Only In Portland, Oregon! The Largest Old-time Country Square Dance in the Country!
By December Carson
Reprinted from Oregon Music News
The Portland Old-Time Music Gathering hosts one of the largest square dances in the country as part of its festival each year in January. What’s it like to go to the largest square dance on the West Coast (and possibly in the United States)? Here is one girl’s adventure in old-time square dancing.
First, my evening started out as an adventure in fashion! You can always get great ideas from websites dedicated to square dance apparel–yes they do exist, such as ReSashay. Do I wear my square dance skirt or my Western shirt and jeans? I decided on a country dress with a full slip and cowboy boots. My boyfriend and 16-year-old son go for Portland casual, as do our friends Evan and Randy who are totally up for having an old-time square dance adventure. After having snacks and drinks
at the Crystal Hotel (the closest all-ages drinking/eating establishment ), we headed over to the Scottish Rite Center.
Entering the historic Scottish Rite Center, we headed straight for the basement and the bar. The basement floor is packed with small groups of musicians jamming everywhere. I think I see three-fourths of the Dickel Brothers and the Foghorn Stringband. We push our way through to the main room, get our hands stamped, and head for the bar. My son, being 16, has to head to the back of the room to the kids’ bar.
The Portland Old-Time Music Gathering advertises two dance floors! Seven bands! Seven callers! And luckily, beginners are welcome! My son, boyfriend and I have been to many old-time square dances but our friends Evan and Randy have only been to one before.
After warming up with drinks, our crew headed upstairs to the first floor ballroom. We missed the first band and arrive mid-set to hear the Red Pine Resonators and Sarah York calling the squares. My boyfriend and I are ready to go and hit the dance floor, while our friends Evan and Randy hang to the side and wait to get a better feel for the room… and a little more courage.
It is late enough in the evening that the callers are no longer explaining the dances and they keep referring back to moves that were taught earlier in the evening. Luckily, we remember our left from our right and the basics such as Do-Si-Do, Right-Hand-Round, and Pull-By so we survive our first few dances. But then Tony Mates steps up to the mic with Hoppin’ Jenny and I know we are about to get our square dance butts kicked.
Tony is a fast caller and by the time he steps up to the plate there are no more, or very little, directions to be given. You better keep up. So we decide to take a break and locate the rest of our crew. My son informs me that they are all upstairs hanging out in the auditorium.
The auditorium in the Scottish Rite Center is a beautiful, historic performance space with seats on the main floor and in the balcony. They have 96 backdrops for the stage to choose from–many of which are on the National Historic Registry. The Portland Old-time Gathering used this space on Friday night for its big concert but tonight (Saturday) they are taking advantage of the beautiful stage for a second square dance floor. We find our friends lounging in the comfortable auditorium chairs and enjoying the music.
We are able to coax everyone onto the stage for a couple of dances. These second floor dances are smaller, less intimidating and have a more community feel to them. For the last dance of the night in the auditorium the callers, Caroline Oakley, Michael Ismerio and others, do a non-stop round where each caller takes the mic in a round robin of square dance calls and we (the dancers) must keep up.
As the dances on the second floor wind down, I realize I still have time for a few more dances in the main ballroom and I call my son out to dance a couple of dances with me before it all comes to an end. He’s a good sport about it all and we are able to get two good square dances in before they decide to do a “mixer.” This is where you move around the room in a big circle, dancing with different partners along the way, eventually returning to your original partner. My son is not into the “mixer.”
We head off to find our friends who are closing out the bar in the basement. I arrive a little too late to get a drink at the bar, but lucky for me, my boyfriend has a flask and cup of ice. We gather ourselves together and say goodbye to our old musician friends and to the musicians we have just met. We step out into the ice-cold winter air and we all realize that this could only happen in Portland, Oregon. And we are all so glad to be have been a part of it. See you all next year!
Photos by Kevin Tomanka