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I Was A Teenage
Square Dance Caller!
By Paul Silveria
I was sitting on a couch in a Seattle warehouse where tattooed and pierced figures hustled about setting up decorations and stocking the makeshift bar with gallons of vodka and whiskey. I had been asked to call square dances at a CD release party for the Infernal Noise Brigade, a protest-based marching band. They had gone to extreme lengths with their theme, sort of a demented County Fair. There were stereotypical hay bales and overalls, a livestock 'peep show', 'pig' wrestling (a man in a full police uniform in a straw covered sty), and a barbeque that was outfitted with a pedal operated gas jet that sent a ball of flame into the rafters.
The partiers were decked out, either in hillbilly costumes or their sleekest hipster outfits. Everyone was getting drunk and listening to loud rock bands. At midnight the big warehouse doors swung open and the Noise Brigade rode into the party, playing their drums and horns on top of an old El Camino, and tossing live fire crackers into the air. They played their set on top of the car in the middle of the floor, then rode back out the way they came. It was now around 1 AM, and it was my job to get the sloshed crowd square dancing...
That might be an odd situation for many callers, but not for me. You see, these were my peers. I was twenty-one when I started calling. So, even if I wasn't quite a teenage square dance caller (I couldn't resist the title...) you've got to admit that I was at a pretty tender age for Northwest city-kid to take up a pastime that I had always associated with rural, septuagenarian Texans. Nevertheless, there I was, telling middle-aged folk-revivalists and dreadlocked twenty-somethings to do-si-do.
I was born in Vancouver, Washington just north of Portland, OR. My parents fostered my creative side, but there was nothing related to square dancing in my upbringing. We didn't know any musicians or dancers, and we didn't have any kind of old-time music in our small record collection. Until the age of twenty I was a square dance virgin. So, how the heck did I start calling square dances?
When I was twenty I began to take an interest in American "roots" and "folk" music. I picked up the banjo on a whim, with no idea how to play it, and no strong intention to learn traditional music. My real conversion came a short time later at a show where a friend's punk band was playing. Also on the bill was the Government Issue Orchestra, at that time comprised of fiddle, guitar and banjo. They were playing music that I'd never really heard before. It sounded homegrown, yet somehow exotic. They'd set up in the kitchen and their tunes had the crowd of punks and hipsters clapping, stomping, and dancing as though they would kick the floor through. It was my introduction to old-time stringband music, and it left quite an impression. This was right in the midst of a growing popularity of old-time in Portland. Bill Martin has documented this phenomenon in past "Dance Beat" articles, so I won't re-hash his work. Suffice to say that train-hopping punks, high school students, radical organizers, and plenty of other younger folks were beginning to dance, call and play alongside people who were ten, twenty and even thirty years older.
Bill Martin was in his fifties and he and his wife, Nancy, had been playing old-time, bluegrass, and folk music for more than twenty years. He was also a caller who was trying to dust off his old squares and get the new generation dancing. At a Government Issue Orchestra show one evening (Bill was in the band at that time) Bill complained about the lack of callers and mentioned to his band mate, Michael Ismerio, that he wanted to teach some new folks to do it. Michael looked right at me and said "Paul, you should learn to call square dances". That was enough for me. I had never thought about calling dances before, but I knew an interesting (not to mention amusingly anachronistic) idea when I heard one. Besides, I was falling in love with the music and this seemed like a great way to be a part of it. I spent the summer of 2002 with Bill, other novice callers, interested musicians, and some patient dancers going over figures and practicing calls.
After learning in living rooms, and backyards I was ready for the real thing. The 'real thing' in this case was a dance put on at a place called the 'Dirty Feet' warehouse in Seattle. I was joining the Government Issue Orchestra that night. I was prepared to call one dance and Bill would call the rest. He got that crowd of young punks (and at least one set of parents) dancing up a storm and soon called me up and introduced me in a manner that became his customary way of presenting his calling protégés to the audience - He called me a young Turk and said I was trying to steal his job. I called a simple dance that I had practiced in detail and, to my delight, it worked! I was hooked from that point on.
Flushed with victory, I turned it back over to Bill and we proceeded to get rowdier with each dance. The warehouse had two posts right in the middle of the floor and when Bill called the 'Bouquet Waltz', a dance that has since been dubbed the 'Tilt-O-Whirl', the excited dancers turned it into a hoe-down mosh pit. Circles of dancers were colliding with the posts and with each other at high speed, and loving it! Almost one year to the day later, I called a whole night's worth of dancing at the same place, and finished the night off with the same dance, with the same results...Success!
Soon after that I was in Olympia for a friend's birthday party. She had some indie-rock bands play at her house, and afterward convinced me to call a few dances in the living room. I stood in the corner, drunk, and shouted calls to the dancers while everyone else clapped to the beat. Since then I've called multiple dances in Olympia including radical Mayday marches, a wild-crafting potluck party called 'Nettlefest', and a gay/lesbian/bisexual youth group fund-raiser.
But not all of my dances have been for punks and activists. My first time calling a full night of dancing was for a wedding anniversary in Eastern Oregon. A very straight forward event with parents and children all dancing together. Despite being nervous at my first real "Gig", it all went as well as I could have hoped. I was twenty-one then, and if you'd told me a year or so before that I would be a square dance caller I probably wouldn't have believed you, and if you'd told me that I would even earn some money at it I'd have thought you were nuts.
These days I find myself calling dances in all kinds of places for all kinds of events - Grange halls on the Oregon coast and up the Columbia Gorge, bars and pubs in Portland and Seattle, school groups, activist groups, weddings, corporate parties, block parties, festivals, church groups (at an Orthodox church I call at regularly one of the Priests dances in his full length black robe!) I have a blast! I may not have envisioned myself calling square dances when I was younger, but it's so much fun, and feels so natural, that now I can't imagine not doing it.
Of course, not every dance is great. One memorable experience was for the Portland anti-SOA (School of the Americas) group. They have an annual contra dance (An irony since the paramilitaries that are trained by the SOA are referred to as 'contras'). The fates were against me that night. Only about twelve people showed up, including the organizers. It was a big hall, which made the crowd seem even smaller. And the band and I were mismatched - they were a contra band playing Irish tunes just a bit too slow for squares...and in jig time. I tried hard, practically begged people to dance and smashed my 4/4 calls into a 6/8 rhythm. Midway through one of the organizers introduced a friend who had just returned from Palestine. She asked him to speak, and his experience was worth hearing, but it sure didn't elevate anyone's mood. As he was finishing up he tried to salvage the event by telling us about a neighborhood of Palestinians who continued a celebration despite fighting immediately outside, and encouraged us to continue dancing in support of the good cause. In a big crowd with a ripping band we might have rallied. Instead, we limped through one or two more dances and everyone just went home.
But, for the most part, I have fun. And fun is what it's all about. When I call for an activist group, or at a party for my friends, my main goal is to get people moving right away and to have a good time. And when I call for a church group or wedding I have the same attitude. Teaching the dances well and encouraging people to participate puts everyone at ease - whether they're tattooed punks or a family block party.
In the spring of 2005 I took a cross country trip calling dances along my way. My send off was an all night dance outside of Portland. Groggy and delirious, I caught a flight to Minneapolis the next morning where I was set to call at a regular monthly dance. It was well attended and enthusiastic, but there was something that surprised me – there were only a few people near my age in the whole crowd. I realized then that Portland had something special going on. At the time Portland seemed like the only place where 20-30 year olds made up the bulk of the dancers. The influx of young people, and more than that - the fact that the old-time music and dance community is made up of all different generations, and all different walks of life, is what makes it so vibrant. And I'm not the only one who's noticed this. After Minneapolis and a few other stops I took part in the "Dare to Be Square" weekend at Warren Wilson College put on by Phil Jamison and Nancy Mamlin. Michael Ismerio and I were both there, and two other young Portland callers, Caroline Oakley and Maggie Brunjes, had been there the year before. After swapping dances, and learning pointers from more experienced callers, the group got into a discussion about 'the future of square dancing' - in particular getting younger people interested. Phil turned to Michael and I and said "Tell us about what's going on in Portland!"
Well, it's not just Portland anymore. There are growing numbers of young players, callers, and dancers all across the country - which makes the 'future of square dancing' look pretty bright.