Square dancing isn’t for the dainty or faint of heart. It’s rowdy and sweaty and downright dizzying.
|Couples square dance at the Wood County Fairgrounds Saturday night. (Photos: Shane Hughes/Sentinel-Tribune)
Back 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan declared square dancing America’s National Folk Dance. School kids learned to do-si-do in gym class. And promenading partners filled dance floors at wedding receptions.
But square dances are becoming increasingly scarce, like trying to find a needle in a straw bale.
However, once learned, square dancing can get under the skin of those eager to swing their partners.
“Back in the day, it was real popular,” said Connie Grames. “I grew up doing it.”
In order to revive that wholesome folk tradition, Grames and other Wood County 4-H horse advisers recently held their sixth annual square dance in the Junior Fair Building on the county fairgrounds.
Once the music began, the floor filled with partners ready to promenade and allemande left to the tunes of Riverbend Band.
It started out rather gentlemanly, with dancers shaking hands with their neighbors. But that’s where the genteel formality ended.
The square dance caller, Doug Michaelis, advised the dancers to distinguish their right from their left hands — to avoid any head-on collisions.
Out of courtesy, Michaelis walked the dancers through their basic moves to refresh their memories.
“It’s like riding a bike,” said Al Stoots, as he prepared for the first dance.
Before long, dancers accelerated from toe tapping to foot stomping. Polite swinging soon turned to men spinning women off their feet. And cordial greetings were amplified to hootin’ and hollerin’.
“Some times you get really dizzy,” Grames said.
The songs told the folksy stories of the “girl in the valley” and “little Liza Jane.”
|One of the many belt buckles that characterized a night of square dancing at the Wood County Fairgrounds.
Many of the dancers were dressed for the occasion — with cowboy boots, plaid shirts with shiny buttons, oversized belt buckles and cowboy hats.
As the night went on, the dance calls got trickier, with couples making arches with their arms and their neighbors diving underneath.
“This is a square dance, an allemande can happen at any time,” Michaelis warned over the microphone.
Cheeks got rosier and brows got sweatier.
“It’s a lot of fun. You get to meet other people,” said John Wallace, of Holland, who first learned to square dance in the 1970s. Even as he took a short break from the dancing, he couldn’t keep his feet from moving to the music.
“You never forget,” Wallace said about square dancing.
Tom Zuchowski, of Rossford, agreed.
“We did it in our younger days,” he said. But there aren’t many opportunities anymore to square dance.
“All you have to do is follow instructions,” Zuchowski said. But dancers also have to be prepared for the physical demands. “It tells you when you’re out of shape.”
Sandra Stoots agreed that square dancing could be a bit tiring.
“It’s just fun, good exercise,” she said. “Though sometimes the spinning can get out of control.”
Having the most experience in their square, Al and Sandra Stoots took the role of head couple — the partners who are positioned with their backs to the band. A good lead couple is often the key to a cohesive square dance.
“Everyone else can watch and learn,” Sandra Stoots explained.
Besides, no one is too particular, her husband said.
“It doesn’t matter if you know what you’re doing or not,” Al Stoots said.
Michaelis said he learned to call square dances off some 45 records. “It’s kind of repetitious.”
He first learned to square dance in school. Though it wasn’t like slow dancing, it did have its advantages.
“I got to dance with all the other partners’ girls, and not get slapped,” he said.
Back to the roots
Though the roots of square dancing can be traced back to England and France, the western square dance is pure American.
Early last century, as America urbanized, square dancing nearly died out. With the emergence of more chic and graceful dances, the square dance was sidelined.
But several factors kept the square dance swingin'.
• In the 1920s, Henry Ford extolled the virtues of square dancing in an attempt to foster a dance form that would counteract what he considered to be the evils of jazz. Ford engaged the full-time services of square dance caller Benjamin Lovett. Dancing instructors were invited to Dearborn to receive instruction, and dance programs were started in many schools and colleges. Ford sponsored a Sunday radio program that was broadcast nationwide. Over the radio Lovett would call dances that had been printed in the newspaper the previous week.
• Thomas Edison began to produce 78 RPM square dance records.
• In the 1930s, Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw, the superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado, shared his love of square dancing with his students and offered summer classes for dancers, callers, and national folk dance leaders. Returning to their respective homes and communities, the square dance revival began.
• Improved public address systems, record players, microphones, and special square dance recordings allowed for larger, better organized dances.
• Square dancing expanded in the decade following WWII. Many American GIs had been introduced to square dancing at USO cantines. After the war ended, large numbers of them turned to square dancing in pursuit of wholesome recreational activity.