Not Your Grandma’s Square Dance

Lately we have really been enjoying dancing old-time squares with a bunch of wonderful young people at their monthly dances in Columbia.  So far, we have attended three of these dances in three different locations, depending on what space is available each time.  The next one is tentatively scheduled for April 30 (location TBA).

A young woman named Laura has been holding these dances about once a month. Early on she invited friends to come play music and dance at her house, but the dances quickly grew too large for the space.  The dance in January (the first one we attended) was held in an old warehouse downtown that used to be part of the Wabash railway station and that now holds numerous art galleries in the “catacombs” downstairs but also has a large open space perfect for dancing on the first floor. The February dance was held at an art gallery, and the March dance was held in a yoga studio. Depending on how many people show up and what the space is like, the dances each have a slightly different flavor, but they always feature live music, high energy dancing, snacks to share, and lots of smiling people.

We didn’t quite know what to expect the first time  but were delighted when we arrived to find a room filled with people in their twenties or early thirties playing music and dancing a big circle dance like they dance in Appalachia, with a series of two-couple figures (birdie in the cage, duck for the oyster, right-hand across, four-leaf clover). The young caller, Jesse, was  tall and thin and definitely looked the part of an old-time square dance caller, wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, a vest, cowboy hat, and boots. The women were adorable in their boots and long western-style flounced skirts and tights. All the dancers were quite lively, skipping around the room, making percussive sounds with their feet, and the wooden floor had a nice bounce to it.

We were also happy to see several people we knew and flattered to have been invited, as we were clearly the oldest people there. Jesse called several dances and then the band played a schottische and a waltz. After that, Jim and Laura and Jesse took turns calling dances, mostly squares and an occasional big circle dance. We never had fewer than two squares on the floor and sometimes as many as four. The band kept changing in size and configuration throughout the evening. At one time, there were two fiddles, a guitar, and a mandolin. Later, there were three guitars, one fiddle, an accordian, a mando-yuk, a banjo, a washboard, and a guy playing spoons.

In between squares, we danced various couple dances. Toward the end of the evening, Jesse taught everyone how to dance the Cotton Eye Joe. Then about 10:30, several of the band members began singing songs; one of the dancers laughed and said, “The dance must be over; the guitar players are singing.”

photograph of square dancers

Dare to be Square

I’m looking forward to the next square dance at the Hallsville community center on Saturday night. John White, one of my favorite old-time fiddlers, has held these dances the second Saturday of every month for years. The schedule always follows the same format:  old-time open jam at 4:00, carry-in dinner at 6:00, and dance at 7:00.  Everyone is welcome to this family event; there is no smoking and no alcohol. Some people come mostly to play music, including several children that John has been teaching to play fiddle. Others come mostly to dance. Some neither dance nor play music but enjoy socializing. You can expect to find people of all ages at the dance, from babies to great grandparents and everyone in between.

John’s wife, a retired school teacher, always decorates the hall with seasonal items. Last month Betty brought blue tablecloths for all the tables, some with snowflake designs. The table by the door had a two-foot lighted snowman and a painted basket for donations that said “let it snow.” There were two other stuffed snowmen in wool hats and scarves on the food table and bowls of peppermints on each of the tables lining one side of the hall, where people sat to eat their potluck dinner. This time for the carry-in dinner, several people brought soups (potato soup, chicken cacciatore, chicken noodle soup, chili) and salads. There was also a delicious cherry pie and an applie pie. Betty remarked that “you just never know what people will bring,” saying “that’s what make it so fun.” This month I am sure Betty will have the place decked out with pink and red and white Valentines.

We arrived after most people had sat down to eat and some were going through the line for second helpings. A couple of the musicians were still sitting close together in folding chairs at the end of the hall farthest from the kitchen, facing each other, playing tunes while everyone else ate. The hall was packed, even though some of the regulars weren’t there, including several of the home-school families who usually come. There were some newcomers and some people we hadn’t seen for a while, including our friend Musial, whose wife had died suddenly of an aneurism shortly after Christmas. He told me he had decided to come because he knew it would feel good to be with friends, even though he didn’t feel like playing his keyboard.

It seemed at first that there weren’t as many children as usual, and it took a little while after dinner to get the Virginia Reel started, but we still ended up with two lines. During dinner, one of the little girls came up to Jim and asked if they could clog, so before lining people up for the Virginia Reel, he got his clogging students up to practice the routine they learned last year. After the Virginia Reel, Jim asked people to find a partner and form a circle, and he taught them some Appalachian square dance figures (i.e., right hands across, birdie in the cage, duck for the oyster), which was great fun. Then we formed a couple of squares, with Jim calling one and Laura calling the other. At one point in the evening we had three squares going at the same time (two in the main hall and one back by the kitchen); Willie called the third one.

Lately quite a few people in their twenties and thirties have gotten interested in old-time music and square dancing, and they have been telling their friends about it. Last month nearly thirty young people showed up, some of whom had never square danced before. They remind me of the dancers we met in Portland at Dare to Be Square. It’s very interesting to see all these kids showing up with their tattoos and piercings at Hallsville for old-time square dancing—yet another place in our lives where the far left meets the far right and finds they enjoy each other’s company. (Of course, we don’t ever talk about politics or religion at these dances, but it seems to me that if we could all find more such chances to share some common interests, the country would be a whole lot better off.)

By 9:30 there were still lots of people dancing, so Jim did another big Appalachian square and taught some new figures (i.e., basket swing, lady round the gent, four-leaf clover). The young people loved the basket swing, and when four of them met up together, they would really start the basket whirling. After the Appalachian square, Jim joined the circle and led everyone in a spiral as we “wound the ball.” Howard Marshall was lead fiddler most of the evening, and Richard Shewmaker (a young fiddler who has lately been winning quite a few contests) also played a long while. John didn’t play as much as usual, but he called at least one square. At one point, all the “regular” callers (Dave, Jim, and Laura) ended up in the same square together and some of the new dancers formed a second square and were standing around wondering what to do next. John noticed they needed a caller, so he got up and led them through “Right Hand High.”

After the dance ended and we had put away the tables and chairs and most people had left, Jim and John swept and mopped the hall, while Betty carried her decorations out to the car.

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.