Camas’ “Dancing Lady” knows the feeling of unbridled joy.
It swept over her a few years ago during a Dead & Company show in the middle of the Gorge.
“I’m a Deadhead,” Karen Lasher, the “Dancing Lady,” told an audience at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall in March 2019 during a Portland Story Theater event. “It’s where I found my tribe, where I felt at home … felt loved for who I am and not for my job or how much money I had or what I had on.”
Music, she said, had always been able to take her to a place inside herself where she knew she was “powerful and beautiful and divine.”
And on this day in 2017, Lasher found herself just letting it all go at a Grateful Dead revival show in the Gorge. She let her limbs swing, let herself forget about her failed downtown Camas restaurant, about her frustration over what might come next. She just danced.
“I was in the Gorge. It was summer. The sun was shining, and I absolutely let it all out,” Lasher said. “I 100 percent released joy, hope, possibility, love and light. It was a pure expression of me.”
An older couple noticed the middle-aged woman dancing by herself and found Lasher later that afternoon. They told her they’d been watching her dance and thought it was wonderful. When they called her “the dancing lady,” the name stuck.
“I have never been more proud to be anything in that moment,” Lasher said.
Since then, Lasher, a founding member of the Camas Farmer’s Market who has lived in Camas since 2004, has transformed not only into Camas’ “Dancing Lady” — “I can often be seen dancing in the streets or at Crown Park,” she said — but also into an advocate for frontline service workers.
“It is possible to be a service worker and to show up 100 percent of the time — to give 100 percent — and feel joy,” Lasher said.
It’s not a sentiment you hear often from people working customer service jobs, especially when those jobs carry a schedule like Lasher’s “lifty” gig on Mount Hood — up at 3:45 a.m. to drive to Hood River and catch an employee bus to the mountain, then working with the public all day, only to get home around 7 p.m., eat dinner, go to sleep and do it all over again the next morning.
But joy is exactly what Lasher discovered after she moved into service industry jobs after a longtime career in management and restaurant ownership.
When her downtown Camas restaurant, Around the Table, closed in 2010, Lasher faced a crossroads. Her husband, a teacher at Lacamas Elementary School, had a steady income, and she wanted to be home more often for the couple’s then-young daughter. Instead of returning to a management position, Lasher turned to the service industry, finding jobs at Skamania Lodge and then at a local Starbucks, where she found herself at the very bottom of the food chain, working as a barista and talking to people through the drive-thru window.
The transition was, initially, a bit tough.
“I had a graduate degree and my whole career had been in management and leadership and ownership,” Lasher said. “I had never been at the bottom. I went straight from college into management.”
When a customer at her Starbucks job told her what a difference her cheerful disposition had made on him.
“He said, ‘I just want to tell you that you are a blessing in my life. Everyday, my day starts with love because of you … thank you,'” Lasher told her Portland Story Theater audience, saying the comment was like someone had taken a soft cloth and “gently wiped away the mud” covering Lasher’s internal light.
“I knew in that moment, it didn’t matter what I was doing, as long as I was being the Dancing Lady,” Lasher said.
A few years later, after her daughter had graduated from Camas High School, Lasher found herself trying something new once more.
“I was trying to figure out what came next,” she said. “And I knew that the times I’d felt most alive were at that drive-thru, connecting with people.”
Another thing that had always made Lasher feel alive was skiing. She’d grown up skiing in Oregon, and went a few times as an adult, but it had been long enough that she didn’t own any real ski gear. That didn’t stop her from applying for — and taking — a job as a Mount Hood Meadows “lifty” in 2019.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said of her first few days at Meadows. “I experienced a ton of joy.”
The ski resort recently released a video on Lasher, whom they call “the dancing lifty.” In the video, Lasher describes her typical day on the mountain, “setting up the lift, getting the lift ready for the guests, directing traffic and sending people up the mountain to have a great day.”
She creates a playlist for her lifty job, and dances for the people waiting in line for the lift.
“I’m not trying to win a dance contest or have moves someone can replicate,” Lasher tells the Meadows videographer. “It’s just an expression of myself and the joy I feel.”
Much like that Starbucks customer who thanked Lasher for helping him start his day off right, Meadows guests have noticed Lasher brings something extra to her job.
One guest recently wrote on the ski resort’s social media site about Lasher: “She makes my day every time I roll up to the lift line and see her dancing. Good vibes with a real human connection! Effective and efficient at the job of keeping people flowing. She transforms the uncomfortable, annoying and anxious experience into something entirely different and positive.”
In 2020, Lasher founded Illuminated Hospitality, LLC, a front line service training company.
Now, Lasher hopes she can share some of the secrets she’s learned on the front lines of customer service. From May 3 to June 13, Lasher will lead a six-week session called, “Shine! The Experience” to “guide participants in learning how to create strong human connections as they shine their light in the world.”
Lasher said she feels like she can help others find the same joy she has found through service work.
“I know everyone can offer the same kind of service and gain tremendous personal satisfaction and joy from an often undesirable job,” Lasher said. “I am so excited to see the positive impact that Shine! The Experience will have on participants, business ideas and communities.”
She describes the six-week training as “six weeks of having your own cheerleader.” The experience will be flexible and available online to accommodate a variety of schedules.
Participants can take advantage of Lasher’s “two for one” offer, which admits one participant to the six-week Shine! The Experience for $99 while allowing a service worker — either someone the participant knows or one of the workers on Lasher’s waiting list — to attend for free.
“This allows participants to offer support to the front line service workers who have struggled to survive this past year,” she said.
Registration for the Shine! The Experience event runs through Friday, April 30, online at dancing-lady-productions.aweb.page/shine-on.