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Square Dancing
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Square Dancing

I think there was a time in my life when I was a bit of an idiot. Because I remember thinking that square dancing was for hicks, not somebody as hip, sophisticated and intelligent as myself. Boy, was I a fool.

I first got hooked one summer at the Kentucky Dance Institute camp. I'd gone because I loved folk dancing, but one of the classes each day was square dancing. Well, this is gonna be boring. Good for a laugh, I suppose. Whoops, did I just screw up there. Must not have been paying attention. We go where? Damn, this is tricky. Certainly I'm smart enough to do square dancing! What the heck is going on here?

Square Dancers Circling

Square dancing is like chess set to music. The square dance chessmaster is the caller. His job is to lead the eight of you through an incredibly complex series of maneuvers, only to bring you back to your original position, with your original partner, and your original corner. Maybe that's a bad analogy. It's more like a jigsaw puzzle. And you're one of the pieces. And the pieces start moving around and everything becomes a blur of movement and chaos. And all of a sudden, you realize the puzzle has been put back together. And you really didn't see that coming.

But for it all to work, you have to do the calls correctly. If you ever get to watch square dancers, it may seem like an absolute mystery. This person walks there, somebody else slips through here, these two switch places. It all happens quickly and you'd better stay on your toes. The square becomes this moving jig saw puzzle with all the pieces slid out of position. Will the caller ever be able to put it all back together again?

Sometimes someone will stop paying attention for a second, and then the whole square may crash and burn. But most of the time, there comes this precious moment when the caller breaks out of the patter and calls out, "Left allemand your corner." If you suddenly realize that you're back with your partner and that your original corner is where she or he should be, that moment will seem like some small miracle! You've trecked for miles through the jungle and bingo, there's the ocean! It's a real sense of accomplishment. Start practicing your "Yahoos" for such moments. You won't be able to help yourself. And oddly enough, I think the fact that your square can crash is what makes the triumph so sweet. It really does feel like an accomplishment when you make it cleanly through the sequence.

I remember the final night at the dance camp. I was in a square with people I liked. All the women were beautiful. We got through a complex sequence and were grinning like crazy. It was so much fun. I returned to the real world thoroughly hooked. What I didn't realize was how little I knew.

Square dancing is one activity you can't just walk in on. There is a lot to learn, and you'll need to take lessons. Since the teaching is cumulative, it's not an class that you can join in the middle of things. You'll need to find out when the next group begins and be there at the beginning. Many people these days find this offputting. They don't want to learn nothin'. They don't want to have to work at anything and take lessons. But the best things in life require some effort. The dividends of mastering something like this are huge.

Don't feel you need a partner. There are always other singles at the lessons, and in fact some square dance groups are designed for singles. I think you'll find the square dance lessons are fun and challenging. Each night the caller will teach another few calls from the list of maneuvers you need to master. Hopefully you'll have a couple of "Angels" in your square with you. Those are experienced dancers who can save your bacon when you're about to screw up. With their help you'll practice until you can visualize the patterns and respond instantly to the calls. After some months of this you'll graduate and be invited to a real square dance. You'll still be a neophyte, and you'll still need guidance on occasion, but you'll be one of the dancers.

Except the time will come when it all feels too easy. The excitement of living on the edge will be lost. You'll know the material right down to your bones. Time for the next level. Others have traveled this road before you, and it's a common problem. Part of the fun of square dancing is the intellectual challenge. When that fades people get restless. So over the years they started adding more calls. They labeled the initial calls that were added "Plus." Later they added "Advanced." Then they added the "Challenge" levels. At the very highest level you'll only find a few dozen people in the whole world who know enough to dance with you. There's a group at M.I.T. that dances C3B. One at Cal Tech. You get the idea. This stuff takes brains and really good pattern recognition.

OK. Now, the clothes. Do they really wear those ridiculous outfits with the big skirts sticking out and the cowboy look? I wish I could tell you that's a myth, but I can't. It's one of the traditions of square dancing, and some of the folks who have spent years of their lives devoted to square dancing are fond of the look and have invested considerable time into those outfits. But a lot of the newer dancers don't love the look and so that's changing. In fact, once you get up to the advanced levels people start dressing more like nerds than cowgirls, but in the beginning you'll see some western outfits. Just don't think of it as a uniform you're required to adopt. It's not. Dress any way you'd like.

One odd thing at square dancing is that couples will often wear matching outfits or identical colors. There's actually a good reason for that. Callers will pick out certain squares and memorize the original formation. Their goal is to get the square back to that configuration once they've disassembled the pieces. When a couple wears matching colors it helps the caller know who belongs with who.

Square dancing was a profound learning experience for me. I discovered I shouldn't prejudge pastimes or people out of ignorance. The "hicks" I met at square dancing were kind, and smart, and full of fun - one of the nicest collections of people I've ever run across. And if you're someone, like me, who doesn't love alcohol, you'll find yourself in a community of people who don't do much drinking. If you get even a little tipsy, you won't be able to hold the square together. So people don't.

These days I'm a square dance caller and spend a significant amount of my time trying to grow square dancing. It's what the world needs. You'll walk a few miles in the course of an evening without feeling like you're exercising. You'll have a huge amount of fun. You'll meet nice people. I recommend it.

If you want further information on the classes I teach go to

New classes start in September and January.