Nostalgia isn’t always bad. It can lead you to try things you remember loving as a kid. Like square dancing. I hadn’t square danced since I was in my elementary school enrichment class where Hot Cross Buns blaring on a plastic recorder was considered music. The afternoons we square danced meant moving to our teacher’s commands and swinging our partner to fiddles. I don’t remember ever not wanting to square dance.
I recently square danced with some friends in the beautiful Adirondack lake town of Schroon Lake. Every Wednesday evening in July and August at 7 p.m. the town of Schroon Lake’s Chamber of Commerce hosts a free public square dance right on the shore of the lake, at the bandshell. In the center of it all is a wonderful dance floor, conveniently made of cement and cordoned off by a stone wall. As one person noted, “it might just be the most beautiful dance hall” in America, overlooking the shimmering water and a stone’s throw from downtown. People of all ages come out to dance on these evenings and it’s acceptable to come alone, to bring a partner, or to come with a group. Expect to meet new dance partners, of all ages and abilities. I may not be a seasoned square dancer, but plenty of experienced dancers came out to enjoy this tradition with the rest of us.
Square dancing requires a caller and often a live band, so these events are not always easy to come by. Our caller was enthusiastic and instructive, and I happened to partner dance with her husband, which meant I had extra instructions on how to do the moves. Regardless, plenty of people — including children — were eager to teach me since I didn’t know the moves.
Once the music started, the fun began. Square dancing is a group activity so there’s lots of laughing and holding hands with strangers. The name “square dancing” comes from the shape couples make when they dance. Two couples facing each other makes a square. This square, however, can be expanded into a giant rectangle to accommodate more couples. The shape matters less than the sheer fun of having more people involved.
Our caller began the evening with simpler dances. I learned to do the Do-si-do, bringing me back to those joyful childhood lessons in enrichment class. As a child I didn’t think this, but as an adult I recognized how square dancing is great exercise to great music. Traditionally, the music danced to is performed by a folk ensemble made up of string instruments. Our band was a string trio with an upright bass, guitar, and fiddle. They vary their playlist each week. Square dancing originated in 17th century England and became popular in the U.S. during the early 20th century. Today it is most popular in New England and Appalachia.
By the third dance I was more acclimated and the moves became more complex, but no less fun. Dancing involved much promenading on the dance floor with my partner. My favorite move involved forming a tower with my partner for other couples to dance under. At no point during this evening did I feel pressure to get all the moves right.
Schroon Lake is a great place to host a square dance because it’s a small community that comes alive in the summer season. It's a beach town with a fresh water lake and it's in proximity to amazing hiking. In town is the unique, high-end craft and furniture store, Pine Cone Mercantile and Provisions, which is also a bakery that serves fresh baked bread and coffee. This store also has a small market that serves fresh produce and goods from local farms. The Strand is the local movie theater that shows indie movies from time to time. Schroon Lake is also home to the Seagle Music Colony, the Word of Life Bible Institute, and 9-mile Coffee, proving it’s an eclectic place. It feels like a small town with its own identity outside of tourism. I honestly couldn’t tell who were the locals and who were the summer travelers during the square dance.
An exceptional part of this evening was the setting, which was not your typical indoor dance hall. We were in a prime location to watch the sunset on the lake. I witnessed kids play football on the nearby lawn and others just lingered about on the grass. One woman parked it on a lawn chair the entire evening to watch us dance.
The final dance of the night was a Schroon Lake original: the Zodiac. It involved some singing and improvising, and the kids in the audience went wild for it. That’s all I can tell without giving it away. You’ll have to experience it for yourself.