Fear of Dancing

I accidentally learned how to dance. I was trying really hard for this not to happen.

Here’s what happened.

I had just moved to Richmond, Virginia. I was living in a beautiful old farmhouse in Goochland, past rolling pastures along the James River. I didn’t know many people from the area and I was hoping to meet some fellow musicians with whom I could share some tunes and perhaps a pint or two.

I found Style Weekly magazine in a rack outside of the health food store. Your town probably has a version of this paper. It’s an alternative weekly that lists indy rock bands with names like Salmon Finger that you are too old to ever really understand or like. It features a modicum of liberal journalism and has plenty of ads where you can get your mountain bike serviced. You know the one.

In the back there was a classified section for musicians. Here you could find ads like “Bass player needed. Must be able to play in G and D,” or “Dynamic frontman/singer looking for band to back me up.” I knew from experience that you have to be careful with folks from theses ads. Once I had gotten together with someone advertised as a “talented guitarist.” He showed up with perfectly quaffed and permed blond 80’s metal hair. After he set up his guitar he took out one of those oscillating fans, saying, “Do you have somewhere I can plug this in?” He put the fan on the floor and aimed it at himself at an angle like a floor monitor so it would blow his hair in dramatic wisps while he played. It was one of the longest hours of my life.

So I knew to target my audience carefully. I placed an ad saying that I was a musician, new to town, that was interested in playing Irish traditional music. I gave a few particulars and my phone number and sent it off.

I picked up a copy of the paper the following week to see if my ad was there. It was. There was just a minor hitch. Instead of putting the ad in the music classifieds, they had put it in the personals section.

Let me just stop for a moment to offer a bit of advice. Under no circumstances should you ever, ever, put your phone number in a personals ad.

The little green counter on my answering machine started to increment. I received a number of very forward propositions and offers of service. One woman breathed into the handset, “I adore musicians.” I could hear crying in the background. I’m not sure what that meant. I didn’t return any of these messages.

But there was one message, one short message, from a woman named C. that was different. It said simply, “I’m not sure, but I saw your ad in the paper and I just think that you should probably be a part of our community. Can you come to a contra dance?”

There are moments around which worlds turn. You don’t realize it when it happens because the relativity dictates that you turn at the same rate as the world itself. But looking back it’s dead clear that the universe on that day took a different path.

I had heard of contra dancing but hadn’t tried it. To be honest I didn’t really want to try it, as I couldn’t dance. But I was really interested in the music and was in need of new friends. I called her up and we met for lunch. When she found out that I knew how to operate a sound system she suggested that I help out since their community was in need of some help in that regard.

So I started running sound for the dances. I would set up the soundboard just offstage. That way I was out of sight of the dancers but could easily communicate with the musicians. And, my, what music it was! I was enthralled.

The problem was that, despite my best efforts, women would always find me and drag me out of my hiding place and onto the dance floor. I would explain that no, I was the sound guy, but they were much too persistent to be put off by that, or even the fact that I was utterly confused on the floor. Around and around they pushed me as the weeks and months drew on. And little by little I began to understand, more and more frequently forgetting myself until I was swinging and laughing with wild abandon.

I thought that it ended there. That there was a straight line between not knowing how to dance and being able to dance. I didn’t realize at the time that I was being pulled into a dense, rich community. That my roots were entwining with an extended colony of dancers until we held each other in a solid mass of interdependent lives. Or that we were really all just a part of the same life.

It was a homecoming.

That’s how I came to dance. What’s your story?

photo by Chris Florio at FlorioPics.

Baby Cardinals

This spring I noticed a little nest in the bush right outside my bedroom window. I wasn’t sure if it was abandoned or new. But then one day, three little eggs appeared.

cardinals_01I wasn’t sure who they belonged to until mother showed up to sit on them.

cardinals_02One day she kept looking underneath herself. “What’s going on down there?” This is what was going on.

cardinals_03They weren’t beautiful, but they were hers.

One day, I looked out the window and saw a most unwelcome visitor sniffing around. I moved him far away from the house, but I wasn’t at all convinced he wouldn’t find his way right back.

cardinals_04The babies were growing very quickly. They seemed to sleep all the time, which made them completely helpless. But I understand that they must have been exhausted from all of that hard work growing.

Here they are as youngsters, unaware of the danger on the ground below.

cardinals_05I wasn’t sure who was going to get to live.

Here’s what kept happening.

I’m happy to report that all three fledged soon after and are busy in the trees around my house.

On Becoming Story

A number of people have asked me why I dedicated Tales from the Red Book of Tunes to Gene Hubert. Here’s why.

My father died this past fall. Some years before his death I took over his effects to manage the things he could no longer handle himself. One of the things I received was a red file folder labelled “vital statistics.”

Inside I found important documents my father had collected: his own parents’ marriage and death certificates, their son’s (my uncle’s) death certificate, and my grandfather’s Word War I military papers. I also found records for the family cemetery plot, purchased during the depression.

These artifacts are the cornerstones in the story of my grandmother’s journey in a covered wagon from Indiana to Virginia. There she married my grandfather and they built a wooden shed and lived in it while my grandfather built his own house by hand. Three of their five boys, my father included, were born in that shed, before the house was finished and they were able to move out and leave the single, brown, milk cow in peace in the shed. These are the stories that I’m sure my father remembered after his own parents’ deaths, when he placed their death certificates in that file in the 1970s.

Toward the front of the file I found my father’s marriage certificate to my mother, along with her death certificate, put there just a few years earlier. The folder contained my father’s World War II discharge papers, which listed every ship on which he had served. These turned out to be useful as I was able to research the ships on the Internet and discover their deployment histories. Those matched up with the war stories he told me in my youth.

After I retrieved my father’s ashes from the funeral home they gave me his death certificate. I found myself opening the same red vital statistics file to put the document away. I remembered how he had taken twelve years to build the log cabin where I grew up. And I recalled the many hours we spent together in the dim light of the workshop, huddled beside the old brown oil stove, him patiently explaining the secrets of every tool and woodcut.

Standing there with his death certificate in my hand and the red file open, I realized that my father was just in that moment passing between living and dead. Between being someone you could speak to, and someone you would speak about. He was becoming story. And my placing his paper in the file was the act that caused it to be so. This is the file that my sons will use to remember and understand him. And eventually they will stand above it for me.

What does all this have to do with Gene Hubert and Tales from the Red Book of Tunes?

Over the last decade we’ve watched Gene become story. Those of us that remember Gene and danced with him knew his kindness, his soft voice, and his gentle smile. But when he died, he left behind his dances. These are his vital statistics, and they have taken wing. Many a caller has relied on those trusty movements to overcome her fear when first stepping up to the caller’s microphone. Many a lover has come into the arms of his destiny to one of Gene’s dances. This is the swirling river of stellar material that flings out lives.

The Red Book of Tunes is about the stories behind the music and dances. In that sense, Gene is very much like those composers and dancers in the book. Yet his story is close enough to us still that we can see the milky births of those stars, their many stories just emerging.

We are all caught up in that river of stars, holding each other as we swing down the long hall of night. No fiddler ever plays a tune the same way twice. And the faces change each time the dance progresses. But the melodies are the same, and we know them. On warm nights Gene’s dizzy choreography spins dancers out across the world like dust devils.

We allow ourselves to become folded into those patterns, those old dances, the old tunes. We are becoming story.


I dropped my son on his head when he was an infant.

I was just getting the hang of the whole diaper changing thing. I finally had him changed but needed to get him dressed, so I sat him upright on the changing table while I reached down for a tiny shirt. I forgot that he didn’t know how to sit.

He just fell forward and did a faceplant onto the wooden corner of the table. No stomach muscles whatsoever. I picked him up. He was stunned. So stunned that he didn’t breathe. You could see the astonishment dawning on him. The utter shock that the world had done something so awful to him. It had never occurred to him before that this was possible. This was a whole new level of disappointment. And I was the one that had brought it to him.

He was devastated. So he started to bawl, completely overcome.

I felt terrible. But then I saw a circle of white appear in the center of his forehead. As he cried it grew into a knot the size of an egg.

A lot of our parenting failures happen in private. We whisk the mess into the trash, or make up a lie, and the whole thing passes. But I was not going to be able to hide this. He was growing a green and blue Easter egg right in the middle of his forehead. I was terrified at what his mother would say when she came home. So I panicked: I called my neighbor and confessed. In what I remember to this day as one of the greatest kindnesses ever offered me, she shared a whole list of disastrous things she had done to her son. As she recounted each terrible event I felt a wave of new relief.

Luckily, he survived this event, and more. Now he’s sixteen and a second degree black belt. And yesterday he was honored by the Governor as youth volunteer of the year for his work in teen court and the juvenile justice system.

I couldn’t be more proud. But I am utterly scathed.

I think that raising a child is like playing football. You catch the little pigskin in your own end zone and cradle it under your arm. Ahead of you is a swirling mass of danger. But you tuck and run for all your worth. You’re kicked, and tackled, and take helmets in your gut. And if you’re lucky you finally fall, battered, bruised, and with an Easter egg in the middle of your forehead, at the 99-yard line, stretching that ball out in front of you into the end zone.

At that point you can’t even hear the cheering. The game has moved on. And probably you’re out for the season. Maybe for life. Maybe this was your one big play.

It was worth it.



Haw River Ballroom

Last night I was at the Haw River Ballroom with friends. With the low sun casting deep orange shadows into the old mill we watched the Haw River rolling quietly below us. It was a lovely evening.

I was there to share readings but was lucky enough to have Trish Hornick come with her fiddle. We played a few tunes for the crowd.

Many thanks to Ricky Garni for taking these great photos.

To the Virgins

I awoke this morning and stumbled into the kitchen to find our Amaryllis in bloom but fallen over on the table, its weighty blossom too heavy a head to hold. I righted it and took this picture, knowing that its beauty would not last.

It put me in mind of this poem.Amaryllis

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

-Robert Herrick, 1648

You can click on the photo for a larger version.

Stephanie Johnston | Cape Breton Stepdancer


Tell us a little about your music and dance career. Where have you lived and danced?

I’ve lived in England, Tennessee, Arizona, North Carolina, and Nova Scotia (and I became a Canadian citizen three days ago!). I’ve been playing Celtic music since high school, but didn’t stephanie_johnston_01begin step dancing until I was nearly thirty. I went to Warren Wilson College in Asheville and have been involved with the Swannanoa Gathering on campus over the years as a volunteer, staff member and instructor (if you don’t already know about the Gathering, check out www.swangathering.com). It was there that I saw Cape Breton step dancing for the first time and decided I had to learn, although at the time I had idea how I’d go about it. Less than a year later, I met Malke Rosenfeld, a phenomenal percussive dancer who was living and teaching in the Triangle area at the time. I ended up joining Cucanandy, a band founded by her and her partner, quit my day job, and went on the road with them for five years. Malke was very generous about teaching me as much about percussive dance, and Cape Breton dance in particular, as I wanted to learn, and I began to dance with her a little bit in performance (I spent most of my time onstage singing and playing bodhran and rhythm guitar). After the the band split up in 2002, I began teaching Cape Breton dance in Asheville, eventually forming a semi-professional performance group called Twisty Cuffs Percussive Dance. In 2008 I married a wonderful man who had just gotten a job as a Celtic studies professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, which happens to be about half an hour from Cape Breton Island, so I spent five years surrounded by people who had grown up immersed in step dancing and Gaelic culture. We have just moved back to North Carolina, and I’m excited to reconnect with the music and dance scene down here.

What do you do when you are not dancing?

At the moment most of my energy is going into raising our sixteen month-old daughter, Róisín (whose name means “Little Rose” in Irish), but I tend to have my fingers in lots of creative pies. I’m a Scottish Gaelic learner, and I directed a Gaelic choir in Nova Scotia for three years, which is something I’d like to try to get going down here in the next year or two. I’m also an avid knitter and sweater designer, although having a curious toddler in the house makes it hard to get much knitting done these days.

What’s one funny thing that happened to you while dancing?

stephanie_johnston_03Cucanandy used to top off the night with a big set of tunes, at the end of which I would hop up onto Malke’s 3’ x 3’ dance board and join her for a fairly manic piece of choreography. It was usually the only time the audience saw me dance, so it was our big surprise knock-’em dead number. If you take a moment to visualize a three-foot platform of plywood, you may realize that’s not a lot of room for two people in tap shoes who are hopping up and down and swinging their legs around. There were many times that we each came perilously close to one edge or the other of the board, but I remember one night in particular: Malke’s shoelace came untied and all she could manage to do to warn me was yell “Danger!” By the end of the piece we were both in giggles, but neither one of us tripped on her lace.

It seems like dancing in community is a really common thing across cultures and times. What purpose do you think dance serves?

I think it serves many purposes, but what I love most about dancing, and percussive dance in particular, is that it’s a full-body way to enjoy great music. I’m one of those people who can’t sit still if the music’s good, and getting to play along with my feet is about as joyful an experience as I can imagine.

How does percussive dance relate to community dance?

Percussive dance is often incorporated into community dance styles. There’s a great tradition in Cape Breton of community “square dances” which are very similar to Southern Appalachian square dances: couples move through a set of figures with other couples, often while doing fairly simple percussive steps. And, like the flatfooting and clogging traditions down here, particularly skilled dancers will often get up and perform more complicated steps during breaks between sets.

How long did it take you to become proficient at percussive dance?

I was performing a French Canadian waltz clog onstage with Cucanandy within a few months of starting to learn, but I had an exceptionally good teacher and was highly motivated to get good fast.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

Malke was my first and biggest influence, but I’ve known some other wonderful dancers along the way, including Ira Bernstein, Wendy MacIsaac, and Benoit Bourque. I was introduced to Malke by a lovely rhythm tap dancer in Blacksburg named Ann Kilkelly, who turned me on to Bill Robinson and other classic dancers of his era. Ellie Grace (of the Grace Sisters) is a good friend who showed up one day for a dance class and ended up playing a big a big part in the formation of Twisty Cuffs.

What’s one thing that you hope to do in your life that you haven’t gotten around to yet?

I started working on a novel about flamenco dance (another obsession of mine) the year before my daughter was born, and I fantasize that some day I will managed to pick it back up and finish it.


Stephanie Johnston has been teaching dance since 2002, and was the founding director of the Asheville-based percussive dance group Twisty Cuffs. She toured with the Carrboro group Cucanandy from 1997 to 2002, and has taught classes and workshops up and down the East Coast in the US and Canada. She studied dance with Malke Rosenfeld, Bonnie Jean MacDonald and Jean MacNeil (“mother of the Barra MacNeils”), and has danced onstage with Buddy MacMaster, Ira Bernstein, John Doyle, Liz Carroll, and numerous other luminaries of Celtic music and dance. To stay updated, “like” Step Gael on Facebook. Information on her April classes can be found on the ArtsCenter website at http://www.artscenterlive.org/classes/2119-cape-breton-step-dancing/

Dance pictures by Chris Florio at FlorioPics.

Join me at the Haw River Ballroom

Haw River

Dear Friends,

I’ll be the featured author at Writer’s Night at the Haw River Ballroom on Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 7pm. I’ll be reading from Tales from the Red Book of Tunes. I’ll bring my mandolin and play a few tunes from the book as well. Trish Hornick will join me on the fiddle.

The reading will happen at Cup 22, which is the cafe that overlooks the ballroom. It’s a lovely space if you’ve not yet seen it.

Join Me for Dinner at the Eddy

I’m planning on having dinner at the Eddy at 6pm before the reading. I would be delighted if folks would join me. The Eddy is a terrific restaurant and bar and is, quite simply, the happening place in the Triangle. It’s adjacent to the Haw River Ballroom. Please let me know if you plan to join me for dinner so I can give the manager an estimated head count.

Open Mic

After my reading there will be an open mic for poets and authors. So if you’ve something to share please bring it.

Directions and Links

  • The Haw River Ballroom is located at 1711 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Rd., Saxaphahaw, NC 27340 (336.525.2314).
  • Cup 22 is on the second floor of the ballroom.
  • The Eddy Pub is located at 1715 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Rd., Saxapahaw, NC  27340 (336.525.2010).

About Writer’s Night at the Haw River Ballroom

Writer’s Night, held on the first Thursday of each month, is a celebration of the written word. Local authors, established and emerging, read from their fiction, poetry or nonfiction and answer questions about their craft in the intimate setting of Haw River Ballroom’s 2nd floor coffee shop, Cup 22.  Following the reading is an open mic session for any writers who would like to share their work.  Past featured authors include Celissa Steele, Ricky Garni, Nancy Peacock, Daniel Wallace, Jonathan Farmer, Lyle Estill, Bianca Diaz, and Chuck Ball.  Event starts at 7 pm and ends at 9 pm.

Mini Concert

WRAL - Tyler and Bill

I sat down with Bill Leslie of WRAL to talk about traditional music and play a few tunes from my latest book. Alison and Gordon Arnold from Rip the Calico played along in the studio in Raleigh, NC. Bill Leslie is a terrific musician in his own right. He has a particular love of Scottish music and works with some high caliber musicians. Take a listen over at Bill’s website. A special thanks are due to Dan Gilvary for helping with this event. Dan is another wonderful musician and extraordinary humanitarian.

WRAL - Gordon WRAL - Alison






 Enjoy the music!


Bluebirds – Construction Begins


This pair of bluebirds has decided to build a nest in my garden. The box has recently been moved and we were worried that this pair might not come back this year. To encourage them we’ve not been using the garden entrance.


I planted cotton last year and have left some bolls lying about the garden in hopes that someone might use it to make a comfy bed.


They’ve been checking it out for a few weeks. Mother came and sat on top to survey the garden for safety and the potential for bugs.


Yesterday they decided to go for it and this morning has been all a-flutter. Papa stands guard on the fence ready to call out a warning or fend off intruders. Meanwhile, Mama has been gathering sticks for all she’s worth. She’ll disappear into the hole, and then the whole box will shake as she redecorates. Then it’s off for more.