Reel dancin': Old-timey flavor spices Big Scioty gatherings

The original text for this page was taken from an article by John McNeely, Columbus Dispatch Accent Reporter, which appeared in the Dispatch on Feb. 20, 1998. Minor changes have been made to remove outdated information that would be confusing to the modern reader.

The official newsletter of the Big Scioty Barn Dance carries this message: "No experience, partner or costume is required."

It's that simple. Which is the beauty of it.

Chris Russell Columbus Dispatch
Sylvia Thomas and Fred Moore whirl during the Big Scioty Barn Dance at First Congregational Church.

Big Scioty Contra Dances are held at the First Congregational Church, 444 E. Broad St., usually on the first and third Saturdays of the month (though there are exceptions). See for our current schedule.

Suffice it to say that those who attend a Big Scioty hoedown experience a lot more than dance.

First off, the event takes place in a church basement in Downtown Columbus instead of a barn in the wide-open spaces. But no matter.

If you go as far as to poke your head in the door, be prepared for more than live banjo and fiddle music.

There's a classic dance caller, an everyone-is-welcome feeling, dances taught before and during the evening and maybe a waltz segment or play-it-slow-so-everybody-can-keep-up jam session.

And, at the top of the list, about 100 or so smiling and dancing souls from every age group and walk of life.

Some will be wearing boots (but definitely not the cowboy variety). Some will be in athletic shoes. A couple of dancers surely will be stepping off numbers in their bare feet.

There are no matching costumes. No cowboy hats. No assembly-line dances. No pretense.

Be sure when you swing, you're going forward. And be sure to catch the lady on the right.

Everyone dances with everyone else -- sometimes females with females, sometimes males with males -- and is encouraged to do so. Off by himself, a participant might absent-mindedly dance a solo jig, feet shuffling to the music.

Children are welcome and encouraged. If they can dance, fine. If not, there's a play area adjacent to the dance floor.

"It's a sense of community and connection," guest caller Kathy Anderson said before a recent Big Scioty gathering. "You learn to do it on the spot -- it's just joyful."

Anderson, a founding member of Big Scioty in 1985 when she lived in Dayton, was in town from Melbourne, Fla. The CornDrinkers came in from Dayton to provide the tunes.

"To distinguish ourselves from the (dance) clubs," said Sue Snyder, one of the many volunteers involved with the nonprofit group, "we call it old-timey or Eastern square dancing."

There are Eastern and Southern squares and circles. And maybe the House Husband's Reel. And contras -- a dance description generally unfamiliar to Webster (unless the dictionary man cut an occasional rug, of course).

"Contras are prompted as opposed to called," Snyder explained.

Participants start in lines instead of squares. Some say that, by the end of an evening of contra dancing, folks are likely to have danced with everyone on hand.

If I tell you to go home, this is what you do. This is a pull-by. Prom-en-ade. Just take the hand that's given to you.

Anderson, self-taught in the early '80s, has called dances worldwide. About the time she was checking out library books on the art of calling, Andi Ardito and fellow Ohio State University students were playing for tips at 15th and High.

"We had 10-15 people who played off and on for 10 years," Ardito said of the group Turkey in the Straw. "Then, I discovered people actually danced to the kind of music we were playing."

Anderson the caller met Ardito the fiddler.

"We said, `Let's start a dance' -- and we did," Anderson said. "This was really my home dance. This and Yellow Springs (Ohio) and Cincinnati."

Ken Odiorne, an architectural designer, grew up in Yellow Springs and attended Antioch College there.

"We would learn the dances as kids from the college students," he said during a short break off the floor. "It's wonderful, live, old-timey music. It's like a small town or community used to be."

David Rothert, an artist and refurbisher of buildings, has been a Scioty regular since the outset. He teaches dances and aspires, at 58, to become a caller.

He recalled the early days of the dances in a third-floor room near Dodridge and High streets. First Congregational has hosted Big Scioty twice a month for three years.

"We were struggling to get 20 people (a night) back then," Rothert said of the first dances. "We had folks probably in their late 30s, early 40s -- people into the health-food movement. Now, we have a real influx of young people."

In the early days, some referred to Eric Conrad, then a doctoral student [now Dr. Conrad] at OSU, as "the local caller." Although callers -- as well as bands -- from outside central Ohio regularly join the Big Scioty festivities, Conrad has been a constant since the beginning.

"I was a dancer when, to continue a dance (in Cincinnati), they needed some callers and I was basically one of those who volunteered," Conrad, 44, said.

"Despite my (reserved) personality, I manage to get people dancing. When they're having fun, I'm having fun.

"But I enjoy the dancing more."

Balance and swing to the right. Swing your neighbor.

Ardito and Anderson patterned the Big Scioty (named for a fiddle tune by the same name) after more established dances in rich ethnic pockets of Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

"It really started through the efforts of three, four, five people -- and very little has changed," Ardito said. "It sort of has a life of its own."

Today, more than 1,000 folks receive the organization's newsletter.

"That's the thing I'm thrilled about," Ardito said. "I had hoped it would not be a flash-in-the-pan thing.

"We were just city kids who love the culture. It's a teeny pocket of heritage."

Ardito, a computer graphics trainer who met her husband at one of the dances, calls Columbus "a young dance community" in regard to the Scioty approach.

"It seems like we're always trying to get away from appreciating our Appalachian heritage," she said. "Columbus always seems to be trying to put it behind them instead of embracing it."

A couple of times a month, consider it embraced -- tightly.

Swing your partner, that's all there is, there ain't no more.

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