The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

More than a simple do-si-do: physically-distanced square dancing with Bill Richardson

We now live in an age where fancy footwork is in very high demand. On paths and sidewalks, in supermarkets and stores. Just about anywhere humans encounter each other, we are expected to dipsy-doodle in a way we never have before. It has led to some interesting results, not the least of which is the latest from our very own Bill Richardson.

‘How would it look? How would it sound? Who would take it on? Who would write the calls?’

Customers wait in line to enter a Real Canadian Superstore in East Vancouver on March 25, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Bill Richardson, special to CBC Radio

Memory is muscular. It inhabits our bodies. A sudden, unaccustomed movement can shake awake the sleeping giant of the past. Sometimes, it mutters, stretches, rolls over, goes back to sleep. Sometimes, it rises, ready to rumble. 

Scouting for supplies in a grocery store where they'd implemented a complicated system of one-way aisles, the better for customers to socially distance, I found myself in an awkward four-way stop, a roundabout situation with three other shoppers. None of us knew what to do, who should be given right of way; we shuffled and spun in place for a while, as though awaiting instruction. 

Bill Richardson is the author of The First Little Bastard to Call Me Gramps: Poems of the Late Middle Ages. (Submitted by Bill Richardson)

Seen from a distance, with our carts and baskets and wheely gizmos, we must have looked like we were pawing the ground, preparing to smash into one another in a primitive, stag-like bid to establish precedence. Adding to the emotional and procedural complexities of the moment were our masks; the burden of communicating our shared confusion was assigned to our eyes, which darted and rolled like abacus beads, and our brows, deeply furrowed, as though freshly ploughed for this year's crop of canola. WTF, I believe, is what the kids would text to sum up the predicament.

It was an inopportune moment for history to stir, with Proustian effect. Fifty-six years dissolved. In a molten trice, I was transported back to the 1964 fourth-grade gym of Strathmillan Elementary. That was the year square dancing was part of the physical education curriculum. I felt the cold, hard surface of the floor, scented the tangy whiff of bleach and sweat. Up from the folds of my brain rose the classic, Oh, Johnny, Oh.

Two things struck me with force. One was that the lyrics — give your honey a swing, swing the gal behind you, allemande left with the corner gal — were an encouragement to embrace a polyamorous lifestyle, which didn't much jibe with anything else I remembered from fourth grade. The second was that, possibly, herein might lie the solution to our quandary. Did we need someone to guide our steps, someone to call out coded instructions? Is this how we'd get through, possibly bedight in flannels and crinolines? It seemed as likely as anything else; but what about the proscription against touching? Socially distant square dancing: how would it look? How would it sound? Who would take it on? Who would write the calls? The question was rhetorical. I dropped my Breezway basket. I exited via the entrance door. I hurried home.

Dancers photographed at the Leduc Square Dance club. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

Bow to your partner. Bow to your corner. Now's your chance to dance The Canadian Breakdown.

I got an urge to bake some bread
I scurried to the store
I thought the shelves would be replete
With stuff I'd bought before.
Allemande left and promenade
I thought I'd score, at least,
A sack or two of flour
And perhaps a cake of yeast.
I found no such comestibles
To borrow, buy, or beg;
They'd all of them been swallowed up
By locusts in a plague.
Roll away to a half sashay
And take it on the chin,
Chase the lady, Texas star
And keep your droplets in. 
Need for knead and lust for crust
And circle, heel to toe,
So much sweat for a little baguette
And sourdough-si-do.


Booze was getting out of hand,
The bottles piling up:
Noon would find me reeling,
Well and truly in my cups.
Take a peek and dip and dive,
A safer road to bliss
My bubble mates assured me
Would be Grade A cannabis.
Grapevine twist and spin the ends
Now step outside for air,
Don that mask and go and ask
For loaded gummy bears.
Hustle to the head shop, now,
The lineup's always long.
Duck for the oyster, hold your holts
And buy yourself a bong.
Dance the Canadian Breakdown
Whenever you feel low:
Backtrack, rollaway, courtesy turn
And microdosey-do.

Arch in the middle and the end turns in, promenade, do-si-do, right hand high, left hand low: these old school calls were fine in their time but what good are they for the quotidian Covidian? Sneeze in your elbow, square your mask, queue for an hour, head for the hills: these are the calls we need for the new normal, the dawning age of no-contact, keep-your-distance square dancing, the necessity of which is abundantly clear, and which was visited upon me whilst treading my visionary path.

For now, I'm deciding which of my crinolines and hats made of pool noodles I'll wear to my investiture in the Square Dance Caller Hall of Fame.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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