basso,” and our Gershwin set that starts with “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” Since that time, Jon and I have created several additional swing sets, a bluesy set, a ragtime set, and an Eastern European set. We are always on the lookout for interesting tunes to create nontraditional sets. But we also have plenty of traditional sets to balance out a dance program.

One of our goals has been to write multiple harmonies for all our tunes. Sometimes Jon uses a looper to record his guitar chords during a tune; then he immediately plays the chords back so he can join us in playing harmonies. When the band was just Jon and me, he used the looper a lot so that I could also play harmony against our recorded chords and melody. 

I also play in another band, Five-Euro Tip. The band was started by Rob Hoffman and me when we were playing at the “pizza jams”—jam sessions at the restaurant It’s a Beautiful Pizza. Five-Euro Tip is a family-oriented band: my granddaughter Molly cut her teeth on that band and Abbie Weisenbloom and her children played in it. The band currently includes my son Chip on bass, as well as musicians from the Megaband and elsewhere. We played for the PCDC family dances until they were discontinued during Covid. Now we play at retirement homes and farmer’s markets; our programs include folk dances taught by our in-band dance teacher, Janet Trygstad.

What do you enjoy doing when not playing or dancing?

I like to hang out and travel with Will Simpson, my partner of more than 30 years. Every year, we go on a fantastic international trip that he plans. He’s a great supporter of music and is the impresario for the annual Waltz in the Rose Garden, which I always play in. He has an amazing house in the Gorge and I visit him there. We had a big weekend birthday party there for my 80th; more than a hundred people came. Many of them camped and we fed them all breakfast.

I’m an outdoor person and love to hike, backpack, and camp. I retired from scuba diving and skiing a few years back—recovery from ski injuries was taking too much time away from playing music. I’m also an active member of my condominium community; I serve on various committees, including the Social Committee. I took a bartending course years ago and at one time was a licensed bartender. Now I give cocktail parties. 

How, at 90 years-old, do you have the energy to stand on stage for hours and play?

It’s just what you have to do if you want to be a musician. If you’re a musician, you just have to play. It’s so much fun to play for dances. It’s a real kick. We know the music well, so we can look out and watch the dancers. We absolutely can feel energy from the dancers, especially with certain sets we know they like.

That said, I’ve been blessed with good genes, which I support with regular daily exercises, and I walk a lot.

The Hat Band: Meg Tapley on flute, Jon Neff on guitar and mandolin, and Syd Newell on fiddle
Syd hiking the Canadian Rockies
Syd and Will in Patagonia