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When Mishnock Barn's A-Rockin'...

For something a little more "country" than your typical night dancing

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If you’re trying to find a packed dance floor on a Wednesday night, you could be forgiven if the banks of Lake Mishnock in West Greenwich aren’t the first place you check. There’s a crowd of about 100 people divided among the not one, not two, but three dance floors at Mishnock Barn, which would be impressive for just about any bar, club or music venue anywhere in the state on a weeknight, let alone one tucked away on a rural stretch of road in a mostly residential neighborhood. Despite the impressive headcount, one of the regulars assures me, “It’s actually kind of dead tonight; there’s usually a lot more people here on a Wednesday.”

Mishnock Barn is a good, old fashioned (but not too old fashioned) country line dancing club and one of Rhode Island’s true hidden treasures. The “barn” was built in the 1940s by Waite Albro and his father John, intended not as a functional structure for a working farm, but a picnic shelter and entertainment pavilion. In 1971, Waite’s wife Maril and her brother Eddie Zack enclosed part of the pavilion and began hosting Saturday night country dances featuring Eddie’s band, the Hayloft Jamboree. That country tradition lives on through Waite’s son Dan and his wife Kelly, who continue to run the barn as one of Rhode Island’s most unique and unlikely nightlife spots, one with a cult following and a family feel.

Open five to six nights a week for dancing and music, Mishnock Barn is not so much a bar or club as it is equal parts extended family and regional attraction. Regulars flock in each week from all over southern New England and even as far as New Hampshire, but Dan and Kelly Albro have entertained visitors from all over the world: “Iceland, England, France, Italy, Germany and Canada – to name a few,” says Kelly. While the occasional pilgrim from far afield adds to the novelty of the place, it’s the loyal regulars who make it special. The Albros (whose ranks also include Dan’s sister, Maril, behind the bar and Dan and Kelly’s oldest son, Nathaniel, in the DJ booth) frequently arrange group excursions for their extended Mishnock Barn family: baseball games at McCoy Stadium, country-dance weekends in the Catskills, even trips to Jamaica.

That family feel makes the patrons eager ambassadors for Mishnock Barn. One guy in his late 20s told me he first started coming to the place because he went to college with one of the Albros’ sons. “Now I pretty much live here,” he said. “I’m here almost every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.” (Those are the “Beginner’s Nights,” which draw some of the largest crowds.) “We just found out about this place about two months ago, and we’ve been back every week since,” said another young woman there with a group of friends. “We love it because you can come by yourself and just dance. Nobody bothers you – you can just have fun.”

Dan Albro is at the center of all that fun, running the show and calling the steps. The family business came naturally to him. He’s been a musician all his life; indeed, he’s been exposed to country music since he was in the womb. Dan’s mother, Maril, was a country singer (as were her sister and two brothers). She played a Gibson guitar and, according to Kelly, “beat it on his head for the nine months she carried him.” Dan sings, writes songs, and plays guitar, drums and piano. He spent years in rock n roll bands, and after he took over the barn in 1978, he turned it into a rock club, which it remained for years. “Eventually I got tired of babysitting drunks,” he recalls, so in 1992 he changed it back to country dancing, and began teaching and choreographing. “I haven’t had a problem since.” (Of course, he couldn’t leave rock behind completely: his classic rock cover band plays the barn on the first Thursday of every month.)

Three nights a week, Dan gives newcomers a proper welcome, teaching a beginner’s class on one end of the barn while the more experienced regulars strut their stuff on the other side to selections from the DJ. “If you have two left feet, use them both,” he advises the uninitiated. My girlfriend and I dutifully lined up for our first lesson, full of more determination than coordination. “We’re not going there to be bad at line dancing,” she declared on the ride down. “We’re going to be good at it.” We quickly revised down our expectations after watching some of the regulars warm up the dance floor. These folks weren’t just dancing to fiddles and twangy guitars either. We were surprised to find them enthusiastically stepping in line to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and even the odd hip-hop track or two. (“If it’s fun and feels good we’ll dance to it,” Kelly enthused.)

On this particular night, Dan was showing several basic line dances, including “Footloose” (yes, that “Footloose”), “Down and Dirty,” and a partner dance charmingly called “Trashy Woman.” The lessons were simple: Dan broke down each dance into a series of eight-counts, slowly demonstrating the steps without the aid of music. Then, still without musical accompaniment, he combined the eight-counts into the full dance. Adding a song, he again walked us through it, at a reasonable pace, calling out the individual steps as we suddenly, shockingly found ourselves line dancing. After we got the hang of it – or at least tried – Dan brought us over to the other dance floors to join the regulars in showing off our new moves. Finally, it was back over to the other end of the barn to start the process over with a new dance.

We were encouraged by our first dance, picking up the simple sequence of steps fairly quickly and applying it to the music with relative ease. The side-stepping “Footloose,” however, proved to be a beast that was not quite so easy to tame. We struggled through it first to a slower country song, and our tenuous grasp on it came undone almost immediately when the upbeat ‘80s classic for which the dance is named came on. My girlfriend, despite having already learned a hard lesson about why she was the only one in the barn wearing flip-flops, recovered nicely with “Down and Dirty,” but the addition of some cha-cha shuffles to our repertoire proved entirely too dexterous for both of my left feet. The partner dance was equally troublesome, but I’m going to do the gentlemanly thing and say that I was dragging her down.

Through all our fumbling, the folks at Mishnock Barn remained supportive and welcoming – and I’m not talking about just Dan and Kelly. A succession of regulars came over to introduce themselves, offer encouragement and inquire as to how we were doing. They each had a different story, but shared one sentiment unanimously: “Just keep coming back and you’ll get the hang of it before you know it. I was just like you when I started.” The unspoken implication, of course, was that we were being invited to return and join the Mishnock family.

“The Mishnock Barn is a unique and special place in many people’s lives,” Kelly says, adding, “‘The good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise’ we plan on being here for many more years to come.” My dance partner and I plan to be there too, getting footloose and down and dirty.

Mishnock Barn
200 Mishnock Road, West Greenwich
397-3505