It was Halloween night 2019, and a group of friends and I went to downtown Nanaimo to get our spook on.
By 10 pm, the line up to Level2 nightclub stretched down the block. This was fine with us, though—right next door, we knew that the less-packed Old City Station had space to dance inside.
Purple and blue strobe lights splashed the dance floor in a flurry of motions, fleetingly spotlighting the random faces of strangers. Sweaty bodies bumped into each other and no one could hear anything anyone was saying.
One friend spotted her crush across the room and moved towards him while another found a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. They smiled and screamed at each other, trying to be heard over “Party in the USA” blaring through the speakers.
The remainder of my friends and I formed a circle, moving our limbs in ways that we felt resembled dance moves. We smiled and laughed at each other.
I’m not much of a partier, but at that moment I found myself thinking, We should do this more.
Little did I know this would be the last time that I would go out dancing with my friends for the next two years. Mingling and dancing with large groups of smiling faces and moving bodies became non-existent and illegal in Canada.
Since then, COVID-19 restrictions have fluctuated in severity. However, dancing in places like bars and nightclubs remained prohibited, providing a real struggle for establishments, musicians, and patrons alike.
Flash forward to February 16, 2022 and many people I knew were caught off-guard by the restriction lifts in BC, which now allowed many establishments to open at full capacity again, have no table size limits, and permit dancing once more. Masks are still required when indoors and away from your table.
In Nanaimo, there are currently no clubs that have opened back up for business due to lack of staff and funds, or renovations. However, there are a few bars offering live music and dancing, including The Queen’s, a bar in downtown Nanaimo, and the VIU Students’ Union Pub (VIUSU Pub).
Jerry Hong is the owner of The Queen’s. The sudden opening of restrictions left him and others in the restaurant and nightlife industries scrambling to find more staff while adjusting their businesses to suit current restrictions. Despite this, Hong retains that this new update has been very positive for The Queen’s.
“Surviving these last couple years has been really hard,” he explains. “A lot of pubs and live music venues have closed down. We are fortunate to be here, and there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel … We’re excited to see what comes.”
Hong says it’s been a challenge finding good musicians with experience to book live shows, as many had to take a break over the past couple years when booking gigs became more difficult.
In spite of this, Hong continues to scout for musicians and to provide a live venue for them to develop and showcase their talent. He is searching for any and all genres of music so that everybody will be able to come and dance to something they like.
“People of all ages seem pretty ecstatic about the idea of live music and dancing again,” he says. “Especially the events we have, like our Sunday Blues Jams, which primarily have a 50+ age demographic … and events for VIU students in the 2021/2022 class. One of the great experiences of university life is going out and meeting new people and dancing, and they haven’t really had a chance to do it to the fullest. Now they can!”
Pulp Fricktion is one band that has recently performed live at The Queen’s, playing primarily 90s rock and dance tunes. Band member Dave Patterson explains how exhilarating it was to be playing live music again with a dancing crowd.
“That’s the main reason many of us play music,” Patterson states. “To get people singing and dancing … Everyone is having a great time. Cheers to the rebirth of live music!”
Some upcoming live music events at The Queen’s in the next month or so include: DJ Neon Steve playing on March 17 for St. Patrick’s Day; country music singer Aaron Pritchett playing March 26; and electronic pow wow sensation DJ Shub, former band member of A Tribe Called Red, performing on April 6.
More musicians and events of different genres, from reggae to drag shows, are expected to be announced.
“We’re all over the map to try to get everybody excited and back dancing.” Hong says. “That’s our main goal, to get [people] not just in seats, but [also] on the dance floor.”
He highlights that by coming to these events you are not only gaining a fun experience for yourself, but also supporting local businesses and musicians.
“Bringing the vibrancy back is [something] we’ve been trying to push everyone else to do. And it’s not just us, there’s places like the Nanaimo Bar and the Vault that are trying to host live music … We work together and try to do some shows to make downtown stand out again.”
Downtown isn’t the only place where students can dance and mingle. On February 17, VIUSU Pub was able to have its first full capacity Thursday Open Mic Night since the pandemic began.
Nick Stewart is in his third year of the Education program at VIU and has been working for the VIUSU Pub for four years. He has worked in the kitchen, the front door, and as a server. Now, he mostly bartends.
“It was unreal and everyone seemed super excited,” Nick Stewart explains. “I worked at the students’ pub for two years pre-covid, so I remember it at its full capacity … Having that environment and atmosphere back—it’s great.”
He mentions that workers in the industry have to walk the difficult line between creating an atmosphere for fun while also enforcing the current restrictions in place, especially when it comes to mask-wearing while walking around with drinks. He notes that, although this is exciting for many, there are still restrictions for a reason.
“Have fun, but don’t be stupid,” he says.
Devon Stewart is in his last year of the Tourism Management Program and shares his own experiences in working with crowds of people. He currently works for the VIU Students’ Union (VIUSU) as the Director of Events and helps run the intramural leagues at the VIU Gym.
“My job is to help students engage here on campus with others,” Devon Stewart explains. “The opening of restrictions just allows me to do more things, not only outdoor but indoor as well, to help better their experience.”
In September 2021, Devon Stewart helped coordinate the VIUSU FROSH event, which was located outside in the RBC Plaza on campus and included beer gardens, food trucks, and live music. Students’ Union staff and employees kept track of people entering and exiting the venue as to keep with the restrictions at the time.
Devon Stewart says that they counted 800 people in total who went in and out of the event.
“I had no idea what to expect, and didn’t know until the week of if I could even do it. It was amazing to see all these people coming to check it out and dance,” he says.
I was at this event, and I agree with him. Dancing in the cold in a crowd of people to a live band—for a moment, life felt like I remembered.
The day the VIUSU Pub opened with the lessened restrictions, Devon Stewart was there as well.
“It’s funny to see how a lot of people were not sure what to do,” he says. “Some are open people and really like ‘Woohoo!’ and dancing, and some hang reserved in the back. For me I’m very social so I’m dancing around … It’s so nice to be around people and nice to know you won’t get in trouble for mingling.”
On Thursday, March 3, I went to the pub to gauge the student experience firsthand.
Kim Jager was the first student I interviewed. Jager is in her second year of her Social Services diploma. She turned 19 during the pandemic and describes her experience going out since the recent opening of restrictions as “fun, but a little anxiety-ridden.”
She explains that last year, she was only focused on her schooling. Though she remains responsible in her scholarly duties, she now has more of a mix of a social life along with her schooling, which has been beneficial to her mental health.
Megan Law is a third year Criminology student who moved to Nanaimo from Victoria. She explains how it was difficult to meet people when restrictions were so limiting.
“You were confined to a table before, but now I have the chance to interact with people a little more freely again … It helps give me the opportunity to make more friends.”
Law mentions she was lucky to have some friends in Nanaimo already. It must have been hard for students, especially international students, who possibly didn’t know anybody on campus, she says.
“I think socializing more in this way is good for a lot of students’ mental health,” Law says. “As long as it’s done in a safe way and we are all doing our part, I think it should be fine and fun!”
After speaking with Devon Stewart, I think he might agree with this sentiment. He described the VIUSU Pub as a gathering place, where students who are going through a similar experience come to hang out. At the pub, you are able to meet people outside your own classes and interact with them.
He acknowledged that some students are still very wary of COVID-19. To them, he recommends that they only do what they are comfortable with.
“We still have to be careful,” Devon Stewart says. “But based on the events I’ve been throwing, I can see people miss [getting together]. You’ve been cooped up and some people are more anxious about socializing, but for mental health a lot of people need that. Go connect. Go have fun. Enjoy the time we have. You never know, something might happen again, so enjoy while you can—safely.”
He invites students to the April 7 VIUSU Happy Endings Event, which will be located at the RBC plaza on campus, with similar features as the September FROSH event.
“It’s going to be a good event,” Devon Stewart says with a smile. “I’m still in the works of planning that right now, but I think it’ll be really fun. Stay tuned.”