How Andy Wilson became a full-time dance caller and helped start one of the most beloved traditions on the Peninsula
Article by Nick Bastone // Pics by Amar Dillon
Once a month, in a barn off Highway 1 just south of Pescadero, something magical happens.
A bluegrass band, complete with a fiddle and mandolin player, sets up at the front of the room. Patrons gather on the dance floor. Some are city slicker twenty-somethings who came with a group of friends, maybe for a birthday. Some are bit older and brought their young families. Others, though they may be few, came because they are experts.
Then one man, in a black cowboy hat and a blue, western button down, hops up onto the wooden bench in front of the band. His name is Andy Wilson, he explains, and he’ll be the barn dance caller for the night. What follows is a uniquely local and notoriously festive event that has been running monthly for well over a decade now, and draws people from all over the Bay Area and beyond.
What Andy doesn’t explain to the eager crowd is that the Pie Ranch Barn Dance was an idea he helped conceive over twelve years ago and that he hasn’t missed calling one of its dances since. He also doesn’t talk about the long, serendipitous path that led him to this unique dance caller career in this special place along the California coast.
“Now find a partner!” Andy calls out. “First up is one of my favorites — The Grand March!”
“Top couple gallop down the middle — two by two to the tune of the fiddle. Come on back the other way back, up the middle in the same old
Beyond the bubble
Andy Wilson was working his first job in Santa Clara after earning his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley when the first dot-com bubble burst. He was laid off in 2002 as sales at his company took a sharp decline.
“I was devastated,” Wilson remembers. “In my mind, I was thinking, ‘I’ve been fired, not laid off.’ I was feeling really crummy.”
After losing his first corporate job, Wilson — who was single at the time — decided to live on the cheap and focus on a hobby that he’d had a fascination with over the previous few years: barn dance calling.
“When I started dancing, I realized that this is something that was a lot of fun. The music is really up-beat. It wasn’t sleazy. It wasn’t like going to some dark, smokey bar somewhere,” he remembers. “I can’t quite tell you why it is that I started calling. You know, I guess, I started because it was a challenge.”
Wilson hasn’t had a “real” job since.
In the early days, he’d travel north to call a Friday night dance in Santa Rosa or go south to Monterey. However, the major scenes, like San Francisco and Berkeley, were hard breaking into since they typically had a caller who had been there for years.
“For me to get into the dance scene calling in the Bay Area I had to go to tiny little dances way out in the fringes,” Wilson says. Once he drove all the way to St. Helena from Santa Clara and came home with only $75 in his pocket.
When Wilson’s daughter was born, he knew things needed to change if barn dance calling was to be his ultimate career.
So he started calling dances for private events, like birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. He even stood up on stage at a memorial service to call Contra for someone who loved the dance dearly.
“Promenade like a little red wagon, one wheel off and the axle draggin’. Home you go; square your sets. Now couple number two!”
The Pie Ranch barn dance is born
In 2006, soon after he and his family moved to Pescadero, Wilson was approached by Jered Lawson, one of the co-founders of Pie Ranch, to see if he’d be interested in starting a community event at their farm.
Lawson himself had a special connection to barn dancing that Wilson had actually been a part of.
He and his now partner, Nancy Vail, met at a dance that Wilson was calling for an Ecological Farming Association annual gathering in Pacific Grove, Monterey.
“It happened that the couple who are the heart of Pie Ranch, they were not a couple then. They were dancing, but they were dancing not as partners,” Wilson tells me. “At a moment in the dance when they happened to be next to each other, apparently I said, ‘Now, dance like you mean it!’ and each of them looked at the other. And that was the beginning, the spark of their relationship.”
Lawson wanted to create a regular, community event at Pie Ranch and could think of nothing better to bring people together than a barn dance. And, given their history, having Wilson as the caller would make it all the more special.
Seeing potential in the idea, Wilson agreed.
“Gradually, over the course of several years the word filtered out that there was this really fun thing that was happening over on the Peninsula and people started to come. And more people started to come. And even more!” Wilson recalls. “Finally it got to where most of the local people who used to come quit coming because they said, ‘Eh, there’s too many of those outsiders coming in and crowding.’ But it just built organically and turned into something that was far more successful than any of us expected when we started.”
The Pie Ranch barn dances have been running every third Saturday of the month since October 2006 and have become a staple along the mid-Peninsula coastline.
The dance is meant for all ages and skill levels.
On the night we’re there, a mother carrying her baby is dancing. So too are young kids with no shoes on, an older couple from Ireland, and one guy who has all the moves perfected.
Some of the dances Wilson called were the Galopede, Virginia Reel, Flying Scotsman and the crowd favorite, Sasha.
“Allemande left your corners all. Right hand to your partner you chain the hall. Hand over hand and heel and toe, when you meet your partner
Calling on the Peninsula
Andy says earlier in his career he called more technical dances because the crowds were more experienced. Yet, he continues to be amazed at how quickly people on the Peninsula can pick up the moves he teaches on the spot.
He also says he appreciates calling dances in the area because, given the high level of education that’s often in the crowd, he’s able to weave in some of his old engineering references.
“Instead of telling people to turn all the way around, I’ll say, ‘that’s two pi if you like to count,’” Andy tells me. “That’s a mathematical and engineering joke, and people get it.”
In the future, Wilson hopes he can capitalize on the tech companies scattered up and down the Peninsula.
“You have a group of people who don’t know each other, but they’ve got to do some project together and need a way to break the ice,” Wilson explains. “[Contra dancing] would be great for that. These people who didn’t know each other before will have laughed and smiled, and they’ll feel more bonded together as a group.”
Pie Ranch // Mon. — Fri. 12–5 p.m., Sat & Sun 10 a.m. — 5 p.m.
Barn Dance: every 3rd Saturday of the Month from 6 p.m. — 9 p.m. (Nov-Feb) and 7 p.m.—10p.m. (March-October)
2080 Cabrillo Highway, Pescadero; 650.879.0995
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