The Boss-Town Buzz-Steps are in full swing and, up near the front of the hall, the regulars are fooling the eye, making their fancy step look simple.
Toward the back, semi-bewildered novices show more frenzy and less grace as a fiddle (Steve Hickman) and an accordion (Laurie Andres) strike a quick tempo.
"I'm really not into this hillbilly music," my friend had said apprehensively as we set out for the dance.
Now, as Dennis Botzer's banjo and Richard Schuman's mandolin set down a solid strum for the dancers, his fears seem to be fading; and when Linda Hickman raises her flute, she's the only one in the room able to catch her breath -- except for my friend, who reports after surveying the room: "No wallflowers here."
It's the weekly dance of the Folklore Society, at the hall of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church, and tonight it's in the hands of caller Mary Harrell.
"Next," she announces, "we're going to do "The Road to Tumbridge,' so get yourselves into three-couple sets." There's a scramble for partners, and my friend and I join two other couples.
Harrell controls the crowd and cues the musicians with calm self-accurance. A bookkeeper for a Virginia utility company in real life, she has been a caller for about 25 years. Her specialties are English country dances and New England contras -- dances done by lines of facing couples.
She steps down into the crowd, demonstrating a call for a confused set of dancers. Other dancers scramble to watch, creating a momentary jumble.
"Don't think, just dance," says a lithe man in a western shirt, anxious to continue.
The Buzz-Steps take it from the top and this time we follow the calls without faltering. By the final swing, my partner and I are grinning in exhilaration. "I feel a real sense of accomplishment," he says.
When the dance finishes, Harrell takes a break and the Buzz-Steps play a waltz for those who are still on their feet. In the corner by the chalkboard, a long-haired, lanky youth swings and promenades with his lady, none too sure-footed. Among the couples remaining, free form reigns.
"Now we're going to do Newcastle," says Mary Harrell. "This is for the experienced dancers."
The experienced dancers know who they are: two bearded balding men in jeans, a tall blond woman in a flowing green skirt, a woman in army drill pants and ballet flats. They're what the "folkies" of the Folklore Society call the "dancies." They step lively as Mary Harrell calls Newcastle without the usual dry run.
"These are some of the best dancers in the area," says Bruce Strand, an agricultural climatologist. Strand, a regular dancer and sometime caller, says, "People start out interested in the music and become involved with dancing." For the "dancies," there are esoteric variations of familiar American and English country dances. "There's a lot of interest in Morris dancing now," says Folklore Society member, Sue Tunney. "A few years ago it was clogging."
Traditionally done by men in teams of six, Morris dancing is a type of ritual fertility dancing that originated in the Cotswolds region in England. Clogging is an Appalachian dance form, originally called flat-footing or buck dancing. Cloggers do not, in fact, wear clogs, but special tap shoes or regular shoes with jingle taps attached. There are set clogging routines based on square dance figures.
Adam Hubbell, who teaches clogging at Glen Echo, says many of his students have been regulars at the Folklore Society's Sunday night dances. "People who are interested in clogging," he says, "tend to live in Adams-Morgan in group houses, and are the vegetarian, nonuke types. But there are also some who have government jobs and have only heard about clogging or seen it at folk festivals."
Among precision cloggers, Hubbell says, "There are two types of teams -- the traditional western-type square dancers, who have a kind of Nashville aesthetic, and the hippie cloggers, who wear blue jeans and matching western shirts. Hippie clogging teams are the most anarchic organizations I've ever been involved with," he says. "There aren't that many places to clog once you know how. Sometimes they'll play a clogging tune at the dances, or you'll see some people clogging off to the side."
Other specialty dancers belong to groups that focus on one region or type of dance.
"Country dancing is the ballroom dancing of Scotland, done by nobility and peasants alike," says Meredith Morrison, a member of the Scottish Country Dance Society. "There are set figures, similar to ballet steps and sometimes similar to American square dances. The men are the peacocks in Scottish country dancing," she adds, with kilts and kilt hose "and what looks like a disco purse, a bag called a sporran .
Irish group dancing, called Celi dancing, is also similar to American square dancing. Like Scottish country dancers. Ceili dancers wear soft shoes called ghilies for the traditional reels and slip jigs.
International folk dance groups specialize in traditional European and Scandinavian dances. "This is folk dancing, not square dancing," says Stephan Sklarow, who teaches international folk dancing and Israeli dancing at George Washington University. "We do some American novelty dances, like the Salty Dog Rag. Israeli dancing is a different thing," he says. "Almost all the dances have been made up in the past 20 years."
"It takes three or four weeks for a new folk dancer to lose the nervousness and klutzy feeling," says Sklarow. "Once they get hooked, there's folk dancing all over the city. s