If you remember square dancing at school when you were a kid, it was thanks to Henry Ford, who believed that square dancing imparted good manners and family values on its dancers. So it may surprise you that Bloomington resident Michael Ismerio, who grew up in the raucous punk scene on the west coast, has dedicated his adult life to old time music and to the art of square dance calling.
Face Your Partner
Michael Ismerio has spent over fifteen years playing old time music. After years of playing the fiddle at dances, he took up calling almost by accident when a caller failed to show up at a dance. Ismerio took to the stage and called dances for two hours. That night, he discovered he had a mind naturally suited for the complicated geometry of the square dance.
In a square dance, Ismerio says, “You have all these different main figures, where usually one couple does something, and then the second couple does something, and then the third couple and the fourth couple. And then you have the break figure where everybody does the same move together.”
Much of the fun of calling comes when all the dancers are comfortable with the dance. Then he can “throw people curve balls, throw in random things for fun.”
This is also what makes square dancing different from Contra dancing: in a Contra dance, the moves stay the same through the entire song, and the dancers can more or less tune out the caller. In a square dance, the couples have to listen to the caller closely, in case he or she calls new steps.
Mastering A Tradition
Old time music has its roots in rural America, but it’s now an almost exclusively urban music. And while the growing popularity of square dancing and old time music may seem part of the explosion of interest in urban farming, artisan beers, and the like, Michael says the growth in old time music and square dances is not necessarily a resurgence.
People are always talking about this mythical resurgence. But I’ve been playing old time now for 16, 17 years now, and it seems like people are constantly referring to the current moment as a resurgence. And every time something new comes out, like Oh Brother Where Art Thou, people are just like, ‘Look! It’s a resurgence.’ But to me it looks more like it’s been a pretty constant increase in interest in old time music since the fifties and sixties.
Even if the interest in old time music isn’t new, it is growing. And part of the interest is the anti-commercial, do-it-yourself feel, which draws musicians—and dancers—who come looking for a bit of off-the-grid Americana but stay for the rich tradition.
Ismerio says that the “collective, communal, anything-goes, anyone-can-join aspect” is what many people initially connect with.
But, he says, “When you get past that level, you get to the next level, which is: ‘Oh my God, this music is really important to a lot of people.’ And they really care about it and they really want to try their hardest to carry on the tradition faithfully.”