Square Dancing at the Marxist Library
Do-si-do and promenade home.
Anyone can learn to square dance at the Marxist library—and it’s free.
Photos by Pat Mazzera
On a recent Friday shortly before 8 p.m., two pedestrians paused to read the sandwich sign outside the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library on Telegraph Avenue: OLD TIME SQUARE DANCE! TO-NITE!!! Peeking inside, they saw a wooden floor flanked by shelves of books, people wandering about, and a string band warming up. Amid encouragement—“Come in and try it out!” “No experience necessary!”—the pair hesitated.
They couldn’t know that the space would soon transform: Lights twinkling, fiddle humming, banjo strumming, and dancers following cryptic directions from the caller’s singsong voice: “Heads to the center, sides to the posts, swing in the middle, swing at the coasts!”
What began as a sole fundraiser for the library seven years ago blossomed into a monthly event, square dancing led by caller Jordan Ruyle and accompanied by the Squirrelly Stringband. The event became so popular that another session was added. Now every first and third Friday, the North Oakland Square Dance pulls a steady crowd: dedicated regulars, experienced dancers trying something new, and first timers just plain curious about square dancing in a Marxist library.
Ruyle said no matter his energy level at the start, he’s always recharged seeing people so “disarmed” in the moment, having fun. The old-time style is approachable to folks walking off the street, and he credits the annual Berkeley Old Time Music Convention for inspiration, as does David Murray, fiddle player with Squirrelly Stringband. Murray believes the old-time style welcomes everyone, even those who wouldn’t normally square dance. He said that skeptics arrive claiming they were forced to square dance in the fifth grade wearing funny costumes, and they don’t expect much. “Next thing you know, they’re out there with a huge smile on their face,” he said.
First timer Michael Lynch had seen square dancing on TV Westerns but never tried it. He liked the friendly atmosphere, the action, the laughs—and that there was nothing to learn in advance. The caller tells you what to do, step by step. All you need to do is listen. Plus, it’s forgiving. Missed your corner in the left allemande? Got lost moving around that old haystack? “When in doubt,” Lynch said, “promenade home.”
Weiwei Chen came from Palo Alto where she usually square dances modern Western style, which she described as “more mental, a music puzzle.” She found the old-time style easier for dropping in: more dance, more social, less brain game. “A different kind of fun.”
That recent Friday, as the lights dimmed and people partnered up, the two pedestrians reappeared from their powwow on the sidewalk and joined a square. “We decided to give it a try!” said one.
The band revved up and the caller began, “All join hands and circle to the left.” The moves became more complicated and sometimes silly. Couples created patterns on the floor, spinning, grinning, and occasionally bumping into each other. Next thing you know, those two pedestrians were swinging around, huge smiles on their faces.
North Oakland Square Dance, 8-10 p.m., first and third Fridays, Squirrelly Stringband plays first Fridays, $5-$10 sliding scale, Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library, 6501 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.