This bustling hub for swing dancers and yogis started 100 years ago as a quiet sanctuary.
Four vintage-clad twentysomethings leave Ossington station on a Saturday around 9 p.m. The guys are wearing vests and bowties, while the women’s print dresses peek out from under their coats. Passersby glance as the group’s shoes tap along the sidewalk. They head west before turning north onto Dovercourt Road, beelining towards a narrow red-brick building that towers over its neighbouring rowhouses. Muffled jazz music can be heard as the group scales the concrete steps. When the door opens, you feel the building thumping as three floors of people swing-dance to live bands.
An unofficial dance hub, Dovercourt House welcomes a variety of groups seven days a week, from queer waltzers to salsa novices. With long, wooden floors and high ceilings, the building’s three storeys and cheap rental rates are a natural fit for dancers. Though the past decade has brought in breakdancers, yoga practitioners, and fetish groups, the venue has a sombre history.
The building first appears on the city’s archived fire maps around 1914. A leasing company initially rented it out to a group of spiritualists who practised communication with the dead. (The movement took off during the First World War, when widowed families tried to soothe their trauma with séances and Ouija boards.) Shortly after, Freemasons—a secretive fraternal order—started using the building for regular meetings.
Then, in 1925, members of a nearby Jewish enclave took over the building to establish the Bais Yehuda Synagogue. Archival photos show large families celebrating bar mitzvahs and bearded men congregated around Torah scrolls.
Over the next four decades, Dovercourt Road went from a street of shanties for poor British migrants to a bedroom community. Manufacturing workers commuted down the since-removed streetcar line while the area built up industry. The synagogue was sold in 1965 as the Jewish community moved north.
For 35 years, the building served as a legion hall for Canadian and Polish veterans until it came on the market in 1999. “I thought it was just gorgeous,” says current owner David de Sousa, who runs Grappa restaurant in Etobicoke. He bought Dovercourt House, knocked out walls used for storage and offices, and prepared to move in his restaurant. “Originally, I thought, ‘It’s a nice, classic dining hall with high ceilings; there’s a lot you can do with that space.’”
The lack of parking, however, prompted de Sousa to change his mind about the relocation, and he passed managerial duties onto his employee Andy Haslett, who launched a catering company in the building and leased out the space he didn’t use. What started with a weekly Saturday swing dance on the second floor soon snowballed. “None of this happened on purpose; it was kind of organic,” says Haslett of the influx of yogis and hip-hop artists.
“The events that take place there often have little to no association with each other whatsoever, and they somehow coexist very pleasantly,” Haslett says. For de Sousa, that’s an aspect of the city worth preserving, despite the lure of cold hard condo cash. “I’ve been asked to sell so people can put up condos,” he says. “The city’s being cleaned out, and it’s nice to have these little buildings.”