by Mike Richardson
(originally published in the Nov-Dec 1996 issue of CDSS News)
I’d like to tell you about George Walker, a Seattle dancer, dance writer and caller, who died recently. His story is more of an affirmation than an obituary, because George really epitomized the process that many of us have gone through – coming into dancing as a somewhat clueless and socially inept maladroit, but, through perseverance, becoming a respected and valued member of the local dance scene. I’ve seen this happen to several people in several dance communities, but George really stood out as a particular exemplar of this process, in my opinion.
I think George’s story is of interest, not only because of what it says about him, but also about folks in our local dance community – how our perceptions of him changed as we learned more about him. It’s funny how one’s ideas are forced to change when confronted with repeated doses of reality. After the lesson of George, I’m trying to be a bit more tolerant of other contra characters I run into in our dance scene.
I don’t know what led George to his first Seattle dance years ago. He had few social skills, was clumsier than most of us and learned at a very slow pace. George did not possess the skills most folks associate with “nerds”, so he was ranked for years somewhat lower on the dance food chain than dance nerd – perhaps dance “geek” would be closest. He was a bad enough dancer that people would avoid the contra line he was dancing in, and he didn’t seem to improve much over the first few years.
You can imagine our surprise when he decided to become a dance writer and caller. He would appear faithfully at our weekly Monday night open caller/player dance and sign up to call some new concoction of his. His calling style was tortuous, his teaching belabored and ineffective, and his dances were peculiar. I remember when he wrote a variation on Tony Saletan’s dance Box the Compass, but set it up so that first the ones and then the twos would do the box-the-compass figure in turn. It was an interesting variation, especially since one had to go through the dance two times in order to progress. It was also a bit complex to teach, as George tried to do every Monday night for about two or three months, laying waste to newcomers and experienced dancers alike. There was a time when the teaching for another dance got so laborious that all the dancers sat down on the floor in protest. He wrote yet another dance based on his family’s rock garden in which three out of four dancers would form arches with their hands and the fourth dancer would flap her wings like a butterfly and fly in and out of the arches. So it went.
From time to time, disgruntled voices could be heard asking, “What are we going to do about George?”, meaning, I suppose, “What can we do to keep him from dancing and calling around here?” Fortunately, Seattle tends to be a fairly tolerant and laissez‑faire community. Also, we have no umbrella dance organization running our dance scene – all dances happen on their own, run by different enlightened dance entities. There is no central authority or dance police force to enforce the Law Of The Dance. For these reasons, we ended up doing nothing overt, other than letting dancers vote with their feet. Many of us would sit down and rest when George got up to call. Despite this encouragement, George continued to dance, write dances and call them.
Some changes happen so slowly that they can only be perceived in retrospect. Several years passed, and I suddenly noticed people applauding after one of his dances. I walked over and noted the name of the dance off of his card, and paid more attention to it the next time he called it, which happened every week for the next month or two. It had a novel set of linked heys and other figures that kept one moving for half of the dance without touching another soul, followed by a double consummation later in the B music, when one got to swing one’s neighbor and partner. I thought it was a pretty cool dance, and even the name, Anticipation, showed a certain insight and imagination that I had not previously credited to George.
More years passed, and his social skills, his dancing, teaching and dance writing continued to improve. Several times on the dance floor, he would correct me when I was wandering through a dance in a temporary state of brain lapse. I copied down several more of his dances, and even called them myself. He invented new dance moves, including one he called the “yearn”, which is like a long lines forward and back while all simultaneously move a few steps to their left. His social skills continued to improve, and his insights on dancer interactions became more acute. Once, when beginning to teach a new and convoluted dance he’d written, he told the dancers that they were welcome to “sit down on the floor now, and save time.”
Then, about two or three years ago, George told me that he had been diagnosed as having multiple myeloma, a bone marrow malignancy that often causes widespread destruction of the skeleton. Over time, as he went in and out of chemotherapy and in and out of spinal traction, he continued to come to the dances. Sometimes he was too tired to do more than sit and watch. Other times he could manage one or two dances very slowly. At one point in his treatment, our whole dance community turned out to help raise money to assist with his medical coverage. Some dances he would be pale, and others pink, depending on how anemic the chemotherapy had made him, and on whether he’d had a blood transfusion before coming to the dance. Towards the end, as his skeleton deteriorated, he came to many dances still wearing his external cervical spine brace, with the fixation pins still bolted into his skull. On Friday, August 16, eight days after attending his last dance, George succumbed to his disease. On the next Monday night dance, our community turned out to remember him and to dance his dances.
Many of us fell into the folk music and dance scene as George did, and were transformed by it in ways previously unimaginable to us. George progressed through this folk evolution process like we all did, but at his own pace and in his own way. From the very start, he quite obviously loved the whole Seattle contra dance scene as much as any of the rest of us, though it took some of us a while to see that. He knew that he loved it and he continued to do it as much as possible right up to the end. He faced the last and biggest of life’s Big Problems with grace, style and quiet courage. As Warren Argo put it, “We’ve just lost one of our soldiers.”