« Stark dramatic immersion - 10/26/08 | Main | An "Awakening" of sorts »

Not (just) your grandma’s dance

I’m a little nervous as I step out of my car. “What if I’m no good at it? What if I make a complete fool out of myself?” It’s dark – about 8:30 p.m. – so Molly can’t see my distressed expression.

I don’t even know why I’m here; I must be one of those foolish dancers who will do anything to impress their new choreographer. “I’ve never enjoyed things like this before. Why would I now?” I think to myself. With my friend by my side we walk through the doors of the Minneapolis Eagle’s Club. I’m about to have the time of my life being swung and tosses around by complete strangers.

There are maybe 50 people at the Eagle’s Club tonight, and they range from 5 to 70 years in age. Even though my professor Karla Grotting told me that this age range is common, I didn’t believe her. Square dancing is, of course, for old people, right? But here they are: your young bohemians clad in long vintage skirts and bandanas, your middle-aged hippies with their arms covered in tattoos and, not surprisingly, your old fogies with their beards that nearly touch the floor. There is one character, an older gentleman about 70 years old, dressed in a cowboy hat, checkered shirt, denim overalls and white socks. His socks could be seen through his brown sandals. I overhear someone say, “How awesome is the guy in the overalls!?!” which leads me to believe that it is not the norm to dress-up for these events.

Molly and I climb over chairs and set our coats on a brown fold-up table on the edge of the dance floor. The lights are soft and low. The air is warm and stuffy and there is a smell that we can’t quite put our finger on. The stale air? Beer? Body odor? Or perhaps it is a combination of all three? “There’s also slight confusion,” Molly adds. We look out onto the dance floor. “Ok, maybe heavy confusion.” We both laugh.

There is a live band playing “old-time music.” It is tawngy and lively in feel with some well placed staccato notes. It also has a simple beat which, in my opinion, helps the dancers keep the rhythm and tempo of the steps. I see a guitar, upright bass, banjo and fiddle. There is also a caller with a microphone. The caller is the person who guides the dance from beginning to end. He or she shouts a call such as, “swing your partner” and the couples do what they hear. “When all else fails, swing your partner,” tonight’s caller, Corey Mohen, says.

The band members and caller are on a slightly raised stage – the kind you would see at an elementary school or community center. A string of lights line the top of the stage area as a single bright light shines on the yellow and red backdrop. It gives the feeling that you are at a backyard cookout except the guests are wearing their winter boots.

While there are many people in the floor we immediately find our party: a motely crew complied of my jazz and tap professor Karla, local choreographer and Flying Foot Forum artistic director, Joe Chvala, and Max Pollack, the choreographer from New York. Their square, however, is full with unknown participants.

A voice calls, “Molly!” We walk over to the source and are greeted by a middle-aged woman of average stature who is wearing a button-down shirt, long pants and glasses. She hugs Molly and then introduces herself to me. “I’m Shawn. Nice to meet you!” Molly knows Shawn through another dance instructor. She tells me that Shawn always comes to the First Monday Night Dance and either dances, calls or plays. Tonight she is dancing and calling.

Minneapolis’ square dancing scene—similar to other American cities—started in the 1970s as local interest in old-time and Appalachian music began to emerge. It was a time when many people came together to play music, hang out and be hippies, local caller and musician Shawn Glidden explained to me over the phone one mid-November afternoon.

Most of these twenty-something hippies typically lived on the West Bank off Harriet Island and it was this group who started the first Monday night dance. They called themselves the “Monday Night Dance Collective.”

The Monday Night Dance Collective was held every Monday night for about 28 years, until the attendance started to shrink about five years ago. “Everybody had grown up and they all had kids. The people who started the collective and were coming to dance in their twenties, 20 years later don’t have time, you know?” Shawn said. She seemed to not have a better reason for the drop in attendance other than the fact that people simply did not have the time anymore. What a shame.

Attendance continued to dwindle and the Monday Night Dance stopped for a year. About two years ago, with a friend’s help, Shawn started the dance up again – monthly – and moved it to the Eagle’s Club. Now with about 100 people attending – ranging from the kids of the people who first started the dance scene, to train hoppers who play music and dance when they come to town, to students from the University of Minnesota – the First Monday Night Dance is alive and kicking again.

I am smiling as the first dance ends. I can’t help it. The people at the Eagle’s Club are warm, welcoming and fun. And the dance! It’s a blast. All of the swinging, turning and swishing create an active and alert energy in my body. This energy is similar yet different than the kind of energy I’m used to in my dance major courses at the University. Typically, the energy created via modern, jazz and ballet classes is more individual than a group experience – although not always.

Also, unlike the other forms of dance that I have studied, square dancing is a completely partnered dance; it cannot be done alone. There are four or six couples per square and even though you start with one partner, you end up dancing with everyone’s partner by the dances’ end. This is because many of the turns, pulls and other dance moves are performed while moving around the square. In other words, each pull of the arm brings you to a different partner thus allowing you dance with everyone. Very social!

Molly is my first partner and we are not taking the dance seriously at all. We were just doing our interpretation of the movements and having a good old time, and that’s the point. The point of square dancing is to let loose and have fun in a social environment.

The band is changing now and we have a chance to breathe, grab a drink from the adjacent bar and talk to our party members. At this point another one of my friends and fellow dance majors, Kelsey, has arrived. We chat with Max. He begins to relate the event to the tap jams he attends in New York and how much fun they are because they bring a lot of random, fun people together.

Shawn tells me that square dancing, like tap jam sessions, is all about bringing people together. It’s a social event. She says when people hear “square dancing” they think of old fashioned club dancing – the kind where people wear the fancy outfits and the white shoes and the crowd is usually older people – and that is not what her dancing is at all. “I make sure people know it’s social dancing when they come to our [dances]. It’s not a ‘hee-haw’ kind of concept.” She says when she promotes her kind of dance she has to really emphasize the social aspect of it.

Square dancing is more than simply something that is fun to do. It is some people’s way of life. People who are completely immersed in this culture find their closest friends here. “Some even get married!” Boasts Shawn. She explains that she and some of the friends she meet through square dancing took a long trip to Europe recently. “There are even professional companies,” Shawn says. The Wild Goose Chase Cloggers, a Minneapolis-based clogging group, was founded by some of the people in the first Monday Night Dance Collective.

After talking with Shawn, I find out that the Eagle’s Club is not the only venue that houses square dancing events in the Twin Cities. Tapestry Folkdance Center, off Minnehaha and 37th, is home to a huge international dance group scene.

Tapestry is a non-profit organization that’s mission, according to their Program Director Rachel Svihel, is to “provide opportunities to participate in dance and music from around the world.” This is why Tapestry, unlike the Eagle’s Club, offers more than just square dancing. Dances such as traditional square/folk, contra and “English country.” They also provide the community with weekly lessons for a nominal fee. Classes range from beginning international dance, swing, hula and belly dancing. Rachel tells me people get involved with these classes by simply showing up; none of their dances require registrations. The Folkdance Center offers the dance community with a few more perks: they host caller workshops and “spotlight series” dance nights. Cajun Dance was the “spotlight series” dance in November. It was held every Friday at 7 p.m.

While Tapestry seems like all that and more, I think the atmosphere might not be as relaxed as it is at the Eagle’s Club because of its structured class-like environment.

After a few more dances I am exhausted. I signal to Molly that “the train is leaving” and we once again climb over chairs and grab our things. With a smile brimming from ear to ear I walk out of the Eagle’s club, waving to those left inside. My motto is to learn at least one new thing everyday, and tonight I learned that square dancing is not just your grandma’s dance.