A beautiful spring night hits Pittsburgh, the warm weather rising. Here on this Lawrenceville side street on a Saturday night, we walk up the steep steps into an old church hall with vaulted ceilings and wooden pews lining the periphery and hear the band members tune up with plinks and plunks. A breeze glides in through the door, and right away we know this is not our 1970’s elementary school gym class. There is no record player in the corner playing cheesy, scratchy songs, and Robbie Riggle will not come screaming toward me as the teacher yells for everyone to grab a partner.
Here, growlers of East End beer lay scattered in a tub of ice. Lavender quinoa coconut muffins are for sale. Later, a Cake Walk lets dancers win homemade pies and cakes while testing their musical chair/freeze tag dance skills.
A caller moves forward, microphone in hand, and with an optimistic step and quick smile she gathers together the hipsters and middle-aged gen-Xers, the tweens and those here with actual as well as no square dance experience. This night, Janine Smith (sister to Pittsburgh’s East End Brewery’s Scott Smith) has come in from DC.
Smith is patient with us. Very patient. We don’t necessarily know what we’re doing, after all, but soon we’re swinging our partners high and low. We’re bowing to our corners. We’re promenading around the world. “It’s like the beltway in DC!” Smith says of a Mixer where two concentric circles move rapidly opposite each other. “It’s a human Spirograph,” patron Marc Nieson points out. Smith yodels and sings and encourages us to high five when we’ve done a good job. And we do. We square dance.
The Steel City Squares premiered their first official dance in May with another scheduled for this Saturday, June 28. Fiddle player Megan Rooney is one of six of the organizing musicians who have played old-time Appalachian music for years but have always wanted a live audience to play to in Pittsburgh.
“Dancing is what this music is about,” Rooney says. “Sure, it’s fun to just play, but the music is really supposed to be danced to.” After playing by themselves for years in Pittsburgh living rooms, the musicians’ interest is now in playing for dancers. “That’s why I wanted to make it happen here,” says Rooney in her full-skirted thrift store dress and cowboy boots. She used to live in Missoula, Montana, and first learned to fiddle and play dances there.
And happen it did. Five, six, seven squares of pairs came back for each new dance. We faced our corners, promenaded and doe-see-doed. We even chased the squirrel and chased the rabbit. And we couldn’t stop smiling. “Square dancing is the most fun you can have with a bunch of strangers,” says dancer Chris Leone. “And the great thing is, you don’t have to know what you’re doing at all. It’s completely unpretentious.”
The biggest mistake I made this night was wearing open-toed sandals. Not a good idea with fumbling feet hitting the ground all around. I made other mistakes, too, of course. But everyone did. It’s not about perfection, and no one is watching you mess up because they’re too busy trying to follow the latest call while the band plays on.
“It’s frolicking, good-time fun and a great way to connect with people,” says Rooney. “There’s so much joy out there on the dance floor! I think it’s perfect for our society right now. We aren’t necessarily very good at going up to someone and saying, ‘Hey, hi. How are you?’ out of the blue. It’s a very non-threatening, easy connection. It’s better than Match.com.”
This night’s band consists of Rooney on fiddle, Eric Lipsky on banjo, Brad Vaughn on guitar and John Wagner Givens on bass, playing excellently titled old-time songs like “The Girl I left Behind,” “The Rattlesnake Bit the Baby,” and “Shove the Pig’s Foot Further into the Fire.”
They all have day jobs. The music comes out of pure, foot-stomping passion. The mission here is to gather a loose affiliation of bands and callers that change with each month’s dance. As they go forward, they will work with nonprofits to stage fundraisers. September’s dance will be sponsored by Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse.
“In the 70s Pittsburgh had a big folk revival with lots of folks doing Appalachian style dancing. I think this is the second wave,” Rooney says. “I think square dancing went out of vogue, but now in Pittsburgh young people are getting back into it.”