Some famous band is playing at The Rave. All the side streets are lined with cars. Young people cross the road in front of me, stand in tight groups beside their racy Hondas, turn and watch as I drive past. I note their faces: they are probably ten years younger than me but look that much older. I’m going to be social tonight, but not with anyone at The Rave. I park next door, at the Irish Cultural Center, where the Milwaukee Set Dance Club is hosting their monthly Irish set dance night.
Yep. This is my scene.
I walk into the aged, echoing room and stow my gloves and scarf and satchel on a folding chair, and change into my dancing shoes. Irish set dancing, a distant cousin to square dancing, has eight couples per set, several figures per dance, and each dance lasts twenty minutes or more. The three-piece band has us tapping our heels during their soundcheck, dancing before the night officially starts.
“Take off your jacket and stay a while,” someone says to me.
I shake my head. It’s finally spring but Wisconsin missed the memo. “Not until my hands are out of danger of frostbite.”
He pulls me out of my chair and we two-step a pseudo-waltz around the floor, dodging people who are standing still and talking. He always has stories to tell me while we dance. About the lady who made him feel like Fred Astaire on the dance floor but wouldn’t return his phone calls because “ladies don’t call men, it’s not proper.” About the time the caller said ‘pick up your lady and take her home,’ directing moves in the dance, but he literally picked up his partner and started carrying her out the door.
Everyone is in high spirits tonight. Because it’s spring. Because the band plays well and makes us dance harder. Because it’s set dancing and we don’t need another reason.
The sets are intricate and we all mess up a lot and none of us care. We try and we laugh a lot and we cheer when we get it right. We make light fun of the kids going to The Rave, that they don’t wear jackets or long pants when it’s still almost cold enough to snow. I shed my own jacket a while ago and there’s sweat trickling down the backs of my knees. I regret wearing jeans now…but I won’t when I walk to my car later.
Set dancing has an old romantic essence, like Sinatra and ballroom dancing and bow ties. It’s a little dangerous and sometimes confusing and takes some practice. Not everyone likes it, for those reasons. Modern social settings are confusing and dangerous too, but to me they lack the old charm and panache of Irish dancing, ballroom dancing, or just about any old-timey social dance. It’s an unusual thing for a young person to do, on purpose, on a Saturday night, but for me it’s perfect.