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Hip to be square-dancing — Lake Cowichan and Palsson students get schooled

The Black Rabbit Rounders and square dance caller Paul Silveria get kids moving June 13 and 14

​It’s hip to be square-dancing.

The Cowichan Bluegrass Festival is coming back to Youbou’s Laketown Ranch from June 14 to 16, and just before the good times hit the ranch, students at Palsson Elementary and Lake Cowichan will have the opportunity to get schooled in the art of square-dancing. This program, which got its start in 2016, has allowed students of all ages to swing out of their comfort zones and experience a musical genre that might be new to many of them.

“We are beyond thrilled to be able to bring this form of music into the community,” said festival artistic director Bob Remington. “Every year during festival week we run a school music program where we bring an old-time string band into elementary schools for a series of square dance workshops. In today’s wireless world, many of these young children have never, or have rarely heard traditional string band music in a live setting. Our festival is highly participatory with free dance and music workshops, and our square dance program is just one part of that. These kids are our future, many festivals with similar genres of music struggle with aging demographics. The more young people we can engage, the better it is not just for our festival, but maybe even for others.”

The Black Rabbit Rounders and caller Paul Silveri, who will be the driving force for do-si-dos at the festival’s signature Saturday night square dancing spotlight on June 15, will be at Lake Cowichan School on June 13, and at Palsson Elementary on June 14 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Each day will have four one-hour sessions limited to around 50 students, with typically 200 students participating at each school — older grades are often offered the opportunity to do an educational one-hour concert, rather than dance lessons.

“We have been happy to be included in this fun event, it is a valuable experience; as educators we know that music and dance engages the brain and has a positive impact on childhood development,” said Palsson principal Fiona Somerville. “For a minimal honorarium we get to have a live band and a square dance caller come to our school and set up in the gym for the whole day. We are able to have all classes have a turn in the gym with a partner class to learn about square dancing and the instruments that are played in the band.”

“We are delighted to have performers from the Blue Grass Festival join our grade 4-7 students at Lake Cowichan School,” said teacher Renée Stieda. “We had the opportunity to host them prior to COVID and look forward to once again introducing our students to Bluegrass music and square dancing. With so many different genres of music to enjoy it is important for students to be introduced different types of music and to appreciate the hard work that goes into creating music.”

Participating students not only get a brief history of the music and dance but are also given a free weekend pass to attend the festival with a parent. Youth 17 and under attend for free when accompanied by an adult — supervising teachers also receive a free pass. According to Remington, since the program’s inception they have distributed about $400,000 in festival passes to participating families in their host communities.

The Black Rabbit Rounders, who originally hail from Alberni Valley, and are a part of B.C.’s vibrant old-time music scene are among the best practitioners in Canada of Appalachian-style “old-time” music says Remington. The band features Max Evans on fiddle, his wife Sarra Evans on guitar, and Claire Fadul on banjo. This talented trio will be stringing together a fun filled day for students as Vancouver-based Silveria, an experienced square-dance caller teaches the kids basic dance moves on the spot just as he would with adults on Saturday night at the festival.

“They are amazing players, as good as you’ll find anywhere and we are fortunate to have them in our backyard on the island,” said Remington. “Paul was originally part of the Portland old-time scene where he became immersed in square dance culture and calling dances — has been our dance caller since we moved to Laketown in 2019.”

The festival’s school square dance program was first started by former board member Lisa Feeney, who was a part of the group called the Young Old-time Music and Dance Association. Remington says that YOMADA deserves immense credit for making Appalachian traditional music, commonly known as ‘old-time music’ — part of their festival culture.

“The music goes hand-in-hand with square dance, so we hosted a square dance at the festival with YOMADA in 2015,” said Remington. “We brought it to local schools in Sooke the following year as a community outreach effort, which we continued when we moved to Laketown. This music has special appeal to those in their 20s and 30s, so the unexpected result was a lowering of our festival demographic. Bluegrass evolved from Appalachian string band music, so overall it was a good fit for the festival.”

For more information on this year’s festival visit

“For those who don’t know what we’re about, I call our festival ‘the best music you’ve never heard’ and I hope these kids agree,” said Remington. “Some may have never been exposed to acoustic music, which gets scant mainstream media exposure, and virtually no radio play. Many of these kids express a sense of wonderment, and we couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”

“My hope for the students is that they experience the joy of hearing live music played really well, as well as a fun dance experience where they get to play with body movement for physical literacy,” said Somerville. “The smiles on their faces always tells me how much they enjoyed it.”

About the Author: Chadd Cawson

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