Square Dance Calling

I began calling square dances accidentally. One night the caller didn’t show up and I was the only person present that had any idea what a caller even did.  But what I learned that night didn’t just lead me down the path of the dancer.

It lead me down the path of the community builder.  It showed me that joy, and movement, and smiles, are some of the glue that binds us together.

–Michael Ismerio

My Mentor, Bill “Bubba” Martin:

Bill “Bubba” MartinLucky for me, Portland, OR was graced with Bill “Bubba” Martin, an amazing caller who had taught and called southern Appalachian traditional dances in Portland since the seventies. He graciously took me and the new generation of young callers under his wing and literally walked us through the paces. He shared with us everything he could and only quietly complained as we started making off with his calling gigs. Bill Martin was Portland’s premier square dance caller, teacher, and our spiritual guru.

In October 2001, I organized my first (of many) community square dances in Portland with Bill Martin calling dances and the first incarnation of the Foghorn Stringband playing the music. (Bill made the Poster).

(The following is the memorial speech at I gave for my friend and mentor, Bill Martin, who passed away in  September 2012. I gave the speech at the 14th annual Portland Old Time Music Gathering to a crowd filled with his friends and loved ones)

Square Dance at DisjectaI met Bill Martin in the late 90’s in the freshly opened warehouse space of Stumptown Printers. Bill was immediately warm, friendly, interested and excited in meeting us young musicians who had just appeared on the Portland scene. At that time the number of Portlanders active and passionate about old time music appeared to be only around a couple dozen. Half of those folks seemed to be in hibernation from the thriving scene that existed here in the late 70’s… The other half was my generation; young, dreamy, enthusiastic, and trying to get a handle on what southern music was all about. Bill found our energy contagious. He immediately recognized the need to connect our northwest brand of southern music with the southern dancing he was so excited about and he set about to convince us youngsters to make it happen.

In 1999 – after our second pilgrimage to that dusty, thorny, field in Weiser, Idaho known as Stickerville – Brian Bagdonas and I began organizing the first Portland Gathering, which we called the Throbfest after the pulsing mega jams that used to occur there which we loving called throb-jams. Bill, along with his wife Nancy, came to that first gathering in Jan of 2000. On his cello and his tuba he would bow and honk out the bass notes along to fiddle tunes…all the while infusing every jam with his surly happiness. By the end of the weekend we knew that Bill would be involved in whatever came before us. By the following year, with Bill at the helm as dance master, we began incorporating square dancing into the Old Time Gathering, as well as a regular part of our communities fabric. That connection of music and dance can’t be underestimated. It is the glue that has held this community together for over a decade – and it’s a glue that has inspired countless communities all over the country.

Around the same time that Bill joined our group he started two other seemingly humble projects; a website and a weekly email newsletter. The website was a trusty amalgamation of information and goings-on about about square dancing, southern music, and our local scene. But the newsletter was his voice. It was pure Bill; funny, grouchy, irreverent, optimistic, unapologetic, fatherly, repetitive, passionate, forgetful, satirical, compassionate, wise, humble, critical, and loving. But most importantly, it was a consistent, weekly reminder of Bill’s values and his dreams for our community. That voice quickly became the voice of the Portland gathering and the voice of our community to the rest of the country. I learned as much about Bill from those newsletters as I did from all the hours spent with him. And I believe that Bill’s strong, constant voice over the last decade is what has enabled our community to achieve the cohesiveness it has achieved and to create the joy it has created.

Along the way Bill was a constant part of my life. When I formed the Government Issue Orchestra, he was there to bow his cello and play ten dollar gigs with us youngsters. When I started calling square dances, he was there to guide me and give me opportunities to practice. When we started a nonprofit music and dance organization, he was there to help. Bill’s close friends called him Bubba so we named our organization Bubbaville, in order to fully entrench him as our spiritual leader. Bill was a friend, a mentor, a co-conspirator, a dreamer, and an inspiration.

I like to remind people that no one person created this gathering. And no one person created this community. This community was created by everyone in this room, and everyone who has ever been in this room, or come to one of our dances, or jams, house parties, chili cookoffs, movie screenings, or workshops. But it’s really hard for me to imagine all of us being in this room here together if it hadn’t been for the support, encouragement and guidance of Bill Martin. I miss you Bill.

My First Calling Gig

It was March 2004 in Portland, Oregon.  My friend Phranque asked me to play fiddle for the first gathering of the Underground Square Dance Association (USDA), AKA his 50th birthday party.  It took place on a wide platform at the Washington Park MAX stop, Portland’s only underground train station.

But when the caller failed to show up I suddenly found myself thrust into the position of having to imitate a real caller. I surprised myself and was able to keep people dancing for two hours on what I had absorbed from going to square dances.  I understood the moves, I just lacked the vocabulary.  It didn’t take long before calling dances became party of my identity and a skill that I would carry all over the country and beyond.

Notable Gigs

Since 2004 I have called dances all over the country includingthe The Appalachian String Band Music Festival, Clifftop, WV, The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Port Townsend, WA, The Chicago Barn Dance, Chicago, IL, The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, Berkeley, CA, The Portland Old Time Music Gathering, Portland, OR, The Nimble Fingers Bluegrass and Old Time Workshop, Sorrento, BC, and participated in six of the Dare To Be Square callers conferences around the country. I have helped motivate people to square dance as far away as Mexico, Canada, and even two trips to China.

Caller For Hire

I am available for calling dances at your event, wedding, private party, or family reunion. I have over 13 years experience getting people who don’t know anything about dancing to get on the dance floor and move their bodies. I can even bring a band with me. Contact me for details, availability, and pricing.

Below are examples of my calling style as well as a video about the Portland, Oregon square dance community that I helped foster.

Dare to Be Square

Michael calls various southern square dance figures at the Dare To Be Square callers convention in Riner, VA on May 5, 2012

Take a Peek

Video by Doug Plummer. Michael Ismerio calls a Take A Peek at the 2009 Portland Old Time Gathering. Music by Ebenezer (Caitlin Daum fiddle, Scott Killops banjo, Robin Wilcox bass, Ryan Fitzpatrick mandolin and Patrick Pressley, guitar).

Not Your Grandparent’s Square Dance

Video by Doug Plummer. Old-time music and square dancing in Portland, Oregon. Interviews with Bill Martin and Michael Ismerio, and footage from the Old Time Music Gathering, reveal the intimate links between the old-time music scene and the revival of square dancing.

Audio Recordings

Here are a couple of recordings of me calling dances with a fabulous band consisting of Sammy Lind, Caleb Klauder, Nadine Landry, Pharis Romero, and Jason Romero.

Square Dance: Monkey in the Middle

Square Dance: Lady Around the Lady

Learn to Call Square Dances

What are Traditional southern squares?

What goes on in the mind of a caller? how do you keep track of all the dancers? How do you know what to say? And when to make the calls? How do you efficiently teach the dances? What makes traditional southern square dancing different from Contra Dancing and modern western square dancing? What do you need to tell the musicians? How do you keep people excited and having fun?

If you have asked yourself any of these questions then this workshop is for you. We will get to the core of what makes traditional southern square dancing unique and fun and give you the building blocks you will need to call your own dances. This workshop will be equally interesting for beginning or experienced callers even if you have never called a dance before.

Get a hold of me to talk about bringing this workshop to your community.

First Thursday Square Dance at Archetype Brewing Broadway

My community in Asheville, NC has a monthly square dance on the first Thursday of every month (Oct – May) 8pm – 11pm at the Archetype Brewing Broadway (174 Broadway St.) in downtown Asheville.  The dance is all ages, no experience necessary, and free to the public.  It is also open band and open caller so you can polish your calling skills with real live dancers or play in the band, provided you can play fast enough.  Dancing starts at 8pm and usually last until 11pm.  Beer and wine are available. And it is an incredibly welcoming environment for beginners and newcomers.

In the summer months we often move the dance to an outdoor covered pavilion at Ivy Creek Family Farm in Barnardsville just north of Asheville.

Square Dance Resources

Here are some links for more square dancing info:

Read Phil Jamison’s original Dare To Be Square article from 1988.

And Phil’s follow up D2BS article from 2003.

A Look At Southern Squares ~ Bill Martin’s collection of Southern square dance figures.

Dare To Be Square 2010 dance and workshop notes ~ Bill Martin’s notes and handouts presented at the festival in Seattle.

Country Dance and Song Society Resource Page

Hugh Stewart’s Running Sets ~ Briton Hugh Stewart’s fine collection of the old “running set” dance figures.

Check out Bill Martin’s archive of square dance related info at: www.bubbaguitar.com/squaretoc.html