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

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.

Traditional Family Gathering

On a snowy day in early February, my husband Jim and I took off work to drive four hours west and a little ways north to Rossville, Kansas, for a traditional family gathering. It was snowing and foggy when we left, and the fields were covered with snow the whole drive, but the roads were clear. When we arrived a little before 6:00 at the Potowatamie Nations Community Center just outside of town, the band—Fox on the Run—was already there unloading their instruments. Young girls were carrying evening gowns and fancy dresses out of their cars. Inside, the hall was decorated with blue and silver balls and large sparkly snowflakes hanging by single lines from the ceiling tiles. A food table with a bright blue table cloth was set up along the back wall. To the left of the food table a crucifix was hanging on the wall. The hall was divided in two, with chairs set up on the side nearest the door and a large space for dancing on the other side of the hall. Over the center of the dance hall was a large blue and silver bow draped from the ceiling, with wide ribbons leading out in all directions toward the walls. A small stage was set up on the side of the hall, where the sound man was setting up speakers and talking to the band members. At the far end of the dance hall were several large lighted snowpeople and bare branches that looked like small trees with twinkling white lights.

The organizer, wearing a long dark green gown, welcomed us and asked how the roads were. She told us that a family of ten was driving up from Springfield, Missouri, for the weekend, but another large family from Joplin, Missouri, had decided not to come because of the weather. She explained that the traditional family gathering is held twice a year and always starts with a dance on Friday evening. She expected as many as two hundred people to show up. One year they had a square dance, and the caller brought  records, but she didn’t think the children enjoyed that so much. Another time they hired a contra dance caller and a band, but she thought the caller took too much time teaching and not enough time dancing. She asked Jim about the kinds of dances he planned to call. She wondered if the band could play some swing at some point during the evening, because some of the kids liked swing dancing.

While the band did their sound check, a young boy about six years old, wearing a suit and tie, walked up to a little girl about five, who was wearing a fancy red dress, and held his arms out to her in ballroom position. She placed her left hand on his shoulder and he placed his right hand on her back, and they began to polka around the hall. I whispered to Jim that I hoped he had some harder dances picked out, because it looked like this crowd knew what they were doing. Three girls about ten years old, all wearing long dresses, put their arms around each other’s shoulders and skipped around the hall in time to the music. By that time, more people were coming in, and the level of conversation increased in the hall, as people greeted one another. All the men and boys were wearing suits or nice slacks and ties. A few had on tuxedos. The girls were wearing somewhat old-fashioned formals and evening gowns and had their hair up; a few had ringlets. Only a handful of the girls had short hair. One of the women, a kindergarten teacher, later commented on how proud she was of the girls for having found such modest dresses. “That’s not easy these days,” she said, “with all the spaghetti straps and the plunging necklines.” Several of the dresses looked hand made. There were lots of children and babies and many teenagers, but few old people.

Shortly after 6:30, the band finished with their sound check, and Jim invited the dancers to “find a partner and form a big circle” for the first dance. The dancers were somewhat subdued at first, as though they weren’t convinced this was going to be much fun and were reluctant to leave the conversations on the brightly lit side of the hall, but as the evening went on, more dancers joined in each time, until by the end of the evening, over one hundred people of all ages were dancing together, clapping their hands, skipping around during the longways sets, whooping when the squares went “into the middle and back.” Jim called several longways sets, a couple circle dances, an English country dance, and a couple of old-time squares. During breaks, the band played swing dances and waltzes. One young teen requested “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Jim ended the evening with the Virginia Reel, as he often does when he calls for home-school groups or church groups or reenactment dances. For some reason, this dance is always more popular than any of the other similar reels.

After he completed the walk-through but before the band started playing, the young people began clapping a very fast rhythm. Although the band had not intended to play the tune that fast, they decided to go with it, and Jim started the dancers off with “long lines forward and back” and continued calling through the right-hand turns, the left-hand turns, the do-si-dos, until he got to everyone’s favorite part, where the top couple “reels the set,” and the rest of the dancers clap their hands as the couple works their way down the set and then “sashays” back to the top. The top girl then leads the line of girls around the outside and back to the bottom of the set, while the top boy leads the line of boys in the opposite direction. At the bottom of the set, the lead couple forms an arch and the other couples then duck through the arch and come back to the top of the hall, where the whole thing begins again with a new top couple. There were six or seven sets of dancers at that time; each set had ten or twelve couples; one set had all elementary-age children, others had all teenagers, some had a mix, a few sets included adults.

After a few times through the dance, the sets usually get off from each other, depending on how many couples are dancing, how fast the top couples are able to reel the set, how quickly the lines skip down to the bottom and back up through the arch. Usually Jim will stop calling at that point, and the dancers will continue on their own until everyone has had a chance to reel the set at least once, which often takes twenty minutes or more, depending on how many dancers are in each set. Several of the sets were flying through the dance (the set I was watching had about eight or ten very tall and handsome young men, probably all brothers, who were doing high kicks during portions of the dance and “high fives” as they passed the other men in the line), and the energy in the room was contagious. After twenty minutes or so, when the music stopped and the dance ended, everyone applauded loud and long. Jim thanked the band and quoted Mark Twain who once said that “any fiddler who can fiddle all through one of those Virginia Reels without losing his grip can be counted on in any situation.”