Way back in 2001, in a kitchen of a punk house in Portland, Ore., Paul Silveria got an eye-popping introduction to old-time music. The Intima had just wrapped its postpunk set when a different sort of noise took over — a frenetic homegrown mesh of fiddle, guitar and banjo that came from next to the stove and fridge. The audience filled what little space was left in the kitchen as Government Issue Orchestra started playing, and the crowd’s stomping and dancing bowed the old floor.
Silveria began attending Government Issue Orchestra shows regularly. One night, then-member Bill Martin, a square dance caller in addition to being a well-known bluegrass and folk musician, bemoaned the lack of callers in the growing old-time music scene. His bandmate Michael Ismeria then turned to Silveria and told him he should get involved, and in the summer of 2002, Silveria learned how to be a caller under Martin’s tutelage.
A caller is somebody who prompts dance steps and, unlike the tortuous two weeks of high school gym class where students had to allemande left and swing their reluctant partners to canned music, this brand of square dancing is specifically built around live music.
“I was learning the banjo. I wasn’t a great player, but something about calling dances appealed to me, and it seemed really like a direct line into what the community was doing,” said Silveria. “And when you get into what the art of calling is, it’s really about party management. One of Bill’s quotes is, ‘It’s a party first and a dance second,’ and his philosophy really kind of broke away from what was happening in the modern Western club square dances of frilly skirts and fancy shirts.”
Many of Silveria’s gigs weren’t what might be considered traditional — his first was in a Seattle warehouse where dancers crashed into the building pillars and another was for protest-based marching band Infernal Noise Brigade’s CD release party that included a livestock peep show and a barbecue equipped with a pedal-operated gas jet that shot a ball of fire towards the ceiling when pressed.
“There was this music and punk music, together, and it was surprising, but once you dug into it, it made a lot of sense because it was social music,” said Silveria. “People would be picking up an instrument, learning how to play and people would have a house party and you’d have music happening in every room, a little jam of people learning tunes together.”
Silveria, who moved to Vancouver five years ago after marrying a local, said there are thriving West Coast square dancing scenes that came out of this boom in Seattle, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. In Vancouver, Silveria calls shows and teaches dance steps regularly at the WISE hall (the next is March 11), which have sold out in the past.
But Vancouver is a different animal than Portland.
“I just happened to be in the community in Portland, I jumped in and did it and did it regularly. And so I’ve had to make a lot of mental adjustments in terms of the way things are done in Vancouver,” said Silveria. “There’s a sort of highly urban sense of sampling here, I call it ‘I’ve tried this thing once and I’ve done it.’ That’s one aspect and economics is another. Part of the reason Portland fostered arts and music the way it did was because there’s a lot of ample space and it was all really cheap… That means you could try things and fail — or try things and succeed — but you could try things without having the investment of capital beforehand.”
Silveria hosted dances in Portland at venues that either didn’t charge anything, or charged a nominal fee, usually under $10.
“Here, I’m able to put on a professional show and get paid a professional amount of money I wasn’t able to in Portland,” Silveria added. “It does go both ways.”
In addition to calling dances (even for children at last Saturday’s Learn to Square Dance workshop at ArtStarts), Silveria is also a banjo teacher and performer (under the stage name Professor Banjo).
“When people experience the music, they have a really good time but when they experience the social aspect of music,” Silveria said. “Whether they go to a dance or they go to a show or they go to a house party where people are all jamming, there’s something kind of revelatory for some people.”