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A street dance returns to Tehachapi

Tehachapi has a long history of having outside dances in the Downtown area, and that tradition is going to be renewed with this year's "Green Street Get Down," held in conjunction with this year's Tehachapi Mountain Festival.

The dance will be on Saturday, Aug. 19 from 6 to 10 p.m. on Green Street, and admission is free. Three different bands will perform over the course of the evening: Soda Crackers, Muleskinner Revival and Three Bad Jacks. Food, beer and wine, and merchandise will be available for sale in Tehachapi's attractive Downtown setting.

The dance is in the tradition of an event held more than a century ago, in 1915, to celebrate the arrival of electricity and electric street lights in Tehachapi.

Prior to electrification, Tehachapi had 19 kerosene street lamps, each of which hung suspended from a rope that ran through pulleys and was fastened to a wooden pole and crossarm. One of the jobs of the Tehachapi constable was to lower each lamp at dusk, light it, then raise it back up where it would burn through the night, casting a halo of golden light on the dirt street below.

As dawn approached, the constable would make his rounds again, lowering the lamps and blowing them out as the sun was beginning to lighten the eastern sky.

When electricity arrived about World War I, the old wooden lamp poles were replaced with handsome cast iron poles, each one topped with four smaller frosted globes set in a square around one larger globe light in the center.

To commemorate the installation of the new street lights, a dance was held on July 31, 1915 featuring a band made up of local musicians. A photo from that night shows Tehachapi people of different ages, including seniors and a few children, dancing together on the wooden sidewalks that bordered a two-story brick building. Like most unreinforced masonry buildings, that one did not survive the devastating 1952 earthquake, which destroyed Tehachapi's downtown.

Though that Saturday night dance back in 1915 was the first to be held under electric lights, it certainly not the first town dance – public dances were a popular way for the hard-working people of the little mountain town of Tehachapi to celebrate and enjoy themselves.

Dances were held by the light of the old kerosene street lamps and the full moon, dating back to the 1880s. There was a vacant lot near the current location of Stray Leaves Tasting Room on the corner of Green and F Streets, and that was a longtime location for outside dances in Tehachapi.

Cowboys, farmers, railroad workers, cement company employees and other townspeople gathered to see and be seen, including young couples, middle-aged husbands and wives, gray-haired folk in their senior years, some older children, singles who loved dancing and wallflowers who were content to observe – anyone who enjoyed dancing and the sounds of live music in the open air. Dances would sometimes go on well after midnight.

Change came slowly to small towns, and dancing styles were typically more traditional. People in the cities may have been dancing to the latest dance craze, but in small rural towns like Tehachapi, the Two Step, Waltzes, Western Promenade and West Coast Swing were some of the styles of choice.

During the earlier years of the Tehachapi Mountain Festival, from the 1960s through the 1990s, a Saturday night dance always accompanied the festivities. It was typically held in an empty parking lot, often the one belonging to C & P Market on F Street, a grocery store whose building was more recently used as the local Moose Lodge.

The Mountain Festival dances could be rowdy and boisterous events, generally always with a live country and western band rather than a DJ, and were often the place to be on Mt. Fest Saturday night.

And now the Tehachapi Mountain Festival dance tradition is being revived with the Green Street Get Down on Aug. 19, with three live bands and free admission. It should be a lively place on a Saturday night in Tehachapi.

Maybe some of the ghosts from that dance 100 years ago will join in, gliding and twirling invisibly on the streets and sidewalks of their familiar Tehachapi hometown.