When I call to ask whether or not my six-year-old can do these dances, the woman on the other end of the phone laughs. “My daughter’s been doing them since she was about four,” she says. “They’ll teach them to you, and if you get stuck, they’ll come right down and help.”
I thank her and when we hang up she actually says to me, “Okeydokey.”
The big, barnlike Pittsfield Union Grange building stands sentinel in the midst of ugly shopping centers and expensive urban sprawl. The long wooden floor of the dance hall is filled to the brim with folks of all ages. This is about as quaintly charming as you can get. Up on stage, an old-time band plays on fiddle, bass, and upright piano. The dancers form two elongated circles, switching places, stomping and skedaddling back and forth, up and down. Sammy and I stand for the duration of that dance, watching, intimidated. “It’s cool, isn’t it?” I ask him. “Yeah,” he says, “but I can’t do it.”
I don’t think I can either, until we spot my friend Jo Broughton and her two little girls, ages five and seven. There they are, right in the middle of the floor. Whenever one of them doesn’t know what to do, helping hands guide her across, around, or through. And once Sammy sees them, he looks at me excitedly. If they can do it, why not us?
Everyone’s dressed in comfortable Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, even the teens, who are worth mentioning. There are a lot of young people in the thirteen-to-nineteen age range. They have a grace and beauty unlike anything I see in the general population: tall young women in skirts and sweaters (nothing remotely similar to below-the-navel hip-huggers here), nicely dressed young men. They solemnly listen to the caller, shoulders relaxed and necks long; respectful is the right word. There’s no uncomfortable smirking, just honest-to-goodness joy. Once Sammy and I join in the next dance, a few kind words help us see what everyone else is doing.
Though we’re newcomers in what’s clearly a well-established community, our presence is encouraged, embraced even. The callers tell little stories about the dance or the music. We all listen. Everyone learns what is essential — just a few easy steps, stomps, turns, and directional changes at a time. We practice and then learn some more. Then we laugh and dance and whirl together. It’s surprisingly easy. And wonderfully gratifying.
The next Family Dance at the Pittsfield Grange is Sunday, May 21.
[Review published May 2006]