Hand-in-hand with the traditional artisan and skill-building movements that are tapping into an American admiration for self-reliance and community, square dancing has gained a new spring in its step throughout Virginia.
In the New River Valley, The Indian Run String Band has been both kindlers and keepers of the, sometimes flickering, flame of the region’s traditional music and dance. Last Saturday, the band set the autumn square-dance season off on the right foot.
Heading south on Rt. 8 the woodlots and hayfields down the valley to Poorhouse Knob are yellow under mounds of lavender cloud. It’s an early fall evening on the Little River and arriving at Homestead Farm there are crickets in the goldenrod and squawking geese being put to bed.
Someone is lighting the torches along the gravel road leading to a little red barn strung with lights where the Indian Run String Band is tuning up. A square dance is informal and party-like – all it needs is dancers and a band. The farm is waiting for the guests to arrive and it’s fitting that it is this particular band that will lead the first square dance of the season.
With fiddler Paul Herling noodling around with bits of Mississippi Sawyer behind her, Ginger Wagner, founding member and banjo player for the Indian Run String Band taps her foot as she talks about 40 years of helping to make, nourish, and flourish traditional music in the New River Valley.
Wagner thinks back to the old-time music scene in Blacksburg in 1976, at a music jam at the Blacksburg house of John Luna, who was both a caller and a Virginia Tech entomologist.
Wagner said, “There were about seven of us, and John said, ‘We just ought to have a square dance.’ You know, we should just do that. We can all chip in and buy a sound system,’ ‘cause he was a caller, and he said, ‘I could call and you all could play!’ And we were, like, ‘That sounds like a good idea!’”
So, this exuberant and scholarly bunch, set out. They held their first square dances in the 1970s at elementary schools like Gilbert Linkous and Margaret Beeks. “We moved around…where ever we could get the custodians to open the doors.”
And for four decades, a handful of people: musicians, callers, cloggers, kept the ember of traditional music and dance alive. One of those people was Phil Louer, the owner of this barn and our caller for the dance this evening. And the little barn is beginning to fill up.
Wagner, broad cheekbones, smiling eyes, and a generous mouth, seems built to sing. She is a clogger, a school teacher, and a caller herself.
Before heading to the little stage wreathed in light, she says, “At the time we started there were a lot – and there still are a lot – of old time musicians. We wanted to provide a place for old-time bands to perform. If you’re not performing, you’re not really a band. There’s no reason to practice or be together, so this gave the bands reason to be together. A place to be seen and heard. That was the early idea. “
The Blacksburg Market Square Jam evolved because the cloggers were performing a lot and they needed a band. The pavillion provides a place to meet and play all summer, infrastructure and network that music and dance need to survive and thrive.
“A lot of it is all about how the music and dance complement each other. Because we have a dance, we have to have a band, and because there’s a band, we want to dance,” she said. “That was our goal. People wanted to make music, and, in turn, people wanted to dance. “
And now people are arriving. Coming into the bright barn from the dark in ones and twos and gaggles in torchlight crunching down the gravel road under the pines to the barn. Old people and young people. Some with their parents. Boots, chukkas, sneakers. Jeans, skirts, and a certain amount of plaid. The band is playing something soft and jaunty. Everyone is talking. Some are tapping their hands and feet.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“At first, we had pretty low turn out, but then maybe around [the 2000 movie] ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ came out. That gave us a boost,” Ginger said. The Avett Brothers and bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops are also merited with raising the profile of old-time music.
And then like magic, the barn is full of people, light, and music.
Some are experienced square dancers, like Paul Madden, of Floyd. They scoop up people who might be new saying, “Would you like this first dance with me?” He and his daughter attend dances together. “She’s a very good dancer,” he said. With help from confident, friendly partners, it was true that no experience is necessary to square dance. Phil Louer, the caller, led the dancers – some very good, confident, others just eager – through dances simple and complex sometimes wading in among them to demonstrate and explain.
The Indian Run String Band and Louer carried us through playing tunes like Forked Deer and Fly All Around My Pretty Little Miss. Laughing and whooping and Phil’s steady:“Swing your partner high and low. Swinger her til her petticoats show… Swing her again”
Square dancing’s physicality and abandon, periodically crashing into your neighbor, even the first, easy promenade in a big circle ice-breaker that involved a big yell and made us sweaty in the little barn.
From outside in the cool dark, with the crickets and pines, the thumping feet on the wooden planks, the whole barn becomes an instrument.
A full-bodied swinging and being swung is great fun. Coming together in the center of the circle, getting there and yelling “whoo!” is delightful with friends, hilarious with strangers.
Not only is dancing in a large group, like all art, joyous, cross-generational, and just fun, swinging and alamanding and promenading keeps this tradition going. These dances are efforts to ignite and fan a kind of public art and community participation in that art.
Dances are held throughout the winter, monthly except January. The next two will be Nov. 4 and Dec. 2 at the Sapphire Ballroom in Christiansburg at 8 p.m. with different callers and bands. For more information about NRV dances, visit Dare to Be Square Blacksburg, www.daretobesquare.org/ and ‘Blacksburg Square Dance’ Facebook page. To cut a wider swathe visit: Virginia Contra Dance, Square Dance, and Waltz Schedule www.contradancelinks.com/schedule_VA.html.