Taking the Old Time Torch
By Laura Herberg
Our recent “Sounds of the Re:Union” episode features the old time music and square dance scene in LA. In the episode, one of the people we hear from is Susan Michaels. Susan’s been calling at LA square dances for decades. She also helps to keep the old time tradition in LA alive by teaching a new generation how to call.
One of her mentees, Cory Marie Podielski, has been calling for a little more than a year. We asked Cory some questions about how and why she participates in the LA Old Time scene. Here’s what she had to say:
SOTRU: What appealed to you about being a square dance caller?
CP: When you see live bands, especially in LA, typically no one dances. Everyone just stands in a crowd perfectly still, staring. It has always driven me CRAZY. When it comes to dancing in public, I think that many people are just shy, but they come off as “too cool for school.” It’s all about taking that first courageous plunge to start dancing first, the “I might look really stupid doing this and yes I might annoy people around me” plunge. Once someone breaks that barrier other people feel inclined to dance too – it’s like a domino effect.
Well with square dancing, you are the oddball out if you are not dancing! And the caller is there telling you it’s okay to dance: total encouragement. I like telling people that it is okay to dance. I think the only bad thing about calling is that I can’t dance.
SOTRU: How did you learn to call?
CP: The Los Angeles Old Time Social, which happens in May every year, has lots of free workshops. One of the workshops in 2008 was a calling workshop led by Susan Michaels, I decided to take it for fun. Susan and I hit if off in the workshop and she encouraged me to pursue calling. I am really lucky to have her as my mentor; Susan is a total treasure. It wasn’t until she took me under her wing that I really began to learn what it means to be a caller. After she helped me get on my feet, I found that the best way to learn is by going to the dances and listening to other callers.
CP: You tell people what to do and then they listen! If I tell everyone to jump up and down, they most likely will. The sheer power is intoxicating! Just kidding… er…. kind of. Honestly, I enjoy working with the musicians and facilitating an atmosphere for people to dance. I especially love calling dances for folks who are new to dancing or don’t know what to expect.
SOTRU: Can you tell us about some of the events that you’ve called at?
CP: Calling square dances takes me to places where I would never normally go, and I love that. I’ve called dances at harvest festivals, art galleries, bars, street fairs, hilltops, traffic islands, house parties, rodeos, wineries, drag clubs, baby showers, etc. The place that we have thrown dances most consistently is at HM157, an artist collective in Lincoln Heights dedicated to community, sustainability, & education. The spirit of what we are doing and what they are doing jives really wonderfully, so it has been the perfect place for our dance scene to take root and grow.
SOTRU: Why do you think people are getting into the Old Time scene in LA?
CP: In general, there seems to be a return to simple activities to create community in urban settings, like craft parties, organized bicycle rides, or adult kickball leagues for example. Our old time square dances are a music and dance version of this – it’s non-competitive, not driven by formality or etiquette. It’s experimental, chaotic, revolutionary! But mostly it is just a good time and lots of fun.
SOTRU: You also design some of the posters for the LA Old Time square dances. Can you tell us about some of them and why you designed them the way you did?
I love poster design, so creating graphics for the square dances gives me a space to go wild creatively. I find inspiration from letterpress, old sheet music, and circus posters, film stills, Art Noveau & Art Deco, the list goes on and on. I like mixing the new with the old, creating a fusion and an updated look on the past. Which is precisely what we are doing with the square dances, adapting an art form of the past to fit our culture in contemporary Los Angeles. We aren’t re-enacting the past, we are taking the traditions of the past and making them our own.
For more on the Los Angeles Old Time scene visit the blog, www.oldtimeisagoodtime.com. Watch our Sounds of the Re:Union episode, Old Time in Los Angeles below: