My Debut

The truncated name on the caller ID belonged to my children’s music teacher. Who is also my wife’s coworker in the gardens at school. Who is also our landlady.

It’s an interesting thing I’ve learned about life in rural America. A sparser population means that people take several roles in each other’s lives. It is a bit like a community theatre production. The man playing Polonius also plays Osric and a banner-holding soldier and either Rosancrantz or Guildenstern – either will do in a pinch. And if two of these characters have a scene together, then some of his lines get cut and he deals with it, preferably with grace. Mere civility is not enough to soothe the inevitable ruffled feathers. People here are cheerful and friendly because they are bred that way through ruthless social selection.

I answered the phone. Cheerfully.

“Hey,” she said, “sorry to bother you, but didn’t you tell me at the school hoedown that you knew some dance callers?”

“Sure,” I replied confidently. Although really, in this part of country, they are as rare as Florida snowflakes. But they do exist. And I know him.

“The art festival is holding a private party for their volunteers, and their caller canceled at the last minute. Do you think you could call the art teacher and give her your information?”

Fort Wayne holds an annual festival focusing on Art and Music in education. It is held downtown at the convention center and several schools, including my childrens’ school, participate. A week earlier, on a cold, windy Saturday, we had infiltrated the glass fishbowl of the downtown convention center to wander through the water color paintings, found art collages, and tin foil sculptures and to listen to local school bands and watch their folk dance ensembles. Foreign guests are invited as well, and we listened to a Japanese Kamishibai storyteller, overheard a German trio singing hippie folksongs, and watched a troupe of teenage professional dancers from Poland in colorful green, red, and white costumes with ribbons flailing as they spun.

A week later, to thank all these people and countless volunteers, the organizers wanted to host a private party. And as a treat, there would be real American folk dancing.

I learned this after two hours of tracing back the path of phone requests, speaking with various artists, organizers, and volunteers, leaving messages and answering calls. I might have given up, except that, along the way, I learned that there was no band either, and a thought grew in my head.

This might be my chance to debut as a dance fiddler. The venue seemed safe. An audience of polite foreigners who would not know what Old Time music was supposed to sound like. If I screwed up, what were the odds I‘d ever be in Poland to see any of them again?

When I found the person who was organizing the party, she sounded surprised to hear from me. She had given up hope days ago of finding anyone, and had let the matter drop. But I was not about to let her give up, and my enthusiasm was infectious.

“Now, I have to be honest with you,” she said. “We are a volunteer arts organization, and we can’t pay you anything.”

“I understand. That’s OK with me, but I will have to check with the other band members.”

“Sure, of course. We will certainly feed you dinner.”

My banjo player, Donald, said he would do it. He likes getting paid, but he’ll bite like a young fish at any excuse to play Old Time music. My guitar player, Jake was a preacher, and would do it for friendship, not money. Only he could not arrive until after work, which, given his ministry duties, might mean midnight. And my caller, Bruce, said he had already been asked a week ago by the same organizers to do this gig. At the time, he had turned them down because he doesn’t work with recorded music. Now, with a live band in the offing, he agreed.

We all coalesced  the following night at a church off Coldwater Road. The social hall was half filled with long tables covered in plastic table cloths and laden with pulled pork and salad and something potato saladish. They soon filled with young Polish teenagers, older Asian couples, American volunteers and others. Bruce immediately sat in a far corner and began flipping through dance cards. Donald hung close to me, not so much from an unwillingness to socialize with foreign strangers, as an unwillingness to socialize with anyone who did not speak Old Time music. The organizers, seeing us wallflowers, took us in hand, thanking us profusely, and made sure we got something to eat. They sat us next to a trio of German gentleman who could have passed for Peter, Paul, and Mary if they had not all been men. One had a gray beard and gray chest hairs escaping over the top of a patchwork vest. The second had a pony tail to his waist. And the last, clean-shaven and balding, covered his delicate neck with a checkered bandanna. I introduced myself to the first, and asked how they were connected to the FAME festival, but he was not the English speaker. The checkered bandanna informed me that they were musicians from Germany.

Ah! The trio I saw at the festival. I remembered them. And then I began to perspire. It’s one thing to debut as a dance fiddler for dancers. It’s another thing to do so for professional musicians.

“Oh, really?” I said. “Well, perhaps you gentlemen might care to join us later when we play for the dance?”

They nodded and smiled in an uncommitted fashion that was either polite demure or mere incomprehension. Donald, seeing my discomfort, rushed to the rescue and took the opportunity to orate on the history and geography of Old Time music in America, his favorite topic. This generated more of the same polite nodding from the trio which I joined in. Later, when they had left to get dessert, Donald snorted and said, “They look like old rock n roll stars!” He was not whispering.

At the end of the hall, in what I suppose was the original nave of the church, three folding metal chairs had been set up for us, and a young Polish teenager was setting up sound equipment. As we tuned up our instruments, he chattered and laughed with his friends, until we asked him a question, and then he looked sullenly deferential. Typical teenager.

We sat. We waited. This was a party, not just a dance, and the verbal socializing wasn’t over. There was no schedule, no script. While Bruce shuffled through his dance cards for the fourth time, we watched from across the room as the dessert and coffee gave way to announcements – the tedious thanking of all the volunteers and the good will orations between the “the nations of Germany, Japan, and Poland.”

“Good God!” exclaimed Donald suddenly, who had been uncharacteristically silent up to this point. “It’s the Axis powers!”

Fortunately, we were separated from the crowd by at least 30 feet.

Finally, they announced us, the evening’s entertainment – traditional American folk dancing, led by a traditional American caller with a traditional American band. Made up, they neglected to mention, of a traditional American professor of mechanical engineering, a traditional American computer programmer, and a traditional American business development executive. Our preacher had not yet arrived.

Bruce managed to entice a crowd on to the floor, mostly the Polish teenagers, who, as typical teenagers I suppose, weren’t going pass up an opportunity to licitly touch each other in public. Bruce politely declined the help of a translator that had been foisted upon him and began walking them through the figures.

“Hold hands in a ring… A ring … A circle. Like that, yes. Now, everyone take four steps into the middle.”

No one moved. Puzzled looks and stifled giggles. Bruce interposed himself between two people and, grabbing their hands, carried them along with him to the center, saying, “Four steps! One! Two! Three! Four!”

Thirty light bulbs went off over thirty heads. The crowd aaahed and began to surge forward. “Wan! Too! Tuh-ree! Foor!” they chorused.

Stamp, Stamp, Stamp, Stamp echoed their feet on the linoleum. The dance came together, one figure at a time. They had never danced this kind of dance before, but they were professionals and they picked it up very quickly. A second walk-through (“Wan! Too! Tuh-ree! Foor!”), and they had it. Then Bruce turned to me with a smile and said, “And now, we’ll dance it with music.”

All eyes on me, and for a moment, I blanked. Donald, fingers poised for plucking, looked at me. “What are we playing?” he asked.

“Um. What key are you in?” I stalled.

“A or D, take your pick.”

Something easy. Something I had down cold. Something I could play in my sleep. Something I could play unconscious. Not an unlikely possibility.

“OK. Angeline the Baker. I guess they haven’t heard it a billion times yet.”

Four little potatoes and off I went. I hadn’t stopped to position the fiddle properly and ended up grinding my teeth and jaw into the chin rest for ten minutes to hold it in place, but other than that it went fine. The dancers were a little too new and self-conscious to whoop and holler, but they yelled “Wan! Too! Tuh-ree! Foor!” with enthusiasm, and laughed at their own mistakes. When it was over, no one walked off the floor.

“Find another partner,” Bruce called, and they did.

Lucky for me, Bruce is very good at what he does, and then Jake showed up for the next tune. As soon as we started playing the second dance, I realized it was going to be OK. I had needed that guitar. Mind you, I love a good banjo player, and there are some tunes that a guitar should gracefully bow out of. But really, for a hollering good dance, you need a guitar. Or a bass.

The crowd was warming up, chattering, laughing. For the third dance, the Germans took up my invitation – two more guitars and a plugged-in acoustic bass gently feeling out the chords before playing full throttle. The church throbbed with rhythm. The dancers loved it.

During the third dance, the strings on my bow slackened in the new warmth and humidity of the room, and I tightened them afterward. After the fourth dance, the dancers were ready for a break. Half of them disappeared out of a side door as though going to smoke cigarettes, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been thoroughly enjoyable and hideously stressful, and I wanted a break too. Bruce began to rifle through his cards again, while I chatted with Jake. We had just decided to quietly run through our next tune for after the break, when the German with the kerchief round his neck came up. His English tingled with Commonwealth precision.

“If you don’t mind,” he smiled, “we were thinking of playing a song or two for everyone after the break.”

It wasn’t really a request, but it was politely communicated. We weren’t going to obstruct. It wasn’t our party. “Please do,” I said. Cheerfully.

Then the young dancers came back and upstaged both us and the Germans by starting a Polish party dance. They sang a little six-bar ditty (“la-la-lalalala”), and then the leader grabbed another person who held onto his waist. They sang again while these two marched about, and then they added a third dancer. And so on until the whole room was dancing an Eastern European conga line. Then they sang a rowdy song. Then they lined up in rows, chorale fashion, and sang a traditional anthem to their mothers.

Bruce watched with a nervous smile. You could tell he was enjoying the performance, and yet wasn’t sure if he was supposed to intervene or not. But as it turned out, the decision was taken away from him. The Germans figured they had waited long enough, and one of them leaped in to give a grand speech about friendship between their cultures and then led everyone in a German folk song that no one knew the words to. They followed this up with a second song. And a third song, switching to English.

“Valdereee!  Valderaaaah! Valdereeeee! Valdera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha….”

At this point, Donald’s impatience broke through. He yelled in my ear over the noise, “Are we gonna get to play anymore?”

I shrugged. Threading my way around the Germans and their knapsacks on their backs, I found the organizer chatting with some of the volunteers. When I caught her attention, she glanced at the singing Germans, and her smile folded into a curve of embarrassment and apology. She didn’t actually know if we were going to play anymore. She guessed the artists had taken over their own party; they had been touring together for a couple of weeks. But she was very grateful that we came.

I found Bruce by one of the speakers in the corner. He knew the score. His cards were already packed up, and he watched the performance with a serendipitous smile.

“Bruce,” I said. “It looks like the dance is over for the evening. I’m sorry. That was a lot of your time for just four dances.”

Bruce didn’t take his eyes off the musicians, who had now coaxed some dancers onto the floor. A background cacophony of Polish and German voices filled the room, and Bruce gently raised his voice loud enough for me to hear him. He spoke in short phrases, mesmerized by the bizarre non-sequitor he was witnessing. “It’s … not a problem… This is truly … amazing… I hope they … bring us back next year.”

Jake had already packed up too, and I made the same apology. He protested that it was not a problem and he thanked me for letting him play, and though I knew he meant it, he was a preacher. In good conscience, what else could he have said?

Donald, however, was still sitting with his banjo in his lap and a look of sour chewing tobacco. When I broke the news to him, his thoughts were plain on his face – Three hours without pay for four measly tunes. But then he smiled grimly, and with good-natured stoicism, he reassured me it wasn’t a problem.

“You know how it is,” he told me. “Give the Germans an inch, and they’ll take a country.”

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