Community through music

Community through music

Square dance just one of caller’s passions


There’s no experience quite like the Fayetteville Square Dance, held the last Friday of most months. (The event expands in August for the Roots Fest and takes November and December off for the holidays.) There’s just something about the convivial spirit of two dozen or so once strangers, now new friends, as they work to follow the caller’s instructions to do si do or allemande left, dancing to the music created by talented regional musicians. The laughter in the room is confirmation that this kind of community effort — the kind that leaves you sweaty, breathless and triumphant when you manage to make it through a song without a hitch in your step — is good for the soul.

Musician, audio engineer and square dance caller Allison Williams has known about the soul-enriching benefits of square dancing for some time now. Over a decade ago, when she and a half-dozen friends found themselves wishing the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in North Carolina had a square dance component, Williams decided to do something about it.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t we just have one?’” she recalls. “‘There’s a park full of musicians here, there’s this little stage down here where people flat foot that we could dance on after the bands get done around midnight.’ So we just threw this little impromptu midnight square dance. There were some people who could call a full dance, but most of us were just calling snippets of figures we had heard here and there. But it was so empowering. It was so wild. It was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do this.’” The next year, the square dance gathering was bigger and continued to grow. “A lot of those folks went on to start square dances of their own, in their own towns, like one in Durham, N.C., that I think is still going on today.”

And like the one right here in Fayetteville that Williams started with her friend and fellow musician Willi Carlisle. Though Williams is a Fayetteville native, she spent much of her life moving around the world. She started touring with punk bands when she was just 19 and, later, would complete several European and American tours with old-time music bands and as a solo artist. When she moved back to Fayetteville, she longed for the kind of community fostered by a regular square dance gathering. But, as she explains, it’s not an easy venture to start.

“You have to find a reliable venue,” she says. “You have to find a reliable sound system. You have to book the bands. You have to run the sound. You have to either book a caller or call the dance. You have to promote the dance. You have to keep the email list, you have to make the flyers. It’s a million things, and, a week before the dance, one of the band members might call us and say, ‘Hey, I can’t do it this week,’ and, suddenly, you’ve got to scramble to find something else. It’s not something that just anybody wants to take on.”

History comes to life

Square dancing came to the colonies in the 17th century as an amalgamation of folk dances from a handful of countries, including France, where many traditional square dancing terms like “allemande” and “promenade” come from. The practice of “calling” the dance — instructing the participants on their next move from the stage — developed later and is a uniquely American tradition. The popularity of square dancing was beginning to wane in mid-century America when automobile manufacturer Henry Ford decided to try and revive it — but not simply because of his love of the pastime.

“What a lot of people think of when they think of square dancing is club-style square dancing, with the matching outfits, and it’s more of a performative kind of thing,” Williams explains. Today, this style of square dancing is referred to as Western square dancing. “This was started in the 1940s by Henry Ford, who … decided that jazz and the blues and black music were ruining the moral fabric of America, so he decided to ‘revive,’ AKA industrialize, traditional square dancing. He started all of these clubs where they typically didn’t have live music, and they called dances out of handbooks that were printed out by the headquarters up in Detroit or Chicago.”

Williams’ passion, however, is spurred by what is known as traditional square dancing.

“We’re very much trying to preserve oral tradition,” she says. “I can tell you where I got the dances. I can tell you the callers that I got them from and, typically, what area of the country they’re from. Right now, I’m studying with a guy named Andy Elder, who is a caller in Missouri and who is, I think, the greatest repository of traditional Missouri Ozarks square dance calls. It’s an absolute pleasure to learn from him the very unique way those dances are structured. And this is what differentiates traditional square dancing from club style. It’s about oral traditions, and it’s not created for commercial distribution.”

This respect for — and fascination with — the traditions of the past is part of what lured Williams, as a musician, from punk to old-time music. It might seem like an odd genre leap but, says Williams, there are logical links between the two styles of music.

“There’s a lot of anti-authoritarian sentiment in both old-time music and punk rock,” she says. “Fundamentally, they’re coming from the same place of just wanting to communicate very clearly and with a lot of emotion. Another thing that I really loved about old-time music was getting to connect with my elders — being able to go out into communities and meet older folks who had been playing this music in these isolated communities for a long time, to really connect with them in a way that you can’t really with family, because there’s so much emotional baggage. There are so many things that family talks about, but so rarely do you just sit around and talk about music and tell stories. So that was really wonderful for me. I think that’s something that a lot of people lack these days, is that kind of inter-generational experience of just sitting around with people of all ages, exchanging knowledge and talking about something that you all love.”

Williams’ passion for tradition motivated her to open May Bell Music a few years after she moved back to Fayetteville. Located just off the square on Center Street, Williams’ store was a place where you could buy vintage and antique instruments, have your instrument repaired, take music lessons or just hang out and talk to and play with other musicians — another example of Williams’ penchant for building community around music. Williams taught herself a great deal during this period, turning to books and YouTube to learn how to repair instruments, and even served as the shop’s luthier. Though she still operates May Bell Music online, the brick-and-mortar store closed after five or six years, which is an impressive run for a small, niche store. Williams says the town isn’t quite ready to support a store like it, and, besides, running an online business means she’s not tethered to shop hours — so she’s more readily available to play gigs and tour as an audio engineer, the career for which she earned a degree at Evergreen State College in Washington.

“I’ve worked with [Grammy Award winners] The Carolina Chocolate Drops and The Mountain Goats,” she says of her audio engineering career. She’s also worked with local venues including the Walton Arts Center and TheatreSquared. “I absolutely love doing audio work.”

Egalitarian spirit

She is also free to devote time to Fayetteville Square Dance, which she started right around the time she opened her store. The growth of popularity for the event has been rewarding; it was originally held at the small venue Backspace, but recently moved to the Roots Headquarters at the Guisinger Music House on Mountain Street on the square to accommodate larger crowds.

“We clocked 90 people coming through the door one night,” marvels Williams. “Anyone who’s ever been in Backspace knows that 90 people in that space is a terrifying idea. I mean, they weren’t all in there at the same time, but still. It took many, many years and lots of hard work to build it. There were nights when we would have six dancers, Willi would be fiddling, I would be playing the banjo and calling at the same time. We got a little funding from the Advertising and Promotions Commission and Experience Fayetteville, and that helped a lot. That enabled us to get some good graphic design from local artists and some good posters and some ads on KUAF. “

Williams has worked hard over the years at improving her talents as a caller.

“There are big square dance weekends where they’ve started callers’ weekends, and I was lucky enough to be able to go to one of the first ones,” she says. “It’s called ‘Dare to Be Square’ and it was in Asheville, N.C. It was great. I was already well on the road to calling at the point that I went there, but I was exposed to so many new ideas as a caller. There were dances from all over the county that I had never seen danced or even heard of. I got to learn about Joe Thompson’s calling — Thompson is an African American musician who calls square dances, which he calls ‘frolics.’ They’re really unique and very cool, and I got to learn a little bit about that and, in general, pick up a lot of tips about what makes a dance flow well.”

“Allison’s dance-calling represents a large number of influences and traditions that are all pieces of living, embodied folklore,” says Carlisle. “You’ll rarely find someone who has learned so many dances in so many places. Unlike callers that learn exclusively from books, Allison’s dances and calling are demonstrative of a collaboration between musicians and dancers. Teaching dances in an egalitarian manner is also one of her priorities, and this makes her uniquely able to teach beginners or anyone who has wandered into the door at a dance. This might be the biggest advantage Allison has: an egalitarian spirit in what is sometimes an exclusionary club.”

Egalitarian, indeed: With a $5 door charge and musicians to pay, Fayetteville Square Dance is not a money-making endeavor for Williams. She makes it clear that she devotes her energy and her passion to the event to help create something that satisfies her soul, something she thinks just might satisfy others’ souls, as well.

“I am crazy enough about square dancing that I will spend massive amounts of unpaid time to start a dance in the hopes that I might get to dance a couple of dances a year,” she says with a laugh. “That’s the whole goal — that at some point, I might be able to hire another caller, and I’ll get to dance a little bit.”

“I think we both wanted to have a square dance because of what it means to a community,” says Carlisle. “It’s not just friendships, it’s a place to collaborate, to touch, to experience a network beyond your immediate self. I think it’s kind of a radical idea, honestly, that we can get together and dance with strangers. I know Allison believes in that radical power.”



Fayetteville Square Dance

WHEN — 8-11 p.m. the last Friday of each month (except November and December)

WHERE — 1 E. Mountain St., Fayetteville

COST — $5


BONUS — Find Allison Williams’ music, including her solo album “Give Me the Roses” and “Old Ties,” a collaboration with Willi Carlisle, on

Categories: Cover Story