By Tamara Stevens,Special to the Harbor Light Newspaper
On a recent dark Friday evening there were strange noises and confusing words coming from the Bliss Township Hall about 20 miles north of Harbor Springs. At first, it sounds like a foreign language, but after listening closely, it becomes clear.
"Take that lady by the wrist, around that lady with the grapevine twist, back in the center, with a whoa back gee, and around that gent from Tennessee," hollers Harold Mallory, the "caller," into a microphone loud enough to be heard over the live music.
As the caller, Mallory rhymes out directions to the room full of neighbors and friends who are square dancing to the lively music of an eight-piece band. He calls with a rhythm that matches the music, pausing between calls so dancers have time to follow his instructions. At times he sounds like an auctioneer.
"More or less, the caller is telling the dancers the motions for the dance," Mallory said. "We do old style traditional square dancing, not western square dancing. Western is more precision, more graceful, but we have more fun."
On this particular night, the "we" are the 30 or so residents from the Village of Bliss and surrounding area who have braved the cold, dark evening to gather at the Township Hall for an official square dance. Mallory wasn't exaggerating, they do have fun.
Community members make themselves at home as they enter the large, main room of the Township Hall. A coat rack is wheeled closer to the front door. Tables are disassembled and stacked against a wall. Musicians carry their instruments to a raised platform area at the far end of the room and begin tuning up. Mallory turns on the electronic microphone system set up against the wall half-way down the dance floor. Families with young children, ranging in age from three to eight, arrive and find a seat on the long benches along the walls.
Dancers walk slowly out to the middle of the floor. They mingle, some meeting for the first time, even though they live in the same community. Mallory helps single dancers find partners. In square dancing, four couples stand facing each other in a square, he explains. Those eight people form a "set."
"We've always had enough people for at least one set, if not more," Mallory said of the community square dances. "If there's one or two extra couples, I arrange it so we can call them, so nobody has to sit and wait to dance. Everybody gets to participate."
One female dancer volunteers, "I'll be the boy, I don't care." Square dancers are designated "boy" or "girl" for dance moves, but couples may consist of two women or two men.
Mallory patiently demonstrates the first dance and the calls for each movement. They walk through the first dance while the band warms up.
Tonight there are eight musicians: Harriet Graham plays the ukulele; Jan Meyer also plays the ukulele and the Irish whistle; Phil Kilpatrick plays the guitar; Charles "Chuck" Cornell plays the banjo and harmonica; BJ Kilpatrick is on guitar; Matt Hohlbien is on a homemade wash tub bass; Dylan Cook is on banjo and mandolin; and Mary Hohlbien plays the fiddle. There's a total of 10 musicians if you count the Hohlbien's two daughters. Nancy, 8 years old, is playing the "can-jo," an instrument with a Graham Cracker can at the bottom of a 1"x 1" stick with one string. Nell, 6, is playing a fiddle like her mother, only it's made out of two blocks of wood (with no strings).
Mary Hohlbien is the librarian for the Bliss Library, housed in an addition on the back of the century-old Township Hall. The community square dances are organized by Hohlbien as they are sponsored by the Mackinaw Area Public Library.
"Libraries are going beyond the book club," Hohlbien said. "Libraries are programming activities that the people want to get together."
The Bliss Township square dances began about two years ago, Hohlbien said, after she and few community members attended the Fiddler's Jamboree in Levering. As a fiddler herself, Hohlbien watched with interest the square dancing at the jamboree. Mallory was there and urged her to get up on the stage and play. A few days later they were talking about the experience and Hohlbien mentioned that she would like to learn to square dance. They would need a caller, she said. Mallory admitted that he knew how to call.
"I've been around callers all my life," Mallory said. "My grandfather was a caller, my father called, and my brother called. I never called because I liked to dance. I'm getting to the age now where I can't dance like I used to. I thought, 'this would be a good way to carry on the family tradition.' That's how it got started."
"We had a ton of people, close to 80, at the first one," Hohlbien said. "I think some people were just awfully curious about it, and that's why so many came."
Bliss Township square dances are held every three months. In the summer, dancers gather outside under the pavilion in the village. Other events are organized monthly in rotation, including pot luck suppers and talent shows.
"I'm really eager," said Monique Cook, as she helped her children take their coats off. "I haven't danced since August when we were at the pavilion." Monique is married to Dylan, who's in the band.
Chuck Cornell, 81, who plays the banjo and harmonica, is wearing a black felt cowboy hat tonight. He talks with his wife, Jacqueline, and Mallory before the dance starts.
"I've been playing the banjo for ... a few years," Cornell said, smiling. He says he enjoys playing at the square dances because it allows him to have contact with his Bliss neighbors and friends.
"It's a good feeling to provide members of the community with something fun," Cornell said. "None of us (musicians) are professionals. We just like to come together and create music for others to enjoy. It's good, clean, family fun. And I like to come here and preserve the old time tradition of square dancing."
"Harold is such a good teacher," Cornell said. "He leads you through it so you know what you're doing. He makes it painless and when you're done you feel a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes he calls 'bumpsy daisy' when the dancers collide."
Cornell said he did a little bit of square dancing in high school. Hohlbien has heard that from many community members in their 50s and 60s. There is a shared appreciation among all ages for the style of dance that originated in England, Scotland and Ireland and was brought over to America by the earliest settlers. Square dancing is experiencing a slow but steady resurgence of interest.
"It's a community activity that everyone can do," said Hohlbien. "I think people like it because," she paused to collect her thoughts, "it makes you touch people. You have to hold hands when you square dance. You have to dance with a stranger for just a few minutes, and you interact with the other dancers."
For Hohlbien, being a member of the band means she has the vantage view of watching.
"The best part about it for me is to see the people participate in the music, rather than having the audience sit and watch you play," Hohlbien said. "The first time I played, I saw the dancers were all smiling. It made me smile. So it's a gift in itself."
Hohlbien said that the dancer's response to the music often drives the musician's performance, causing them to play longer and faster and with more feeling.
"We're all volunteers, anyone - regardless of skill level - can play with us," Hohlbien said. "It could be a skill they don't normally get to share because our society is hooked on perfection. The square dances are a forgiving area to go to, which is a nice thing to have. The only time they're not forgiving is if you are playing too slow," she said laughing.
Everyone dancing is smiling. They laugh at their own mistakes, but keep on dancing. Dancers help each other remember the movements. As the band plays faster, the dancers step faster, stomp louder and smile more broadly. Hoots and applause erupt as the dance ends.
"That is so much fun," said Amber White, 34, from Pellston. Dylan, playing banjo and mandolin, is her brother. "I love seeing little kids and senior citizens all together doing the same thing."
Hohlbien plays a slow song on her fiddle during the break while dancers chat with one another. Couples slow dance. Mallory continues his patient lessons, showing steps that go with calls he'll make, "Sashay through," "meet promenade," "forward and back hoot," "duck and dive."
Each caller is a little bit different, Mallory explains. They each have their own style and words, but the basics are the same.
"You use a pattern and you make it rhyme," he said. "That makes it more interesting than just standing there watching the dancers. This is my therapy." Mallory's wife, Margaret, is at home with Alzheimer's disease. "This is about my only outing these days."
Jacqueline Cornell, whose husband Chuck is in the band, said she enjoys the music.
"It's a pretty talented group," Cornell said. She notices another band member is playing a different instrument tonight.
"Jan Meyer is playing the violin," Cornell said. "She has only been playing it a few months. She must have felt good enough to bring it with her tonight and try it. That's great to see."
Cornell looks around the township hall and reveals that her own wedding reception was held in this very room in 1968. The Kellers from Cross Village were musicians then and provided the music.
"I wanted a square dance for my reception," Cornell said. "My father enjoyed that so much." She gets quiet for a few beats as she remembers dancing with her father at her wedding reception in this very room 45 years ago. Then she watches Mallory teaching the dancers.
"He is so patient with us," Cornell said. "He re-dos the directions again and again."
Mallory claims he's been square dancing since he was four years old, and that he started in this very building, the Bliss Township Hall, while his grandfather was calling. The music connects the past, present, and future. It strengthens community.
A young couple in their early 20s comes in and soon joins the dancing. Melody Williams, 21, lives near Cross Village. Williams has been square dancing since she was a little girl, she said. Her family often participates in square dances hosted by the Blissfest Music Organization. Her boyfriend, Luke Graham, 21, however; is attending his very first square dance.
"I'm from Petoskey, so this is the wilderness for me," Graham joked. After they dance a few times, Graham said he's enjoying the evening.
"It's fun," he said. "I like old-fashioned, cool cultural things like this. It's not necessarily the norm. It beats sitting at home playing video games," Graham said smiling.
"It's a good winter reprieve," Monique Cook noted. "You can tell people need it because more people come in the winter."
After the last dance is played, the band sings a cappella "Good Night Ladies," with it's telling lyrics, "It's time to leave you now." Everyone claps and cheers, then turns to gather their belongs and head out into the cold, dark night.
Matt Hohlbien makes an announcement to the lingering crowd.
"I'm moving a wood cook stove on Sunday," he loudly proclaims. "Anyone who can help is appreciated. We'll be eating after we move it. Thank you."
Bliss square dancing is truly a community event. The next square dance will be in three months. Contact Mary Hohlbien at the Bliss Branch Library at (231)537-2927 for more information.