One of my favourite square-dance callers, and one of my dearest friends from square dancing, John Sybalsky, died on Monday, Memorial Day, at the age of 56.
I first met John in the early 1990s, at what was then the National Advanced and Challenge Convention in Virginia Beach. I got to know him more when another (alas, also departed) square-dance friend suggested that I go to a dance where, as he put it, John “Check Your Right Hand at the Door” Sybalsky was calling. Over the years since then, we’d become friends, getting together for things other than square dancing. I’ve wine-hopped in Napa Valley with him twice, and talked late into the night at square-dance weekends, long after the dancing ended.
John was known as an eccentric caller, in a fun sense. Modern Western Square Dancing usually uses what we call “right-handed” formations, where the primary turns are to the right... and dancers are more used to those. But John was known for heavy use of left-handed formations, challenging those not accustomed to that, and keeping everyone alert and thinking. He would call something that might have seemed run-of-the-mill, and a dancer would avert a breakdown by alerting his square, “It’s left!” John would quietly respond, “Of course it’s left.”
The eccentricity went to his selection of music, as well. Many callers have come far from the old fiddle-and-banjo music, using disco, show tunes, current pop music, even techno and hip-hop. John did all of that and more, and actively sought funny, unusual, and just downright weird music to use. We would groan when he’d put on the “Chipmunk song”, or the Teletubbies theme, knowing that they would make us laugh while we danced, but get stuck in our brains hopelessly afterward. My favourite of his odd selections was Sue Keller’s excellent ragtime arrangement of Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, which she calls “Furry Lisa” (the tune starts about a minute into the video).
And what he’d say on the microphone....
Challenge dancers often record the sessions, to bring home and review later with groups of dancers in basements. We still call it “taping”, and the groups of dancers “tape groups”, even though most are using laptops, minidisk recorders, and other technology these days. And if a caller, on the microphone, corrects an error you’ve made, you’re said to be “on the tape.” “Bill, you should be behind Jane.” “Turn around, Karen.” “No, Roger, the other left.” That sort of thing is common.
With John, nearly everyone was on the tape at one time or another, often not because of mistakes, but for other reasons — John always had something to say. He was one of those callers who didn’t just give instructions from the stage, but became part of every square, in a way. Our interactions were recorded often — most frequently with my taking the good-natured bad end of it. John was sarcastic in just the right manner, and had a quick wit and a great sense of humour that I particularly appreciated.
Our conversations outside of dancing went from food and wine to politics (we agreed on much, but not on everything) to technology and computers to travel to... well, to any subject we could devise. On a 1997 trip to Napa Valley, he introduced me to Prager Winery and Port Works, an excellent little (very, very little) place that makes some nice stuff. I tasted a wonderful, oaky chardonnay while we were there, and brought home some of their 1991 “Royal Escort” port. We visited Prager again last June, and that was the last time I saw John. I still have a bottle of the ’91 port, and I think that now is a good time to open it and remember all the years past.
I’ll close with a tune I’m dedicating to John: I once suggested that he might try Walter Murphy’s disco adaptation of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, “A Fifth of Beethoven”, and he checked it out. He liked it, adjusted the speed a little to match up with square-dance tempo (120 to 128 beats per minute), and used it. And I enjoyed dancing to it a number of times.
I’ll always miss the music, the dancing, the left-handed formations, the wit, the sarcasm... and the wine and the friendship. Goodbye, John.