Detroit Do-Si-Do: Square Dancing In The City Is Hot

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Tyanna Buie and Eli Gold, both of Detroit, dance under the outstretched arms of the other dancers.

Tyanna Buie and Eli Gold, both of Detroit, dance under the outstretched arms of the other dancers.

When was the last time you had a seriously good laugh? Can you think of a moment where you just couldn’t stop smiling? When you’re dancing with the Detroit Square Dance Society, those feelings just come naturally.

Believe it or not, square dancing is making a comeback in Detroit and its suburbs, where small groups of fanatics are gathering regularly to enjoy a bit of old-time song and dance.

Square dancing is a casual form of partner dancing consisting of endless amounts of arm-linking, twirling and swinging your partner. Most importantly, it is one of the easiest ways to simply let loose and get a fantastic aerobic workout, do-si-do style.

Take it from Aaron Jonah Lewis, a 30-something Jewish folk artist by trade. He and his partner, Lindsay McCaw, started the group when they moved to Detroit several years ago.

 Aaron Jonah Lewis of Detroit plays the fiddle
Aaron Jonah Lewis of Detroit plays the fiddle

While Lewis was born and raised in suburban Detroit, he spent most of his adult life in Richmond, Va., where he was first introduced to traditional old-time music by a friend he met during a Habonim Dror program in Israel.

His first square dance encounter ensued after joining his first serious band, where they were asked to play at square dances. Eventually, he worked up the nerve to put down his fiddle and give square dancing a go.

“It took me a few years before I went ahead and danced a square dance, and then there was no going back,” Lewis says.

McCaw earned her square-dancing chops while living in southern Wisconsin, where folk music and square dancing are still very much a part of the culture.

Members of the Square Dance Society Band: Lindsay McCaw, caller; Aaron Jonah Lewis, fiddle; Rachel Pearson, stand-up bass; Erik Alan, guitar; and Hannah Lewis, banjo.
Members of the Square Dance Society Band: Lindsay McCaw, caller; Aaron Jonah Lewis, fiddle; Rachel Pearson, stand-up bass; Erik Alan, guitar; and Hannah Lewis, banjo.

While attending house parties, McCaw got the feel for calling square dances. During traditional square dancing, the steps are vocalized as the music plays, but it takes skill and practice to get it just right.

“It was a great way to get started because it was very low pressure,” she adds.

Once she had the basic concept nailed down, she educated herself on calling techniques through various workshops and trainings.

Lindsay McCaw of Detroit does the calling.
Lindsay McCaw of Detroit does the calling.

After many years spent around the country and abroad, Lewis and McCaw eventually decided to settle in Detroit. Not long after the move, the couple was introduced to Rachel Pearson and Ben Luttermoser, folk musicians in the band Behind the Times, who were also enthusiastic to start a square-dancing group in the city.

The foursome found a bit of Irish luck at the Gaelic League, a cozy spot off Michigan Avenue in Corktown where there is ample space for dancing (and not to mention, superb bar service).

Along with Mick and Anna Gavin from the Gaelic League, the group has been hosting square dances for about a year, and they’ve developed a serious following.

Who Is Going Do-Si-Do-ing?

Who attends theses dances, you might wonder? There are both suburbanites and city-dwellers, and they come from an incredibly diverse age range. Millennials, baby boomers and seniors all agree that square dancing is seriously fun.

Evan Lebow Wolf of Detroit dances with his partner Cheryl Wong from Dexter.
Evan Lebow Wolf of Detroit dances with his partner Cheryl Wong from Dexter.

Susannah Goodman, 29, of Detroit has attended numerous Detroit Square Dance Society events and recommends them to anyone. “It’s a raucous good time, with smiles so wide and tempo so fast you don’t realize what a workout you’re getting until the music stops and you catch your breath.”

Jews, in particular, make up a large portion of the group. While Lewis feels this stems from his Jewish connections here in Detroit, he also considers it a reflection of Jewish values.

“Jews, religious or not, want to have some sense of community, whether it’s with other Jews or not,” Lewis says. “It’s a Jewish value — to be taking care of each other and looking out for each other … celebrating together and grieving together.”

And the great news about square dancing? You can have absolutely zero experience and still fit right in.

As McCaw explains, the Detroit Square Dance Society models its vibe on dances in the Southeast.

“It’s basically a party where people are playing music. You call the dances, and not everyone knows what they’re doing,” she explains.

People dance as the Detroit Square Dance Society Band plays.
People dance as the Detroit Square Dance Society Band plays.

The phrases, “promenade, two by two” and “swing your partner” are happily chanted by McCaw throughout the night and will likely remain stuck in your head days or even weeks after.

You don’t have to show up with a partner, either. For each dance, McCaw swiftly pairs singles together.

For those hesitant to go it alone, Lewis makes a great point about the non-intimidating nature of square dancing, even with a complete stranger.

“Whether you’re really good friends with your partner or just met them, you’re just going to be giggling like fools the entire time,” he says with a grin.

To ease people into the dancing portion of the evening, each Detroit Square Dance Society function starts off with a good old-fashioned potluck.

Next, Aaron’s sister, Hannah Lewis, leads a flat footing workshop, demonstrating an improvisational and rhythmic style of dancing that hails from the southern Appalachian region of the country.

After getting loose with some flat footing practice, the square dancing begins. There are numerous square dances going throughout the night, and McCaw and the band will often throw in a waltz or a polka for some added variety.

Their most recent dance on Saturday, Nov. 12, had a stellar turn out. Both young and old stayed up well past their bedtimes to get in as many sets as possible.

While Lewis and McCaw cherish their evenings at the Gaelic League, they often travel the country on tour with their own old-time music group, the Corn Potato String Band.

Even with their own musical success, the duo remains dedicated to hosting dances, which occur monthly to bimonthly.

While admission is not required, a $10 donation is highly encouraged. Most importantly, anyone is welcome.

At the end of the day, the Detroit Square Dance Society is all about bringing together both city-dwellers and suburbanites under one roof — Jews and non-Jews, both old and young, for a night of endless laughter and joy.

The Gaelic League is located at 2068 Michigan Ave. in Detroit. To find out when the next Detroit Square Dance Society event will be held, “like” them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Detroitsquaredance. See a video of the fun here.

By Allison Jacobs, Special to the Jewish News
Photos By Jerry Zolynsky

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