Gay Everyday People w/a Cowboy Hat+Dance Do-si-Do inU.S.Cities Starting in Brooklyn+More

"No in Brooklyn they are not naked"

  Folk dancing, often associated with rural environments, provides an alternative to the usual nightlife scene in cities. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk) 

NEW YORK (TND) — "You are here!" proclaims a sign on the door of a brick building in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. Then, it asks, "Would you like to dance?"

It's reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland's "Drink Me," but those who accept the invitation won't suddenly shrink in size or wind up down the rabbit hole. If a psychedelic-tinged escapade is what someone's after, a wealth of kaleidoscopic venues in Brooklyn will deliver precisely that, but behind this particular door is a scene arguably more surprising than oversized mushrooms and grinning Cheshire cats.

The door is a portal to a neighbor’s down-home barn in a small Southern town, emptied of last year’s hay by springtime and instead abuzz with the driving, foot-stomping rhythm of a carefree fiddle and the whirl of full-skirted dresses. Or it’s a means of time travel to postwar New York City in the late 1940s, albeit an alternate version of the decade with Converse’s future-forward Run Star Motion silhouette and a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

In actuality, this is the site of Brooklyn Contra’s twice-monthly dances. Folk dancing, often associated with rural environments, provides an alternative to the usual nightlife scene in cities. (Video: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

Going out dancing in New York City usually carries a different connotation.

Behind the arched door with the intriguing sign is a well-lit gymnasium, sunshine streaming in through large windows and fluorescent lights overhead. There doesn’t seem to be a particular age group attracted to this activity, nor is there any real consistency in attire. And for thirsty dancers, relief comes via water cooler, not at a bar.

Then, there’s the dance itself.

Contra dance, as the community-based organization’s website describes, is what would result “if swing dancing and square dancing met in a bar.” Think: do-si-doing to the sound of a fiddle but in long, parallel lines rather than four-couple squares.

If the thought of dancing in the city immediately evokes imagery of a hazy nightclub and shots poured to the persistent thump of an electronic beat, the word "do-si-do" alone will transport the mind somewhere else entirely. Maybe it's that country barn stripped of its hay supply by a long winter, or it's the one association that has reached most city residents — a gymnasium just like Brooklyn Contra's but during an elementary school lesson dreaded by every cootie-phobic child.

For over a decade, New Yorkers have been do-si-doing at Brooklyn Contra's twice-monthly events. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

Stereotypes aside, contra dance actually makes a lot of sense in New York City.

For one, it's an excellent way to meet people in a city that, despite its 8.5 million residents, can often feel isolating. Connections on a crowded train are few and far between, but swinging a partner round and round creates instant camaraderie. At Brooklyn Contra's events, social anxiety is soothed with name tags, beginner lessons prior to the official start time, and a friendly group of regulars eager to welcome first-timers.

And although the common perception of contra dance comes tied to specific regions, the pastime has a multicultural background fitting for the diverse makeup of New York City.

Those who last do-si-doed back in fifth grade may consider square dancing and, by extension, contra to be as American as apple pie. Technically, they’d be correct, as neither apple pie nor square dancing has strict origins in America. The first recipes for apple pie actually came from England — right around the time that English country dancing began to gain popularity.

An early predecessor to square, contra, and other social dances, English country dancing was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I during her 16th-century reign. Even then, the genre likely drew inspiration from multiple cultures, ranging from Italian dancing masters to the traditions of local country folk. As published manuals of figures and tunes spread English country dancing across Europe, countries like France, Spain, and Germany infused regional flavor into the basic blueprints.

Many of the modern-day moves came from this period, and the French influence is visible in terms like "promenade" (referring to a leisurely walk) and "dos-à-dos" (meaning "back-to-back" and Anglicized as "do-si-do").

Just like in square dancing, a caller communicates each move to the crowd during a contra dance. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

At a recent Brooklyn Contra event, Paul Morris stood with a microphone at one end of the gymnasium and instructed the dancers' every move. Morris, a Kentucky native, has a voice made for calling contra dances, and with over two decades of contra dance experience, he has the necessary know-how, too.

Back when English country dances were flourishing in Queen Elizabeth I's court and evolving across Europe, Morris' role did not yet exist. Before callers became such an integral aspect of the experience, the dances had to make their way over to America.

There, the white settlers continued, at first, to learn and memorize the figures during lessons with dance masters. The responsibility of providing the music, though, fell on enslaved Africans. At some point, the slaves began to organize dances for themselves, incorporating movements familiar to them and providing instruction through a call-and-response pattern common in the African music tradition. As this practice of calling grew increasingly prevalent, slaves were eventually made to prompt white dancers through allemandes and promenades, and the dances from Europe took on a new life through the slaves' preservation of African culture.

Despite today’s perception of a dance floor as a place for all types of people to come together, the involvement of slaves in these early dances had no such profound impact. Never mind that the Black influence played a pivotal part in shaping social dancing as we know it — the slaves' contributions would soon be ignored in favor of a whitewashed version that would persist for decades to come.

It's unlikely, then, that Henry Ford was aware of the African influence on square dancing when he pushed for do-si-dos in elementary school curriculums and distributed an illustrated dance manual of standardized formations and sequences.

Some historians have suggested that Ford, better known for his success in the automobile industry than his dancing prowess, used square dancing to further a white supremacist agenda in the 1920s. Vocal in his antisemitic beliefs, Ford, according to these historians, viewed jazz music as a Jewish plot to corrupt Americans and control the weak-minded. Only the “wholesome” nature of fiddle music and old-fashioned dancing, Ford thought, could effectively save society. (Others have argued that, despite Ford's bigoted beliefs, it's difficult to prove that a hatred of jazz provided any real motivation for his square dancing campaign.)

In the 1970s, contra dancing caught the attention of hippies, who weren't fond of the word "square" or the formality of the dances enjoyed by their parents' generation. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

Whatever his motivations, Henry Ford, of course, was not successful in thwarting the rise of jazz music. But his efforts to promote the styles of his youth did boost interest in old-fashioned dances. After Ford's personal acknowledgment of fiddler Mellie Durham turned the Maine resident into a national sensation, a flood of fiddling contests in 1926 promised a taste of fame to hopeful musicians across the country. Ford had little to no involvement in the competitions, but organizers suggested otherwise by holding the contests at Ford dealerships and hiring Henry Ford impersonators.

By the summer of 1926, the fiddling frenzy had died down, although Ford continued to hold dances into the 1940s.

Throughout its history, the square dance has never disappeared entirely, but its popularity has come and gone (and come again, and gone again) several times over the past century.

Starting in the 1930s, a caller by the name of Ed Durlacher was instrumental in spreading square dancing throughout New York City. He called at the 1939 New York World's Fair, at weekly dances at the Jones Beach Bandshell in Long Island, and at Pepsi-sponsored gatherings in Central Park.

A New York Times article from 1940 announced a square dance revival: “Square dances, never forgotten in small communities throughout the country, are returning to favor in the cities."

Contra’s big moment would come several decades later when caller Dudley Laufman’s stylistic choices caught the attention of the counterculture movement.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, hippies headed to communes in New Hampshire to pursue apple picking and stumbled upon the one region still dedicated to keeping contra alive. These young people, who weren’t all that fond of the word “square,” had no interest in the structure and formality of the dances enjoyed by their parents, but contra caught their attention. Free from pretension, Laufman’s events encouraged would-be dancers to just show up — bare feet, casual attire, and all.

Inclusivity is a key part of Brooklyn Contra's mission. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

Many of today’s dances embrace this same spirit of inclusivity. There’s certainly no dress code at Brooklyn Contra’s events, where it’s normal to see a barefoot dancer in a tie-dyed sunflower T-shirt swinging a partner in a vintage-inspired shirt dress, stockings, and ballet flats. The best thing to wear, according to organizer Joe Rinehart, is “anything you can move in.” He suggests leaving big heels at home, both for ease of movement and for the sake of the gymnasium’s floor.

Since Brooklyn Contra’s founding in 2010, a committee of volunteer organizers has prioritized a comfortable, welcoming environment for all.

From personal experience, Rinehart knows that showing up to dance contra for the first time can be intimidating. 

“I was terrified,” he said. “It’s a very odd experience. You have to put yourself out there socially and ask people to dance. But what was really great about it is that people would say yes.”

Further contributing to Brooklyn Contra’s vision of inclusion and diversity is an adaptation of the calls to attach less gender significance to the roles — “leads” and “follows,” rather than the standard “ladies” and “gents.” Other outdated terms, like a move called the “gypsy,” have been replaced as well.

All over the country, gender-free calling has become a common way to modernize traditional folk dances and appeal to a new crowd. The alternative designations vary. One of the earliest swaps was “bands” and “bares” back in the late ‘80s, but in recent years, “larks” and “ravens” seems to have gained the greatest amount of traction, with the lark position standing on the left side and the raven on the right.

Gender-free calling reinforces a spirit of inclusivity and simplifies the process of linking up with a partner. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

Like Brooklyn Contra, Baltimore Square Dance has done away with gendered language.

“There's definitely been a movement over the past decades to make sure the terms used are appropriate and welcoming,” said Brad Kolodner, the co-founder of Baltimore Square Dance and a driving force of the old-time music scene in Baltimore.

“Maybe two guys want to dance together, or two women, or two non-binary folks. You don't have to be a ‘gent’ or a ‘lady’ to do the dance,” he continued. “We don’t make a big deal about gender-free calling. We’ve just tried to normalize it.”

With over 200 people attending a typical Baltimore Square Dance event, an emphasis on inclusion is crucial. Since the initial dance in November 2013, growth has come primarily through word of mouth, meaning the continuation of the event’s success relies heavily on attendees feeling welcome and having a good time. And for Kolodner, motivation for creating a long-lasting, enjoyable event comes from a desire to share not only his passion but his upbringing.

Kolodner's father is Ken Kolodner, a highly regarded hammered dulcimer player and fiddler. The younger Kolodner grew up immersed in his father's music. Arriving home from school, he'd find his dad practicing in the living room, and at night, the sound of the hammered dulcimer served as a lullaby.

"Whatever your parents do, you just assume that's normal," Kolodner said. "I didn't understand quite how special it was until I grew up a bit and realized how fortunate I was to have such incredible access to this kind of music in my own house."

Brad Kolodner, co-founder of Baltimore Square Dance, owes his interest in old-time music to his father, a renowned hammered dulcimer player and fiddler. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

An interest in old-time music as a teenager led to a father-son duo act by college, which turned into four albums, dozens of shows a year, and the Baltimore Old Time Jam, a long-standing bi-weekly bluegrass meetup. It was this last accomplishment that led to the formation of Baltimore Square Dance, after Kolodner recognized the larger potential of the informal square dances that often popped up in the back of Liam Flynn's Ale House during the jam sessions.

Square dancing with a bunch of bluegrass musicians was akin to preaching to the choir, but throughout Baltimore awaited a new congregation seeking quirky alternatives to the run-of-the-mill nightlife scene. Square dancing simply wasn’t yet on the radars of those who had been forced to partner up in fifth grade and then never again gave the activity a second thought.

“You hear square dance, and all these images flood your mind. People have this idea that to square dance, you have to look a certain way, or you have to act a certain way. But really, you just show up,” said Kolodner.

Through Baltimore Square Dance, Kolodner has worked to dispel these preconceived notions, particularly the misjudged categorization of Baltimore as an unusual place to go square dancing.

The stereotype of bluegrass as a musical tradition confined to the rural South considers only the genre’s origins, not its expansion. It shouldn’t come as a shock, really, that the remote populations of Appalachia carried the sounds of their region with them when seeking industrial jobs in urban locales during the 20th century. And so was the case in Baltimore, where soon-to-be bluegrass legends got their start playing at bohemian house parties and in cramped local bars.

In 1984, Baltimore hosted the National Square Dance Convention, a three-day extravaganza spread out across 11 dance halls and four outdoor dancing areas. "Baltimore is one square dancing town," declared an ad in the American Square Dance magazine, positioning the city as a recently revitalized hub of history and culture.

Square dancing is also the state folk dance of Maryland, although this is not so much a reflection of the state's specific traditions as it is the result of a highly divisive campaign launched in hopes of eventually cementing square dancing as the national folk dance of the United States.

Approximately 200 people attended a recent Baltimore Square Dance event, filling Pigtown's Mobtown Ballroom from wall to wall. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

Kolodner, often found onstage playing fiddle or banjo during Baltimore Square Dance's events, is both aware of his role in furthering the story of bluegrass in Baltimore and unafraid to deviate from the past.

“The point of the dance isn't so much to preserve a tradition as it is to build community and bring joy into the lives of those who live in Baltimore,” he said.

At the restored 1870s church in Pigtown where Baltimore Square Dance holds a majority of events, formality may have been thrown out the (very large, arch-top) window. Another side of square dancing, however, retains quite a bit more structure.

Not to be confused with the always beginner-friendly format at Baltimore Square Dance events, Modern Western square dancing requires participants to not only know at least some of the terminology but to then be able to execute those calls on the fly. Notably absent are the slower, music-free walkthroughs that precede each dance at both Brooklyn Contra and Baltimore Square Dance. That's by design, as the choreography in Modern Western square dancing isn't based on the repetition of simple sequences but instead represents the impromptu whims of the caller.

The spontaneity of each individual dance necessitates a systematic overall approach to Modern Western square dancing. 

Dancers progress through a series of different levels, each building upon the one prior with additional calls and concepts. At the "mainstream" level, 69 calls must be grasped. For "plus," that number jumps to 100. "Advanced" is split into two tiers, the first with 146 calls and concepts and the second with 181. And if someone were to progress through all four sublevels of the "challenge" program, they'd wind up with knowledge of approximately 1,000 calls and 100 concepts.

For the sake of consistency, an international society of square dance callers has been standardizing Modern Western square dance since the 1970s.

Callerlab, officially established in 1974, ensures that the terminology at one dance precisely matches that of another, such that even dances in overseas countries are called in English. Because of these efforts, gender-based cues are still the norm at Modern Western square dancing clubs — even those specifically serving the LGBTQ+ community. When Jim Babcock, accustomed at the time to contra dancing, initially learned of Modern Western square dance, he didn’t understand why anyone would be drawn to the complicated-sounding style over contra’s smooth, straightforward approach.

Eventually, Babcock’s mounting curiosity led him to a Modern Western square dance lesson. To his surprise, he loved it just as much as he did contra dancing. With a firm grasp on many of the moves from his prior folk dancing experience, Babcock progressed through the first two levels after spending a year or so with each. His journey through the "advanced" level took about three years, with the interruption of COVID-19 slowing his momentum.

Now, Babcock is the president of Times Squares, New York’s only active LGBTQ+ square dance club.

Gay square dancing probably isn’t among those stereotypical images that come up at the thought of a do-si-do, but back in the 1980s, the presence of the LGBTQ+ community was extensive enough to warrant the development of the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs. Currently, the umbrella organization lists nearly 60 member clubs in locations ranging from Tokyo to Texas.

“A lot of the gay groups in the ‘70s and ‘80s were trying to find ways to connect with people that weren’t centered around bars and drinking,” said Babcock.

And so, gay square dancing clubs began to form, including Times Squares in 1984. Beside fostering connections, the clubs also became a place where gay dancers could feel immediately welcome, something that wasn't a guarantee otherwise.

"Gay people being accepted at straight clubs is the result of a lot of work over the years," Babcock said. 

Although Callerlab's guidelines have perpetuated the usage of "ladies" and "gents'' in the world of Modern Western square dancing, it would make little sense for LGBTQ+ events to strictly enforce gender roles. At Times Squares, attendees are free to choose whichever position they please. Some members develop preferences, but Babcock recommends learning both for maximum flexibility.

Besides the fluidity of roles, several other distinctions set gay square dancing apart. For one, gay clubs have developed their own flourishes, referring to the stylistic touches that more experienced dancers may add to basic calls.

And whereas Modern Western square dancing generally embraces petticoats and cowboy hats, gay clubs often eschew elaborate apparel in favor of casual dress. Additionally, the matching outfits worn by partners at non-gay clubs are a rare sight in the LGBTQ+ square dancing community. This presents a greater challenge for the caller, who must keep track of each couple’s position without any obvious visual reminders to distinguish one pairing from another.

There are also fly-ins, invitations to gather for a long weekend in a host club’s city. Gay clubs, fewer in number, tend to lack nearby connections to other groups of the same type. With a fly-in comes the valuable opportunity for clubs based in different states to get together. Times Squares’ turn to host comes every October or November with a three-day affair called “Peel the Pumpkin.”

A typical Brooklyn Contra event attracts around 100 dancers. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

At the start of a recent Baltimore Square Dance event, the spacious interior of Pigtown's Mobtown Ballroom barely felt big enough for the eager-to-dance crowd. Attendees squeezed into every corner of the crowded space as they formed their first four-couple squares of the night.

Only that initial dance felt quite so cramped. As the night went on, people retired to tables periodically to rest their feet, and families with small children headed home for bedtime. Others skipped dances to stop by the bar. (Alcohol and dimmer lighting at the late-evening event nudges Baltimore Square Dance closer toward the ambiance expected of a typical Saturday night destination.)

A springtime gathering with Brooklyn Contra was similarly well-attended, with two sets of parallel lines spanning the length of the gymnasium from the band to the snack table.

Labeling the current level of interest a "revival" may not be entirely accurate, given that both Brooklyn Contra and Baltimore Square Dance have been around for some time. But after the pandemic put a pause to any interaction with even a passing resemblance to a promenade, social dancing has felt like a welcome shift from social distancing, as evidenced by high turnouts at the community-centric events.

For Times Squares, it took until 2022 to once again feel some sense of normalcy, but attendance still lags behind pre-pandemic levels. The club hopes to combat this sluggish return with additional open houses, one per month, intended to attract first-time dancers. Free of charge, the open houses will introduce attendees to Modern Western square dance and familiarize them with some of the most common calls.

According to Babcock, the popularity of gay Modern Western square dancing peaked in the ‘90s. Since then, growth has been a challenge. Many of Times Squares’ members have been dancing with the club for decades, and each departure is deeply felt.

“Over time, people get older. People move away,” Babcock said. “We did have two members pass away this year. Our club is slowly shrinking, but we’re keeping it together.”

Estimating the average age somewhere in the high 60s, Babcock admits that the club’s demographics may seem “less exciting” to younger generations. He’s hopeful, though, that the trend will shift.

“There’s a club in Ottawa that attracted the attention of a social media influencer, and it totally changed their dynamic. They have two dozen new members, all over the map of gender identities, ages, and ethnicities,” said Babcock.