Donaldson: the force behind the dances Juneau color


Photo caption:On the dance floor: Sally Donaldson dances during the April 12 contra dance at the old Capitol School gym. Donaldson organizes many of Juneau's dances during the Alaska Folk Festival and the rest of the year. MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

The Alaska Folk Festival is Sally Donaldson's field of dreams. But Donaldson puts a twist on the saying, "Build it and they will come."

"I know how to put up a list," Donaldson said, referring to her "to do" list that has the participants assembling an all-day potluck, called Coffee and Jam, that has become one of the festival's more popular events.

The celebration is sponsored for visiting musicians by the Thursday Night Contras, a Juneau dance group, and includes lots of spontaneous jamming and dancing.

While Donaldson is dancing, people flow in and out of the kitchen and check her list that instructs on everything from the right time to plug in the coffee to when the ham goes in the oven.

"The tables go up when people are hungry," said Donaldson.

"We're always wondering, 'How are we going to feed all these people?'" said Odette Foster, who helps Donaldson organize the potluck. "But people jump in and help and somehow it all happens."

The cooperation is an extension of the common language people create when they share music, Foster said. Coffee and Jam, held today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., has outgrown McPhetres Hall and this year moved to St. Ann's Parish Hall.

The Folk Festival is easily Donaldson's favorite week of the year.

"It's part of my spiritual life. It is so energetic for me. The jamming and staying up all night. Being surrounded by musicians and dancers. What's so fun is to work with all of these people," she said.

"The amazing thing about Sally is she makes the organizational side of events seem effortless," said Tom Paul, a member of the Contra dancers, one of many Juneau groups that is the recipient of Donaldson's organizational ability.

"Normally it takes a committee to put on these kinds of events," said Paul, "but Sally often does it by herself. It's remarkable."

Donaldson has one of those "wait there's more" lists of activities that makes an energetic person seem slothful. According to her friends, Donaldson is also the organizational energy behind weekly contra dances, monthly barn dances, and special events such as "Dance the Darkness Away," held in late February, and "Camp Damp" a summer music camp for children.

Then there's the "Women of Distinction" dinner that raised about $15,000 last March for AWARE, a group that aids women and children in crisis. Donaldson also serves on the board of directors for AWARE and the Alaska School Counseling Association. She does all of this around a full-time job as a counselor at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. Last summer she also took a group of students to France.

"She has a tremendous appetite for fun and music," said Foster. "I think music and dancing is her way of balancing the hard things see sees at work. She works with a lot of families and kids in distress."

Contra dancing helps relieve some of the stress.

"You don't have to think, the caller tells you what to do. It's great exercise and you change partners all the time. That way you can say 'hi' to everyone in the hall," Donaldson said.

Contra dancing goes back to colonial times. The word itself might come from the mispronunciation of the word country, said John Laskey, a Juneau dentist and a member of the dance group. When Laskey first heard about contra dancing in Juneau during the 1980s he thought it had something to do with President Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist policy in Central America.

"No one bombed us at my first dance," he said, laughing. Laskey said Donaldson is one of a half-dozen people in Juneau who have kept contra dancing going in Juneau for the past decade.

Donaldson said that although her job as a counselor can be stressful she doesn't bring other people's problems home.

"It's mostly about teaching kids to be their own managers no matter what comes their way. You help them see how to handle it," she said.

Donaldson also helps teach sex education, which she described as being more rewarding than the average subject matter.

"They pay very close attention," she said in her soft southern accent.

Donaldson moved to Juneau from North Carolina in 1992, after her husband, Dave Donaldson, accepted a news-reporting job with public radio. Their small house on Starr Hill gave her a chance to use her carpenter and handyman skills.

"I loved knocking out the plaster walls," she said, laughing. The walls came down to give the 1,200-square-foot house the feeling of more room. "It was a stretch with two children," she said. Both children, Jeff and Molly, are in college.

The next big event on Donaldson's list is a birthday celebration in June. Five years ago, when Donaldson and a group of friends all turned 50 during the same year, they celebrated with a dance. This summer, the same group will turn 55.

"The speed limit," said Donaldson. And that's no reason to slow down, so another dance is being planned. "Any excuse," she said.

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This page last updated on December 2, 2006.