It’s one thing to be a creative quadruple threat (film actor, stage actor, television actor, musician); it’s another thing entirely to excel as a quadruple threat for the better part of 43 years. From multiple Tony nominations—and wins—to starring roles on Fame and Treme, Michael Cerveris may be best known for his versatility as a thespian, but he proves just as formidable behind the mic on his long-awaited sophomore solo album, Piety. His sonic pedigree is unsurprisingly impressive, having shared the stage with the likes of the Breeders, Bob Mould, Teenage Fanclub and Frank Black. Cerveris will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read his MAGNET Feedback.
Cerveris: Phys Ed in West Virginia during my boyhood was a curious thing. Besides the President’s Fitness tests, rope climbing and the casual brutality of dodgeball, I remember being told one day that we were going to learn boxing—girls and boys alike, so I guess in that respect it was … progressive. We were taught some primitive skills and then sent in to a makeshift ring and told to compete in a class tournament (wisely, here the boys and girls competed on separate ladders). I drew a bye in the first round and in the second, faced off against one of my better friends, Seth Weisberg. Lacking any discernible skills, we both kind of danced around the ring and occasionally swung ineffective arms and oversized gloves in the general direction of each other. Entering the third and final round, my “corner” (another kid in class, under the supervision of our PE teacher) told me I was going to lose on points unless I started really trying to hit my friend. It took all I could muster to manufacture some utterly fictional reason to be mad at Seth just long enough to swing one punch in pretend anger. It landed square between his eyes, bloodied his nose, won me the match and left me with a lifetime of regret. It remains the last punch I’ve thrown in anger.
Presumably, word got back to the parents that their kids were clubbing each other in the name of physical fitness and the program came to an abrupt halt—mercifully before I had to advance to the next round where I’d inevitably have been slaughtered. In its place, this being West Virginia, for the rest of the year we did square dancing. Naturally, it was awkward, silly, stupid and I’m sure I complained about how ridiculous it was with my guy friends. But I also remember secretly enjoying it. I mean, occasionally you held hands with a girl or had your arm around her waist, and she had to let you. Of course, it was often not the girl you wanted to hold hands with, and God forbid you admitted to actually liking any of them more than Little League, but still … I think that was the first time I ever moved my feet under instruction to the beat of music. And for a long time, it was the last.
My acting career has passed through the world of musical theater on a number of occasions, and so I’ve had to contend with dance in various forms over the years. Despite the fact that my mother was taught by Martha Graham at Juilliard and my sister was one of the last three ballerinas hand picked by George Balanchine to join New York City Ballet, my general relation to dance could best be described as, “I’d rather you just shoot me in the head, thanks.” Most of the musicals I’ve been in have been complex, non-traditional works with little or no jazz hands. And on the rare occasions where I’ve had no choice but to move a little, generally I’m staged to do some minor move and then get out of the way while actual dancers dazzle the crowd. If people remember me dancing at all, it’s because they remember me standing onstage with Ricky Martin in Evita, for example, and confuse the two of us. Happens all the time.
A few years ago, I spent a week camping in the Catskills and studying a bunch of instruments during Southern Week at the Ashokan Fiddle And Dance Camp. My friends in the Cajun band the Red Stick Ramblers (now the Revelers) had attended this camp and ones like it since they were kids and were now playing and teaching there each summer. They painted such a bucolic, fun portrait of the place, I finally took them up on their encouragement to sign up and come. The first day was a sort of orientation followed by a huge, delicious home-cooked meal for more than a hundred, served at long communal tables in a large wood-framed dining hall. Other than my friends in the Revelers, I knew no one, and facing the rows of tables and diners, I felt that sickening feeling I’d had as a kid in the school lunchroom. Where do I sit? Who do I talk to? Where do the cool kids sit? Where do I sit since I’m not a cool kid? Will sitting in this or that place make me cooler or less cool? Why am I standing here worrying about this while my food gets cooler than I do? I managed to find an empty table next to strangers, ate quickly, mostly in silence, and headed back to my tent for a while.
That night was the first of the community dances that took place every night on an open air dance floor in the woods by the river, covered by a large tin roof. Since it was the only activity for miles, everyone at camp ended up there. To give you an idea of the vibe of the place, imagine Christopher Guest’s mockumentary A Mighty Wind. For real. Families and folkies of all ages milled around in little groups while the band set up. Lots of people like me where there for the first time. With the rise of the hipster old-time music scene, there were a decent number of younger Brooklyn folks, but the bulk of the attendees seemed to have been coming for years, many of them multigenerational families who seemed living proof that the family that sings together swings together.
The band was finally ready and the caller took to the mic to explain the first dance. It was going to be a square dance. Friends and strangers began organizing into squares. I took up my traditional dance position: off to the side, a comfortable distance from the action, safe from being asked in. The music kicked in, and they were off. It was charming and hilarious. Unlike every dire dance club I’d occasionally get dragged to for “fun” where the dancing is the slimmest of excuses to advertise or prowl for a companion that night, these folks were just here to be sociable. The dance skills on display ran the gamut, from elderly couples gliding through every move with astounding grace and economy, to young turks flashily showing their skills and small children basically just running around in circles. Hand grips were missed, shapes were wonky, toes got stepped on and knees banged into. And every single person had a huge grin on their face and shining eyes. It was beautiful.
So beautiful, in fact, that I joined in. I volunteered to join a square of strangers looking for a fourth. I followed along well enough and managed not to step on anyone. So I danced the next dance, too. And the one after that. And the next one. Until the evening was almost over and I had danced most of the night. I danced with plain girls, pretty girls, ladies of a certain age and little children. When I got back to my tent, my feet were aching. I could tell a lot of muscles in my legs and back, unaccustomed to being asked to do anything like this, were going to be stiff and sore tomorrow. But the thing that ached the most were my cheeks. Because, I realized, I had been smiling solidly for the last several hours.
The next day in the dining hall, I sat with some of the strangers I had danced with the night before. We were still strangers, but now we were strangers who had a shared experience and some amusing memories of having done something together. I suddenly understood why it was called social dancing. In a way that no group text thread or Facebook debate was ever going to, these face to face engagements built a community over the rest of the week that was palpable. Doing something together with strangers, performing an action with some casual rules and simple form and with no goal other than doing that thing and having fun—that’s almost absent from modern life. On the last afternoon at the camp, the final dance is a big contra waltz to “Ashokan Farewell” (the song played and written by Fiddle And Dance camp founder Jay Unger in 1982), and I felt my heart swell almost to bursting with affection for this odd gathering of strangers who had made a genuine community out of a week playing music and dancing together in the woods. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it restored my faith in humanity a little.
So these days, whenever I can, I go to Cajun dance nights anyplace from Manhattan to Louisiana, contra dances in Brooklyn; hell, I recently even ventured a little two step with my gal at a Robert Earl Keen show. I’m not all that good, but that’s not really the point.
Who knew dancing around the ring with Seth would lead one day to squiring old ladies, little kids and the occasional pretty girl around a dance floor? Whether it’s a date or not, a country waltz is among the finest things a man can learn to do, I think. I love playing them, too, which is why Loose Cattle’s first single/video was our little cowboy waltz, “Pony Girl.” And the sight of a Cajun Fais Do Do, with a room full of every age, gender, color, persuasion and type of person dancing in one large circle, all moving gently in the same direction is one of the more beautiful, hopeful things I can think of in the midst of our country’s current angry, fractious, deeply divided mood.
Like I learned in grade school, it’s time to take off the gloves and choose partners.
Videos after the jump.