For a long time, square dancing has been viewed as a relic—enjoyed by the old and rural, exiled to barns and fields. Its resurgence within the last decade began in major cities (with organizations like Dare to be Square West) and spread to smaller college towns in much the same way most retro trends do. In Missoula, a monthly square dancing event has popped up at the Top Hat, hosted by an old-time band called the Beet Tops. And this weekend marks the first-ever Old Time Social, a three-day event that offers a bevy of old-school activities and workshops (think clogging and yodeling) plus a culminating community square dance and cake walk at the Public House.
At the center of all of this old-time activity is Chelle Karcher, one of two fiddlers for Beet Tops and the band's built-in dance caller. She stumbled onto the scene after college, when she discovered the joy of learning to play music by ear from older musicians. Soon her musical interests led her to dancing and being a caller—the person who shouts dance instructions to revelers. She spent some time researching the old-time revival on the West Coast and then decided to try expanding the scene in Missoula.
"It's different than having just a band playing," Karcher says. "It's an energetic feedback loop between the band and the dancers, and before you know it, you have this big smile on your face."
In case you're confused about what traditional square dancing is (and it can be confusing), here's how this particular form works: Multiple groups of eight people (four couples) follow the instructions of a caller and dance to a band that usually features a banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass. Dress is casual for dancers and gender doesn't really matter. You don't have to bring your own partner and you don't have to know a thing about square dancing to jump in.
While Karcher is part of the newer wave of local square dance enthusiasts, another participant, Bev Young, has been calling and dancing for three decades. A regular at community events, barn dances and weddings around Missoula and the Northwest, she's seen square dancing's popularity rise in the past few years, and she isn't surprised.
"Everyone likes to get together and have a good time," she says. "The younger generation likes to listen to live music, hang out in bars and have a good time together. It's a tradition that has been on the uptick simply because we have great musicians that inspire us to dance."
The Montana Arts Council, the Missoula Folklore Society and the Country Dance and Song Society are all nonprofits helping to fund the Old Time Social, while the Top Hat and Free Cycles have created free spaces for dances, all of which has done wonders for introducing the pastime to a new generation. The movement's revival is more than a matter of community support, though. Karcher always goes back to the simple idea that square dances connect people in a way that modern technology can't, and that's what has been pulling people in.
"You are with seven other people, and you are all physically interacting," she says. "You are holding hands with people who are different ages, who have different political views, and you are trying moves that are sometimes silly and that sometimes fall apart. It's not a connection you can get online. It's not even a connection you can get from a deep, face-to-face conversation. It's old, but it still fits into modern life. I love keeping the music alive."
The Old Time Social Square Dance and Cake Walk takes place at the Public House Sat., April 22, at 8 PM. No experience needed. Free.