Grant Hunnicutt called his first square dance two years ago at Commercial Taphouse. Twenty people showed up eager to dance to the Cary Street Ramblers.
“I did OK at calling,” he says about the art of calling out the signature move changes. But when he came downstairs to discuss future dates with then-owner James Talley, he says, things ground to a halt: “He said that it was cool and all, but he was worried about the ceiling. He said it was kind of bouncing while we were dancing.”
So began the River City Barn Dances, done Grand Ole Opry style — square dancing first followed by a bill of old-timey bands. A succession of venues followed. The events began at the Camel, outgrew the space and moved on to larger venues such as Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and Lewis Ginter Recreation Center on the North Side.
“One reason I wanted to start a dance was because that’s what this music is for,” says Hunnicutt, who’s also a musician. “Dancing is what old-time music was for. Bluegrass evolved out of it for performance.”
Conveniently, Richmond has a vibrant scene of old-time bands: the Campbell Family Band, Cary Street Ramblers, Hot Seats and the Beer Ticks, to name a few. So he rotated through them or permutations of them with every scheduled dance.
Hunnicutt credits the resurgence of interest in square dancing to Harold Hausenfluck, a Richmond fiddler who was celebrated with a big square dance at the YWCA a little more than three years ago. Hausenfluck’s band had played many of the square dances at Fox Elementary School and Lewis Ginter Recreation Center in the late ’70s.
While newcomers may wonder about catching on, Hunnicutt insists that square dancing is anything but intimidating and easily taught during dances such as the Virginia Reel, Texas Star and Tennessee Mixer. There’s no lesson beforehand as with salsa dancing.
“It’s still such a young revival in Richmond that everyone’s still learning. None of our dances are difficult or even intermediate because the square dancing community isn’t that evolved yet,” he says. “Maybe by next year we might have some intermediate dances but right now it’s easy, but interesting. I try not to dumb it down like it’s kids dancing.”
So far, the dances have attracted about equal numbers of women and men, although he says he sometimes brings along neckties to hand out to women dancing men’s parts. At a recent dance at Hardywood, it was men who outnumbered women, several of them canvassing the crowd for partners.
“Ladies can dance with ladies, gents can dance with gents, whatever you need to do,” Hunnicutt calls from the stage, straw hat on his head and calling notes in hand.
He sees the appeal of River City Barn Dances as different crowds crossing paths.
“It’s physical — shaking hands, swinging your partner around. It’s an awesome thing you don’t get to experience much anymore,” he says. “The opposite of modern social media where you’re online stalking strangers.”
And if it sounds downright old-fashioned, that’s all right with him.
“You see two strangers get into a square together who never met before and they dance a whole dance,” he says, “they know each other by the end of that dance. I’m not single, but these dances are more of how I would want to meet somebody, not Tinder.”
River City Barn Dances will be held May 2 at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church with the Hot Seats; May 16 at Addison Vintage in a field across from Lamplighter Roasting Co., and June 20 at Lewis Ginter Recreation Center with Mark Campbell.