Blues fan follows the music and proves a man can dance alone
A clumsy goose. A chicken with an itch. A clown on fire.
“I’ve always been an unusual dancer,” said Laitala, an Ely resident who makes the hip-swiveling and foot-tapping of most fans at the Bayfront Blues Festival seem stuffy. His flailing arms, flopping legs and swinging head — perhaps best described as going with the music — have earned him an extensive following of curious blues lovers over the years.
“I’ve invented my own style,” he said. “I love to use my arms. Arms is a big part of my dance.
“I’m constantly barraged with, ‘Keep it up. Good to see you again this year. Are you going to be here next here?’ I love it.”
Laitala, 63, said he often poses for photos with fans of his dancing, and some come by to imitate his style. He is even depicted on a flag carried around by some bluesfest goers.
“It’s an honor, really,” said Laitala, who, on top of making it to all 26 editions of bluesfest, also attends a number of blues, bluegrass and rock festivals around the country. He’s already been to 11 this year, and he has more on his schedule.
“I’m kind of famous at the festivals I go to,” he said. “But I take it all in stride.”
One of Laitala’s followers, Charlie Wilcox of Duluth, has been converted from a fan to a protégé.
After meeting Laitala at the inaugural bluesfest and watching him dance for more than 20 years, Wilcox finally decided to get down with Laitala a few years ago.
“He’s got a style,” said Wilcox, 67, who shakes it a little more conservatively with short, rhythmic head-bobs and shoulder-turns. “I don’t have a style.”
Back when bluesfest was in its early years, Wilcox said, men who danced by themselves were social pariahs, largely frowned upon by other blues fans. The ban on solo male dancing was "Footloose"-esque, Wilcox said, and Laitala played the role of Ren McCormack.
“Guys didn’t dance in those days by themselves,” Wilcox said. “But he did. He’s my inspiration.”
Laitala, who doesn’t look comfortable unless he’s dancing, said his love for music started when he was a young man in South Carolina. He played the saxophone in a mostly African American band, but what really caught his attention was the soul dancers.
“I gave up the saxophone and started dancing,” he said.
And after blending Southern Appalachian clogging and soul jive, Laitala said, he had moves that were one of a kind.
Laitala brought his distinctive style north when he was 24, moving to Ely and immersing himself in the area’s music scene. He was there when the first notes of the inaugural bluesfest washed across the park, and he’s been there every bluesfest since.
“I had this act that I did,” Laitala said of the inaugural festival. “I danced on a board, and I’d wear football shoes with steel spikes. It was pouring down rain. It kept the board nice and slick.”
The board and football spikes had to be retired a few years ago, Laitala said, and there was even a question whether he would be able to dance at this year’s bluesfest.
“I have tennis elbow really badly,” said Laitala, showing off a sleeve over his affected arm. Apart from the white sleeve, he was a rainbow personified — tie-dye hat, shirt and shorts. “I’m building a house this summer, pounding nails, and my arm is as sore as can be.
“My brother told me, ‘Don’t you dare dance down there.’ Yesterday I thought, ‘Well, the worst thing that can happen is it can get worse. The best thing that can happen is it can get better.
“It’s actually getting better moving it,” he said. “It’s great exercise.”
The blues guitar is what Laitala said really makes him move, and it sets blues apart from all other genres.
“This guitar work here,” Laitala said, pointing to the main stage at Bayfront, where Crankshaft & The Gear Grinders were producing a particularly twangy sound, “I love the guitar work. Slide guitar. Just like this band. I love it.
Bluesfest is among Laitala’s favorite stops, he said, because there’s plenty of room to dance. A throng of lawn chairs and umbrellas occupies the middle of the park, but a grassy dance floor envelopes the crowd.
For Laitala, bluesfest beats out bigger festivals in New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, for that simple reason.
“You can dance anywhere here,” Laitala said “And I do. We do.”Review: Los Lonely Boys start late, then lay on the cliches