June 26, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

A round peg in a square dance hole

When I told my friend Dave I was dyslexic, he said, “Yeah, like you can’t tell right from wrong ...”

That’s pretty much it, and also I can’t square dance. Everybody else is dancing around having fun, following the directions, but to me the whole thing is like a pop quiz on knowing your right hand from your left.

In grade school, I developed a very subtle system for figuring out right from left. I pretend to write with an imaginary pencil, and then I look down and see which hand I’m using. Since I’m right-handed, there is a little homonym a-ha moment — “write with the right.” I say that to myself every time. It takes a little longer to figure out which one is my left hand. There is an extra deductive step involved.

I watched T-Claw call square dances the other night at the Flea Off Market. Go see him when you get a chance! He is well known in the circles of the square. He was astonishing — like the genius spawn of Busby Berkeley and a prize-winning Kentucky tobacco auctioneer.

T-Claw was calling from the stage above, singing out his directions, exhorting the dancers below to spin like the cogs of a kaleidoscopic wagon wheel or to divide and form giant four-leaf clovers, like the hillbilly version of Esther Williams and her posse in a Hollywood swimming pool.

Really, any kind of dancing where you have to follow rules is no fun for me. I understand that, just like in lots of games, the rules are the fun. The Macarena and Texas line dancing are nothing but rules — strictly ordered sequences of freaky, aesthetically distressing movements displaying as much personal expression and idiosyncrasy as the semaphore squad in a Soviet May Day parade.

Luckily, the free-form Dance of the Moody Loner, hippie kelping, or even the classic Stevie Nicks Dervish-twirl can be easily adapted to fit any musical genre. These are all good dances to know for the summer music festival season. My personal dance style is based on a combination of the Pony, the Kentucky Bug Stomper, and Diggin’ Taters (which I learned from Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies”). I would be pretty happy if I could bust out a little “Gangnam Style” or a few seconds of “Single Ladies.” My peanut-sized attention span is only one of the reasons why this is impossible.

“Couples” dancing has always been beyond me. I was dancing with an old dude at the Pleasure Inn (Louisville’s long-gone, greatest-ever blues club) when he got tired of me stepping all over his feet and said, “Just clamp onto my leg.” That was helpful advice, although it won’t save you from every dance-related wedding reception nightmare.

The South Carolina Shag and its super-cool city cousin, Chicago-style Stepping, are both wildly expressive dances for couples. Myrtle Beach claims to be the “Shagging Capital of the World,” which must draw some British tourists. The Shagging craze is happily mired in late ’50s nostalgia, Casual Friday attire and a boatload of Tiki bar drinks.

Old-School Stepping is based on 1940s swing dances like the Jitterbug, Bop and maybe even the 19th-century Cakewalk. Steppers dress to the nines or beyond. Stepping parties sometimes coordinate their outfits by a color theme, like a U of L white-out game. The style is an ultra smooth mix of modern and classic soul and R&B. Shaggers and Steppers are just out on the dance floor, doing their awesome thing.

Everybody loves to watch children dance. Little kids getting down and shaking their giant diaper butts is toxicly cute. Watching super-old people dance is the next best thing. Dancing old people are so cute they make people cry, and not just an old couple but an old lady dancing by herself like Stevie Nicks. Although that may trigger more complex emotions.

Catherine Irwin sings and plays guitar in the band Freakwater. When you are playing music, especially dirge-like, miserable country music, and people start dancing, it’s a great feeling. Please feel free to move forward to fill the awkward space in front of the stage where the dancing people should be.