From square dance to political activism at Oakland’s Marxist library
on April 17, 2019
It’s Friday night at 6501 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.
A group of young people in their late twenties are standing in front of a white building. “Must be a bar,” we say to each other. Our night was supposed to start in a bar across the street, but some missing dollar bills for an entrance fee that we mistakenly assumed we could pay with a card made us leave before we’d even had a drink. So we venture over the crosswalk in order to explore what is around. We don’t need Google maps; we have our instincts.
As we get closer, all we can hear is widespread laughter, a vibrant laugh intertwining with music in the background. Every now and then, we hear the voice of a woman. We lean through the door and see her standing on top of a plastic chair, overlooking the crowd. Around her are stacks of books. Next to her, a band is playing. The atmosphere is buzzing. “Chase the rabbit, chase the ‘coon, chase that big boy around the room,” she calls out. We stand there contemplating what kind of funky place hires such a singer.
A man in his mid-sixties is standing next to the window, glancing inside. He is a bit out of shape and his red t-shirt is sweaty. We ask him what’s happening and he points to a sign. “It’s square dance,” he says. “Go inside and try for yourself.” We wonder how he ended up there. “My wife is inside,” he says with pride. He doesn’t want to talk much, but he smiles.
The two of us are international students studying journalism at UC Berkeley. Roza is from Greece (but carries Albanian blood). Yasmin is from Brazil. We had originally intended to write a story about Oakland bars, with suggestions of where to go, as a way to showcase interesting places around the town. But what started as a search for an Oakland night out lead us to to the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library, where a mixed-age group of people gather every first and third Friday of the month to square dance and mingle. We have never heard of square dancing. But Yasmin says that whatever it is, we are dancing it. To her, it looks like “Quadrilha,” a partner dance they perform in Brazil at country festivals. To Roza, it looks like an Americanized version of how people dance in Greek villages after everyone has consumed their handmade liquor and elevated their spirits.
Square dance actually comes from the American southeast. It is the official state dance of 19 U.S. states. It inherently carries a sense of folklore and tradition. The rules go like this: Groups of four couples dance in a square formation. Each of the dancers begins by partnering with a specific pair that they immediately lose, only to find again later as the cycles rotates. A caller—the woman standing on the chair—gives instructions on how the steps go. Traditionally, square dance is danced by a man and a woman, but in this case, it didn’t matter. The two of us dance as a couple, with Roza as Yasmin’s gentleman.
Dancing it is easier than it looks. All it takes is to memorize the steps and get into it. But we must appear a bit intimidated, as people keep reassuring us not to worry—it is “just for fun.”
No one is on their phones. They don’t need to be. This is the way they escape.
Rarely does one see empty beer cans next to portraits of Frederick Douglass, whose image is resting on the bookshelves next to manifestos of liberation written by famous authors. Rarely does one see people dancing inside a library at night.
During the day, the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library remains intimate in its calmness. It acts as a meeting place for people from all paths of life, says a woman who goes by Mama C. and is the coordinator and one of the pillars of the community. Now 74, she tells us with pride about how she went to her first demonstration when she was 10, of her years of activism and reaching out for the rights of the African American community. She talks about the struggles of being a woman.
She also talks about how Roscoe Proctor, one of the people the place is named after, mentored her. An Oakland resident himself, Proctor organized to deconstruct barriers between black and white people. He showed her the importance of empowering the African American community, she says. Among the project he initiated was one called Youth for Jobs, which is where Mama C met him.
“We would go out in the morning, do things for women. I was a youth myself working for the youth of my community. He taught me much,” she says.
Together with Karl Niebyl, a Marxist economist who fled Nazi Germany, the two men were the inspiration behind the library’s vision. Their collection of books, pamphlets and papers became the core of the library, which moved to its current location in 1996.
In addition to square dance, the library offers theater and drum classes, and events to host rounds of conversation. “I want people to feel this is a place they can come to be creative, learn and share their experiences,” Mama C says.
She first heard of the idea of hosting square dances 10 years ago from a member of the library’s board. Since then it has grown in popularity. Often during the summertime “even the sidewalks are dancing,” she says.
By the end of our own night of dancing at the library, the two of us are left speechless. In two rounds of square dancing, we have held hands with more than 15 people. Now, we are a part of the giggling crowd. We take positions for the final round.
“OK, are you guys ready for our last dance of the night? Let’s make the best one before we go home,” the caller says.
Nobody wants the dance to end, now that we are warmed up and comfortable. As we improvise our last steps, we find that there’s a beauty in it. You can make mistakes, and no one judges you. Eventually, you get the hang of it.
As the dance ends, a bittersweet feeling lingers in the air. We hug the dancers with whom we have been dancing the past song. For some of them, it’s also their first time and it feels like we went through something together. For others, this is their regular dosage of happiness.
On our way out of the library we see the man in the red t-shirt. He smiles widely at us as he tells his goodnight. We leave strangely satisfied. “Now you know,” he says.
Indeed we do. We promise to go back next time.
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