Author: Poling, Chuck

Swing Your Partner!

I love square dancing. Itís the greatest, goofiest, most wholesome musical activity Iíve ever participated in. Just a few weeks ago Jeanie and I attended the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time festival square dance at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco. Two outstanding bands Ė SFís own Knuckle Knockers and longtime festival favorites Foghorn Stringband from Portland Ė provided live music.

Portlandís Bill Martin Ė the dean of West Coast callers Ė was scheduled to lead the dance but was feeling under the weather and had to cancel. Luckily, Billís artistry has inspired a cadre of local callers, and Jordan Ruyle stepped up to the mic and did a fantastic job. The floor was packed with enthusiastic, whooping dancers throughout the evening, and we sat out only two or three dances just to catch our breath.

We started going to square dances about ten years ago when SFBOT began including the dance as part of the festival. I had had no previous experience Ė my only frame of reference was Bugs Bunnyís ďHillbilly Hare,Ē where the rascally rabbitís improvised calls lead a pair of mountaineers into a pigsty, a hay baler, and eventually off a cliff. (Hereís the clip. Enjoy. )

I know a lot of folks from the Midwest who remember square dancing from gym class, usually in junior high, an age where most kids are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the opposite sex. But they didnít have that out here in San Francisco, so I didnít know a do-si-do from do-re-mi. Fortunately, square dance callers tell you exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. After becoming familiar with the basics, it was easy to move on to more intricate steps and dances.

One of the things I enjoy most about square dances is the sense of community it creates on both the entire crowd and the individual squares. When four couples form a square, they may or may not know each other and will have varying degrees of dancing experience. Quick introductions are made and then all listen as the caller explains the dance and has the crowd walk through a dry run (without music). Some squares pick it up quickly and others may need a second walkthrough. Youíll hear gasps of excitement and cheers of congratulations when the dancers complete the slow-motion trial.

Then the music starts up with a whoop and roar from the crowd. A live band just seems to inject more energy into the proceedings, and crack outfits like the Knuckle Knockers and Foghorn Stringband ratchet up the excitement even more. The atmosphere is simply joyous. Everybody is moving and smiling and the occasional mistake is simply part of the fun, though when a dancer goes left on an allemande right, the ensuing collision is no less brutal than a mosh pit at a punk show.

When the music is playing and youíre dancing to the upbeat tempo, you feel like youíre playing with real money. Thereís a great feeling of accomplishment when the eight members of a square successfully execute intricate steps. Square dancing began as a community event in rural America, but that sense of community is present at any dance, whether in Bugtussel or Brooklyn. Itís cooperative, itís challenging, and, dadgummit, itís just fun.

Jeanie and I have often joked that even our heavy metalĖloving offspring would enjoy square dancing. The trick would be just getting them there. Weíd probably have to trick them by telling them that Iron Maiden is providing the music.

I love square dancing so much that I thought about becoming a caller. I went to a workshop conducted by Bill Martin and all I learned was that calling a square dance is a lot of work. Of course, Billís so good, he makes it look easy, but the reality is quite different. First, you have to know all the dances. Then you have to call them in a rhythm that keeps ahead of the beat, because the dancers need a little time to react. And youíre not just giving directions. A good caller is as much a performer as a dance leader, providing a constant stream of instructional poetry.

ďPromenade now promenade!
Hand in the hopper and the other in the sack
Ladies step forward and gents fall back....Ē

Youíve also got to be able to gauge the crowd and strike a balance by calling some great dances and not overwhelming the dancers with too many complicated directions. Generally, the caller starts out with something easy and sees how it goes. If the dancers seem to be picking up the directions quickly, then the next dance may be a little more intricate.

Fortunately, there are folks like Jordan Ruyle and Evie Ladin who had a little more stick-to-it-ness than me and provide calling for Bay Area dances. Jordan calls a first Friday of the month dance in North Oakland with music provided by the Squirrelly String Band. Check it out; itís at the Niebyl-Proctor Library at 6501 Telegraph Avenue.

It continually amazes me that this quintessentially rural American tradition continues to thrive in urban centers like the Bay Area, Seattle, and Portland. Primarily people under 40 attend square dances Iíve attended, and at many Iíve noticed a preponderance of twenty-something hipsters.

Go figure. May square dancing isnít so square after all.

Posted:  2/28/2011

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