Detroit Square Dance Society: So uncool it's hot
Detroit music fans are notorious non-dancers. You may see a room packed with millenials watching a tremendous band rocking out, but you will be watching a crowd of bushy-bearded guys and stylishly tattooed women standing stock still except for their rhythmically nodding heads.
So what would provoke four 30-something musicians to start a monthly dance party called the Detroit Square Dance Society?
"I think that dancing is the best way to enjoy live music," said Lindsay McCraw. As a musician who plays many stringed instuments, she said, "You get so much energy and it's so much fun playing when there's dancing going on."
McCaw “calls” the square dances, ordering everyone around with humor and rhymes. At the beginning of each individual dance she makes sure the squares have the right number of people and walks everyone through the patterns, explaining terms like Do-Si-Do, Promenade and a new one on me, “Dig for the Oyster.”
You don’t need to come with a partner because you’ll wind up dancing with everyone anyway. The figures whirl with partners switching up and taking turns following the calls. McCaw helps singles to join in and fill spots on the eight-person squares.
The other three co-founders of the society comprise the band. Aaron Jonah Lewis mans the fiddle. Ben Luttermoser and Rachel Pearson handle the guitar and stand-up bass respectively, as they do in their two-piece band Mountaintop.
When Lewis and McCaw moved to Detroit several years ago they met Luttermoser and Pearson, who were already thinking about organizing a square dance. The four, who all live in Detroit, realized they had the right instruments and an experienced caller in McCaw. “I learned calling by osmosis,” she said. She lived in a series of small towns from Wisconsin to Vermont where house parties are common and anyone can stand up and call if they feel so moved.
It took a while to find the right venue, a bar with a big dance floor that would let them start the evening with a potluck supper. They wanted their dances to be a party where people socialize like they did in the small towns where square dancing thrived a century ago. A little food, a little alcohol and the big city seems a friendlier place. When they hit on the Gaelic League in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, all the pieces came together.
They've been holding one a month since November and were asked to host a dance for the opening of the current "Dance! American Art 1830-1960" exhibit at the DIA and to finish out the Hamtramck Music Festival in March.
"It's surprising how different it is to play for a seated crowd that's very quiet or to play for dancers,” McCraw said. “It's totally different."
She said sometimes she looks out at the crowd and "the dancers are all doing this crazy spiral dance at that moment, and you can see that people are enjoying it and they're moving to the music. And it just seems like you're doing something that's giving somebody something in such an easy and recognizable way."
Dare to dance square
The main impetus behind organizing a square dance is to create a community happening -- an excuse for neighbors to get together and have fun. It's pretty hard not to meet at least a handful of people at a square dance. After all, you're holding their hand, swinging them around, messing up and laughing about it.
"Having a square dance is the perfect union of music, dance, food and drink and people coming together to have a good time," Lewis said. "It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, what you believe in, how much money you have. Everybody's welcome. It doesn't even matter if you dance at all. You're just in this room full of people having a great time."
So far the crowds of about 60 or so have included some middle-aged Irish set dancers and folk dancers, which you might expect, but also a lot of 20-40 year olds you wouldn't, like members of the indie band Willa Rae and the Minor Arcana, who showed up after their rehearsal.
The skill threshold is very low. The caller explains the moves, everyone practices them a couple of times. If you mess up no one cares. If you're going the wrong way someone will grab you and turn you around. It does help if you're able to laugh at yourself because it's guaranteed you'll flub up at some point.
"You can come not knowing anything about it and quite easily get sucked into the vortex of square dancing," said first-timer Bridget Quinn of Detroit, "and then suddenly you're looking around and everyone has this insane smile on their face and you feel utter and complete joy."
Her dance partner Chris Reilly, also of Detroit, added,, "At a techno club everybody's totally into it (dancing), but at bars and shows if there's not enough people doing it there's not that critical mass. Here you're sort of pushed into it – in a good way."
Discovering old-time music
Lindsay McCaw and Aaron Jonah Lewis met over their love of old-time music at the Appalachia String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. Swing, trad jazz, country, honky tonk, ragtime, if it's "old," Lewis loves it.
While he also plays banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass, he says he's obsessed with fiddle music. He knows hundreds of fiddle tunes and plays them with a virtuosity that enthralls his audiences when he's playing for listening and not for square dancing. For that he plays to inspire the feet.
He and McCaw play in the Corn Potato String Band. McCaw plays fiddle, banjo, guitar and Hawaiian (or steel) guitar. In addition to calling the square dances she's a rip-snortin' flat footer and gives a brief lesson before each dance.
Flat footing is old time country dancing that looks like a cross between tap dancing and soft shoe with a bit of country style stomping thrown in. You can do it alone while listening to the music or within your square during the time you and your partner are watching another couple cut a figure.
After college in Milwaukee, McCaw lived in small towns in Wisconsin and Vermont where she sidled into the clogging and flat footing communities.
So uncool it's ‘double-reverse cool’
To be fair, there are two square dance clubs in the city that meet in community centers and there are more scattered throughout southeastern Michigan, but this is the first centered in downtown Detroit.
Jennie Knaggs of the two-piece band Lac La Belle, who brought the square dance society to the Hamtramck Music Festival, speculated on the dance form's popularity with the young downtown crowd. "I don't think people in their 20s and 30s had square dancing in school like our parents did and the things that associated it with being ‘uncool,’" Knaggs said during the dance in Hamtramck. "They just weren't exposed to it. So now this art that has been around for generations just seems new to younger people."
As the saying goes, sooner or later everything old is new again when our current generation discovers it. But is it cool?
"People get too wrapped up in being cool," Knaggs said. "What's nice about square dancing is that you're free. It's just fun. It's silly. And you can make mistakes, and you dance with strangers, and you make friends. It's not about being cool. It has nothing to do with that and I think that's why people enjoy it so much. There's no pomp involved whatsoever."
Or as Sam Newman, 28, of Detroit said at the dance, "Maybe it's cool in its total not-coolness? I think it's reverse cool, double reverse deep-end cool."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Where to get square
The square dances start up again in September. Watch for details on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Detroitsquaredance/
Meanwhile, the Corn Potato String Band composed of Lewis on fiddle, McCraw on guitar and Ben Belcher on banjo, just released a new CD "Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet," available at http://cornpotato.com/. The band is touring this summer.