2016 was the year I started square dancing. The Rosetown Ramblers had been on my radar for a few years. I saw a poster advertising their lessons on Wednesday nights. At the time, I had yoga, so couldn’t commit, but I hoped to be able to in the future.
When the gym closed, yoga went away. A year passed, and then an article about the club was published in the newspaper. I emailed indicating my interest and was told that there would be a special summer session for lessons.
Square dancing hits a lot of my pleasure centers. One is that it has dancing, but with rules. There are levels to square dancing, where you learn specific calls. Once you know those calls, you can go “anywhere in the world and dance” as square dancing people are fond of saying. Over the summer, we learned the Basic calls and when official lessons started in the fall we learned the Mainstream calls. You can keep dancing at the mainstream level, or you can move on to Plus, and then Advanced (2 levels) followed by Challenge (three levels).
Our class graduated in February, and in March the official report from the president of the club outlined the steep decline in membership over the past two years and his recommendation that if we don’t find and retain eight dancers in the fall, that the club disband.
There are other clubs in the area I can join, but Rosetown Ramblers is the only Portland LGBT club.
Square dancing is full of things that will cause it to wither away. You have to learn a skill, for one. Attending weekly lessons takes dedication and practice. Of our summer crew of dancers, half came weekly with half coming now and again, which made it hard for them to progress. And then you have to go through that stage of being bad at something, which is hard, even when people are cheering you on.
And when you start square dancing, you join a club. Paying for the first series of lessons got me the learning, but I felt the pressure to join the club, as low-key and friendly as it was. There are many things I love about Generation X and Millennials, but we are not joiners. You can see it at the dances. There are bunch of people retired or nearing retirement, and not many people younger than that.
There’s also the outfits. Personally, I’ve lusted after those floofy skirts since I was a little girl watching the square dancers on flatbed trucks in parades. But I recognize how ridiculous they look. The advantage of LBGT clubs is that people don’t wear the fluffy skirts, but my observation of other clubs is that nearly every woman does have a square dancing outfit. That’s another thing people born after 1962 are not good at: being told what to wear. Or, as my friend put it, “I’m not at the stage in my life when I want to dance in costume.”
So I’ve been mourning the loss of something great I just discovered. And this was driven home when our caller didn’t show up to call at a dance because he was in the hospital. He’d had a heart attack.
Ian Craig is the caller who taught me how to dance. He’s a good teacher, knows how to do all the good teacher things: keep the students engaged, review material, introduce new things, make learning fun. My mind boggles at his knowledge and skill. Callers have to move couples through a series of moves that switches them up, keeps time to the music and is fun. They have to maneuver those couples right back to where they started, which I still marvel that they have the ability to do this. And they have to sing.
Singing calls were my big surprise about square dancing. I knew about the caller calling. But at my first lesson, when Ian sang a song and called, I had no idea it was coming. Singing calls give callers room to use modern music. They alternate singing and calling. Here’s an example:
Note that this is a pretty good example of what square dancing looks like. Age, costume, level of raucous are about what you see. My club is a little louder. The call Allemand Left/Weave the Ring would be followed by the dancers yelling, “5, 6, 7, 8!” and then doing a more complex version of Weave the Ring. These are good dancers, dancing at the Plus level. There are few mistakes.
Ian’s last singing call at lessons on Wednesday was “Mississippi” by John Phillips. I’d never heard this song before, not at square dancing, not out in the world. Ian’s arrangement has a killer opening bass line, which is not present here. But the rest of the song is very fun.
I think I will be able to square dance for a long time to come. It will be dancing through the downward slide to oblivion, though. Clubs will probably disband again and again as people get too old to dance, and callers die. I missed square dancing’s heyday by 60 years, and I missed gay square dancing’s heyday by 25. It’s a joyous thing, square dancing, and I do my best not to think about the time when I will have to stop dancing.
2 thoughts on “Song of the month: March 2017. “Mississippi” by John Phillips”
I had to learn square dancing in gym class when I was in middle school! Not sure why it was a requirement. I thought maybe square dancing originated in Germany (I grew up in a predominantly German area) but I just looked it up and it seems to have originated in England, so who knows? Maybe my gym teacher was just weird.
Of course, I don’t remember how to do it anymore. I remember it being fun, although all of us kids thought it was dorky, and I wonder if that has something to do with its decline in popularity, that people think of it as old and nerdy. Which is too bad. Some hipsters need to start doing it ironically and bring it back!
I’d never seen call-singing before. Very interesting!
Among the lists made by square dancers lamenting the decline: kids having to do it in elementary/middle school. We did a square dancing unit in music class in fifth grade. It was a bonus (or filler) because the music teacher was taking a maternity leave, so we had to have our spring program really early. That left a gap at the end of the year which was filled by: square dancing. I adored it, both for the “dancing with boys” aspect and also because I’ve always been drawn to partner dance. But most everyone hated it, or pretended to.
I think the popularity peaked in the 60s, so that means it’s a thing people’s grandparents (or possibly great-grandparents?) did “back in the day.” That never helps with popularity. And some people really hate those costumes. Plus, there’s an old-school element going on. I actually read a square dancer say something to the effect of: the square dancing costume shows that women are women and men are men.
I’m all for a hipster revival.