First Dance

I wish I could regain the excitement of the first time I ever took part in a community dance. Although I still enjoy dancing, it’s not quite the same as that first mountain square dance I attended at Natural Bridge State Park when I was fourteen. I had taken square dance lessons that year at a club called the Wheelers and Dealers, in Lexington, Kentucky, which I thought was fun, even though most of the dancers were old (about the age I am now, as a matter of fact), and they wore matching outfits that seemed sort of ridiculous to me—cowboy shirts with snaps and bolo ties for the men, big puffy crinolines and pantaloons for the women.

I don’t remember whose idea it was for me to take square dance lessons, but I remember going with my friend Marjorie and an older couple she knew, probably from church. My partner for the lessons was a sixteen-year-old boy from school named Tommy. I was not allowed to go on car dates at the time, but I was allowed to ride to Lexington with Tommy to square dance lessons. I don’t remember much about the lessons themselves, although the whole series lasted about sixteen weeks, and we probably attended a regular club dance or two after we graduated. What I do remember is the first mountain square dance I attended after we finished the series of lessons.

The mountain square dancing was completely different from the club dancing. I don’t know if this was a regular weekly dance or some kind of folk festival we attended, but we danced outside under the stars at Natural Bridge State Park, and the first thing I noticed was that instead of forming squares of eight dancers each, we formed a big circle to start. The next thing I noticed was that most of the dancers were young. Some of the boys were wearing overalls and work boots. The girls were wearing simple cotton dresses.

The figures were simple—no need for lessons—and the fiddle music was very fast.  Although I had never danced this kind of formation before, it felt like home. I had no trouble with many of the moves, which were similar to moves in the Western squares, but I did learn that there were lots of ways to do a “do-si-do.” There were other calls I had never heard before, such as “chase that rabbit, chase that squirrel, chase that pretty girl round the world” and figures such as “birdie in the cage,” but the other dancers took us by the hand and led us exuberantly through the dance.

Many of the dancers did a jig step as they went through the figures, while others loped along at a pretty good clip. I did not know at the time that we were doing “Kentucky running sets.” I still don’t know whether the term refers to the fast running step the dancers take as they go through the figures or to the way the dancers “run” the figures one after the other before moving on to another couple.

Each figure is done with two couples together. For example, my partner and I would take hands with another couple, and the caller might tell us to “circle to the left, then back to the right” or “star right, star left” or  he might say, “you swing mine and I’ll swing yours; give me back mine I’ll give you back yours.” If he called “birdie in the cage,” one of the women would jump into the middle of the circle, while her partner and the other couple would keep holding hands while circling around her. Then when the caller said, “birdie hop out and crow jump in,” her partner would take her place, and she would rejoin the circle around him.

At the end of each figure, partners would take hands and move along to the next couple, the couples on the outside of the circle moving in one direction, the couples on the inside of the circle moving in the opposite direction. Then the caller would start another figure, such as “dig for the oyster, dive for the clam” or “round one couple take a little peak” or “wave the ocean, wave the sea, wave that pretty girl back to me.” By the end of the evening, we had danced with all the other couples.

The whole evening was magical, and the music and dancing continued until long after dark, while campfires throughout the park glowed in the distance. When we finally stopped dancing, the breeze felt cool on our skin, and the dreamlike memory of the whirling circle made it seem as though I had stepped into a fairy circle in the middle of the woods on a summer night. Although it took me many years to find a community where I could dance regularly and a partner who enjoyed it as much as I did, after that first mountain square dance, I was hooked.

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