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Friday nights in Oakland: square dancing on Telegraph Avenue

Every first and third Friday, Bay Area residents join together to square dance in the Neibyl Proctor Marxist Library to Southern Appalachian Stringband music. (Courtesy of David Weiland)
Every first and third Friday, Bay Area residents join together to square dance in the Neibyl Proctor Marxist Library to Southern Appalachian Stringband music. (Courtesy of David Weiland)

Chairs line the small hall, twinkling Christmas lights are draped from the ceiling and the walls are covered in books.  While swinging, one couple runs into their neighbor and the group dissolves for a moment in giggles before pulling things together and circling again.

The Neibyl Proctor Marxist Library on Telegraph Avenue is filled with people of all ages on the First Friday of October to square dance to Southern Appalachian Stringband music, enjoy a signature $2 Tecate from the red ice chest and listen to traditional music.

Square dancing originated in Europe but was popularized during the 18th century in the United States, according to the Square Dance History Project. Live music is essential, often provided by a fiddle, banjo and guitar. The music also came from Europe and has melded over the centuries with African slave music traditions and is now called Southern Appalachian Stringband Music, or Old-Time. Families in the rural Appalachian region would roll up their rugs and move the furniture to the edge of the room and late into the night the families would dance. It created community. In Oakland,  square dancing again creates community.

 Allegra Thompson, a junior at University of California, Berkeley and avid square dancer,  says square dancing has three selling points: “it’s cheap, it’s incredibly social[and] it’s physical without being difficult.” She said that it is challenging to find things to do under $10, but square dancing is one of the very few.

Before each dance, the caller, someone who has studied square dancing and knows dozens of dances, will explain the dance without music and walk the squares through any difficult parts. The caller tonight, Jordan Ryle,  stands on a chair with a microphone in his hand.

Because no experience is needed, first time dancers always show up. Some hear the music and walk in, others were brought by a friend.

 “The first/third Friday square dances are, in my opinion, a great way to make friends if you’re new to the area[, and]best of all?” Thompson said.  “The environment isn’t deafening, so you can actually have a verbal conversation with these new people you’re meeting. If you keep going, you’ll wind up seeing the same faces dance after dance.”

Robin Fischer, a Bay Area local, has come to love square dancing much more than she expected.

“I wasn’t very into dancing up ’til then ’cause I pretty much suck at types of dancing where you have to keep track of anything for yourself (Cajun, swing, and so on), but having someone just tell you what to do let me chill out and enjoy myself instead of counting or looking at my feet or worrying that I was ruining it for whoever I was dancing with,” said Rischer.

Michael Lewinski, another Bay Area caller,  said that because square dancing is not couples dancing it “has less pressure — asking someone to dance isn’t part of some strange sexualized mating ritual.” Although the squares are made of four couples, gender of the dancers does not matter as long as one person decides to be the gent, or leader, and the other, the lady, and follower.

“In square dancing you depend on your community; your fun is their fun,” Lewinski said. “There are chances for individuality, but if you don’t listen and react to your surroundings, you run the risk of alienating your square, and the fun itself. It’s a place where we can all be part of one whole, while enjoying the music and the rush of the dance together. Square dancing is cooperative; we are forming a small community, not getting in each other’s way.”

For many, the first and third Friday dances are a time to see friends, meet new people, but also get some exercise.

 “I’m also not a very athletic person, and its a really fun way for me to exercise, probably because I’m just there to have a good time,” Rischer said. 

Avid square dancers say it is perfect for anyone because you don’t need to be anything special to have a great time and get some exercise.

“You don’t have to be particularly fast or flexible or strong[, and] it doesn’t take any special clothing or equipment, and you don’t have to get up at dawn to do it,” Thompson said.

By the end of the dance people pour out of the doors onto the sidewalk, breathing heavily, and glistening with sweat. And although tired, everyone is smiling.

“Square dancing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” said  long time Bay Area resident, banjo player and dancer, Maxine Gerber.

Where: Niebyl Proctor Marxist Library on Telegraph Avenue between Alcatraz and 66th Street.

When: Every first and third Friday of each month from 8-10 p.m.

Cost: Sliding scale $5-$10