You can hear the music from the street outside the church even on a rainy windy night like this past Saturday; the old timey music drifts out of the old doors and draws you inside.
And inside, under the high vaulted ceiling, the wooden cross and stained glass windows, there are hundreds of people. But they’re not sitting in the pews - which are pushed up against the walls - they’re jumping and swinging, hootin’ and hollerin’. They’re square dancing.
St. Stephen & the Incarnation Episcopal Church is located in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and it has a tradition of holding community events.
Every month or so the DC Square Dance Collective sends out the word to come and dance at the church. The gathering gets 200-400 people each time and even on that rainy night, about 230 people showed up to listen to the band and follow the “caller” as he shouted out instructions and dance moves.
Bradley Kennedy, who is one of the organizers of the event, says they started holding the gatherings several years ago. What started out as house parties with “old-time” live music grew into fundraisers and large events. Kennedy and her friends realized there was a growing demand for square dancing in the city.
At first it was hard to find a venue in the city – a location accessible to young people without cars who rely on public transportation, biking and walking.
They looked for a couple years, at bars and clubs, but nothing was the right fit. Then they found St. Stephens, and booked the back room.
But at the last second the Church told them the back room had been double booked and they’d have to find another venue. They searched frantically for a new location but nothing was available. That’s when the Church offered them the sanctuary, the huge open area right inside the doors of the Church leading up to the altar.
They were skeptical at first; concrete floors, bad acoustics, and no stage for the band - moving the pews was a huge hassle. But it was worth it. They ended up with a huge crowd that never would have fit in the back room.
Kennedy says “it was a happy accident.”
Square Dancing the trend
If you’re not familiar with square dancing, you may be surprised to hear how common it is.
John Marshall, a full-time caller in the DC metropolitan area, says he easily calls dances almost every night of the week. He travels outside the DC area 20 to 30 weekends a year for dances all over the country, and usually travels internationally for dances 2 to 3 times a year.
Steve Minkin, a caller in California, says square dancing started in the 1800s but has seen its popularity grow and wane since then. It reached its peak in the 60’s and 70’s but fell off as the 21st century approached.
However both Minkin and Marshall say it seems that square dancing has been making a comeback. Although areas in California and Texas continue to have strong square dancing communities, urban areas have shown renewed interest in the traditional dance – with a new generation of young people picking up “old-time” music and learning dance moves.
Julia Feder, another member of the DC planning committee, says she feels one reason the dances appeal to young people is the sense of community it nourishes.
For Feder, who has lived in DC for 4 years, the city’s inhabitants seem unusually devoted to work. Square dancing provides a much-needed outlet that is inexpensive (entrance costs $5), conducive to meeting people yet somehow still intimate.
Sarah Shumway is a beginner. Although she admits her share of missteps as she’s been learning the dance steps, she says the experience itself has been excellent.
“It felt very comfortable just jumping in and learning as I went,” Shumway says. “I think a lot of people were in the same position I was.”
Paul Brown often plays in the band for the dances. He learned to play the banjo when he was 10 years old, and the fiddle when he was about 20.
Brown says the success of the dances took them by surprise. “We thought it would be a little dance, just not much, and it’s completely blown us away. But everybody’s coming out, we had 400 people last time.”
The organizers admit it’s a lot of work, each month, to hold the dances.
But for Kennedy, it’s worth it,“What really gives me joy, from putting on the dances, is just looking out over this sea of people who are having so much fun and they’re just bursting with joy."
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