- Quinn Welsch
- Dale Johnson admires wife Shirley's skills.
Suited up in muck boots and coats, Dale and Shirley Johnson strap their accordions to their chests and expertly navigate inches of mud and water pooled in their driveway, making their way from the home on their 12-acre property over to their animals.
Dale quickly shuts the gate behind them as they enter the bird enclosure, ready to show off their chickens' comical distaste for polka.
Right on cue, when the two start to play the familiar tune, "I don't wanna be a chicken, I don't wanna be a duck," their birds do more than shake their butts, squawking and running for cover in their coop as the couple's laughter fills the air.
Just a few years ago, if you'd told the Johnsons they'd be living the quiet country life near Newport, in wooded northeast Washington, they'd have told you you were crazy.
"All our life we were always meant to be city slickers," Shirley says. "We worried about hats and ties and nice shirts and high heels and dresses."
"It's hard to find a place to wear a tux out here," Dale adds.
See, the two retirees, still a little shy of "senior" status, met at a March 2005 ballroom dance in Seattle.
"I learned ballroom in grade school, and I was getting back into dancing, going to public dances," Dale says. "I thought, 'Well, I'm going to find the prettiest girl at the dance, and dance with her,' and it happened to be her."
Shirley was an instructor that night, and after the couple had their very real "love-at-first-sight" moment, they dated, married, and eventually started a dance instruction business together in Kennewick, where they taught students how to tackle classical steps from a ballroom they built in their home.
But a few years ago, they decided to trade the hustle and bustle of city life for the quiet of the country, first moving to rural North Idaho and then to their home near Newport. The transition took some work.
"We had to learn how to live non-city life," Shirley says. "Put away your high heels and put on your jeans and really work with the land and stuff. It was really different."
It soon became clear that their new life also came with a lot of free time. With the distance to dances being too far for comfort, they were looking for another musical outlet. Turns out, both of them grew up in families with a particular fondness for polka, where accordion is as essential as the electric guitar is to rock 'n roll.
For years, any time they were having a bad day, they'd put on polka music and it'd instantly brighten the mood, Dale says.
"Right away it hits your endorphins and you know, it doesn't matter what kind of feeling you're in, polka music is just this lively cheerful music," Shirley says.
So it wasn't a stretch for Dale to suggest they pick up the accordion.
- Quinn Welsch photo
- Dale and Shirley
"The idea was to do something together, something for entertainment, something for fun," Dale says. "We kind of hung up our dancing shoes but we still want to do something together. This gives us another avenue to partake in each other's company, and we love music."
Dale was first to pursue the hobby, but when Shirley tried her hand at the instrument she was surprised to learn she can play by ear. So now while she practices at home, Dale is taking lessons regularly in Spokane. They both spend two or three hours a day practicing with their accordions at opposite ends of the house.
While Shirley waits for Dale's musical ability to catch up, the couple is hoping to find a few other people who might want to take turns hosting accordion jam sessions, maybe with a potluck involved, so no one has to drive too far too often, and everyone can have fun playing together.
Every now and again over the last year, Shirley has posted on Craigslist and put up posters looking for fellow seniors who might want to play accordion together once a month, but to this point, they haven't gotten any hits.
"That's a little discouraging because I know there are accordion players that are our age that started when they were kids. They're good, but they're not looking at Craigslist," she says. "It would be nice to have a musical group to play with while my husband catches up." ♦