The first lesson I learn at Village Ballroom's weekly square dance is that punctuality matters: My friends and I arrive 20 minutes late, and we are immediately circled by gray-haired cowboy types wanting to dance. Never mind that our raincoats are still dripping and that none of us have square-danced since high-school gym class—we are in demand. I quickly learn my second lesson: Don't say no. When I mutter something about sitting out the first round, one of the chaps brusquely waves me off, mumbling discontentedly. But this is (really) the only interaction over the course of two hours that is not mind-bogglingly (really!) heartwarming. And so, the third lesson: These square dancers are damn friendly, from the young parents with their pigtailed tykes, to the older folks in denim vests and bolo ties, to the 20-something creatives in studded leather, earnest plaid and kerchiefs.
On this Sunday evening in North Portland, a band called the Gold Diggers strums fiddle, banjo and guitar as caller Jane Palmieri sips an Occidental Doppelbock out of a plastic cup. The dances are gender-neutral: Palmieri provides instructions for those "playing the gent" or "playing the lady." About 70 of those gent and lady players spin across the ballroom's 100-year-old wooden floor, and even more will probably promenade down to the Portland Old Time Music Gathering, a five-day festival devoted to Appalachian-style string music occurring across the city starting this week.
After sitting out the first dance, I partner with a suspenders-wearing gent named Steve and later with a younger man named Walker. Walker and I find ourselves in a group of eight equally inexperienced dancers, none of whom know much about weaving the ring, breaking the basket or shooting the star. The caller informs us that we have reached the most complicated pattern of the evening. Our group, mostly strangers, attempts the steps before deciding to wing it: We hook arms gleefully, play tag and incorporate elements of the Hokey Pokey and the Horah. We look around: Everyone else seems comfortable with all these allemandes and do-si-dos. We continue, laughing, perhaps emboldened by our pints, or perhaps just grateful for lesson No. 4: Creative improvisation trumps all.
GO: The Portland Old-Time Music Gathering is Wednesday-Sunday, Jan. 16-20. Various locations. Costs vary. Every Sunday Square Dance is at the Village Ballroom, 700 NE Dekum St. 7-9 pm. $7 sliding scale.
WEDNESDAY JAN. 16
THURSDAY JAN. 17
FRIDAY JAN. 18
SATURDAY JAN. 19
SUNDAY JAN. 20