On Friday nights, square dancing locals gather amidst vintage union posters and shelves of Socialist literature. This unusual dance hall is the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist library, which plays host to the bi-monthly North Oakland Square Dance. Its well scuffed dance floor comes alive with old-time music by the Squirrelly String Band, playing “scratchy old mountain music” on fiddle, guitar, banjo, and wash-tub bass.
Fiddle player David Murray says the square dance started as a way for the band to play more old-time music together. It has since become wildly successful, with numbers swelling to 80 or more in recent months. For this lively, all-ages crowd, the dress code leans toward plaid shirts and cowboy boots but is by no means de rigueur. On a recent Friday evening, I found myself swinging skinny jean-wearing hipsters, a beer-bellied man in a Hawaiian shirt, and a girl in a black tutu. A handful of mohawked punks even burst in and enthusiastically square-moshpitted for half a tune.
Even if you don’t know do-re-mi from do-si-do, square dancing is first-timer friendly. The first dances of the night begin with the basics. For example, caller Jordan Ruyle breaks down the Allemande into two steps: first join left hands in “arm wrestling” position and then walk around in a tight circle with your partner. As the evening progresses, Jordan adds new moves to get you dancing in elegant patterns — or giggling tangles, depending on how many left feet you own.
Another common square dance call is the promenade — crossing hands and traveling side-by-side with your partner. While you can promenade within your square, the fun comes when you break away to “promenade all around the room.” You then join up to form a new square, dancing the pattern you just learned with new couples. The genius of course is if you are partnered with a cute boy or girl, you take them with you to the next square — whereupon you meet other cute boys and girls to dance with in the next tune.
The band ends the evening with a waltz. As charming couples glide around the room, the rest of us pair up to execute the side-to-side slow dance shuffle fondly remembered from middle school. Afterwards, everyone stays to chat, pick up empty cans of Tecate, and take down Christmas lights. As the little Marxist library shuts its doors for the night, the squaredancers put on their coats and get back to being students, architects, teachers, gardeners and, well, old-time musicians. Still, you can hear a faint a whoop and a holler as they walk or bike home down Telegraph Avenue. We’re all looking forward to the next dance, just two weeks away.
North Oakland Squaredance
8-10pm First and Third Fridays
Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library
6501 Telegraph Avenue
SQUIRRELLY STRINGBAND | scratchy old mountain music
More information at: http://www.squirrellystringband.com/
Guest blogger Ginger Jui is a graduate student in Integrative Biology. She also blogs at www.flamingbike.wordpress.com.