The square dancers cluster around the stage, ready for their next number. Black and tan cowboy hats and fluffy patterned skirts coexist with blue jeans and matching plaid shirts.
Sixteen-year-old Sam Mestel from New Albany climbs the steps and takes the mic. He’s part of a family of 10 that dances, the first to learn the art of square-dance calling. He fumbles with the mic, adjusting his glasses. “This song was requested by my mom,” he jokes with a hint of Southern twang, “and she’s my ride home, so I figure I better do it.”
He presses play, and Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” echoes through the ballroom. Sam begins the song energetically, as if he’s been calling his whole life. “Every night I hope and pray, a dream lover will come my way … Left allemande, you’ll dosado, left allemande, c’mon and weave it you know….”
The dancers fall seamlessly into the steps, rotating gracefully across the floor. “Because I want… a girl… dosado and promenade along… I want a dream lover so I won’t have to dream alone.”
For one weekend, 500 square dancers converged on the Indianapolis Marriott East for the 22nd annual Indiana Square Dance Convention. Enthusiasts of all ages, from teens to retirees, spent two days dancing and celebrating an American folk tradition. For many, dancing is a lifestyle. It goes beyond putting on a crinoline and driving to the dance hall one night a week—it’s a place to make friends, to stay healthy and to celebrate love.
John Cook is waiting as you enter the hotel ballroom. He’s in the teal shirt with the black scarf tie, wearing small glasses and beaming excitedly. He throws his arm around you as if you’re old friends and says, “In square dancing, the men always hug the ladies. That’s just how it is.” He introduces you to his wife, Carolyn, who’s wearing a black blouse and a poufy skirt decorated in teal and orange jungle flowers.
Cook, 64, dances with the Merry Mixers in Greenwood. He’s from Dunkirk, but he spends most of his time traveling with his job for Sears. Whether he’s at home or on the road, dancing is always part of Cook’s life.
“Square dancing is responsible for my marriage,” Cook says. He learned how to square dance in the Navy, and when he was home, he went to a square dance in Indianapolis with his friends.
“She was the first girl I met when I walked in the door, and I’m still married to her,” he says. “Forty years.”
Cook and his wife joined the Merry Mixers about a year and a half ago, but they’ve been active in the Indiana Dance Leaders Association for years. Cook served for five years as the state treasurer, and two years as the state president.
Cook also credits square dancing for his healthy body and spirit. Two years ago he had two heart attacks and was back to work in five weeks. His doctors attributed his quick recovery to his healthy lifestyle— all those evenings spent square dancing. “It’s like a five-mile hike,” he jokes, “only a lot more fun.”
If you want to square dance, you need about four months of weekly lessons to learn the more than 60 basic calls. There are five standard levels of square dancing: basic, mainstream (the level most clubs use), plus, advanced and challenge. Each level builds on the previous one, with a few more steps to learn.
“The lessons teach you the language, so you know when the caller says something what to do,” Cook says. “It’s like driving a stick shift, after you’ve been doing it awhile you don’t have to think about it.”
Each song in square dancing is called a tip, which is made up of two separate parts. The patter is like the practice round. The caller introduces some of the trickier steps, so dancers know what to expect for the real dance, and gives the dancers a chance to get used to his or her rhythm and calling style. Then, it’s time for the song. The pattern of steps the caller sings is repeated four times, with the women rotating around the men in a square and back to their partners by the end.
There are usually different people in your square each time you dance. “You can have a guy who drives a garbage truck and a brain surgeon in the same square,” Cook says. “It’s a leveler, and everyone has a good time.”
And don’t worry about getting tired of country tunes by the end of the night. “The only music we don’t dance to is hip hop,” Cook says. This includes gospel, songs from musicals, rock and even rap. Cook has danced to “YMCA” and “Macho Man,” but he loves dancing to Neil Diamond’s “Beautiful Noise” with his wife.
Square dancing’s roots are found in the French and English line dances Early American settlers brought with them to the New World. Square dancing developed first in New England and Appalachia, and took on a Western flair as settlers migrated across the country.
Interest waxed and waned, but Henry Ford revitalized square dancing in the 1920s as a pastime for his automobile factory workers. Today the United Square Dancers of America has 310,000 members across the country. But square dancing is at its purest in small towns, where people dance for recreation and pleasure. The Indiana Dance Association has 2,000 members, and Cook estimates there are at least 1,500 other dancers in the state.
In Southern Indiana there are clubs in Nashville, Seymour, Bedford, Evansville, Terre Haute, Greensburg, Chandler, Owensville, Daylight and New Albany, each with their own local flavor. Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass music, was discovered at a community square dance in Hammond. Dancers are encouraged to visit other clubs, creating a network throughout Southern Indiana.
Dennis Grasch and Gail Branscom of Scottsburg are members of the Southern Indiana square-dancing family. The couple has been dancing with the New Albany Sunny Side Solos twice a week for the last 31 years, but they dance in other cities, too. “They enjoy having visitors,” Branscom says. “They like showing their club to new people, and we like visiting.”
Cook’s favorite part of square dancing is all the friends he has made throughout the area. “You might not know them when you get there, but by the end you’re friends,” he says. “It’s unreal.”
At 1 p.m., it’s time for the dance competition. National caller Tom Miller, visiting from Pennsylvania, is calling the competition this year. Six different squares are competing this year, a solid number for this annual competition.
“It’s not how fast you dance, it’s how well,” Miller says as he explains the rules. The contest is at mainstream dance level, and there are no points awarded for style— it’s all about technique. Judges with yellow and red cards stand by to call dancers out of the contest.
Teresa and Andrew Berger, wearing matching lime green and orange ensembles, patiently wait for the beginning of the tip. The high school students and siblings are the reigning champions, and they’re ready to take the title for a third year in a row. They’re dancing with the Star Wrongers, a combination of two groups from Michigan City and New Albany. “As we all square dance, this is just for fun,” Miller jokes. “No blood.” The dancers and the crowd laugh.
The music starts, and all eyes are on the floor. The calls start easy, but the music gets faster and the pace increases. Yellow and red cards fly. The competition decreases from five to four to three to two squares. The dancers spin across the floor. In minutes, one square remains. The Star Wrongers have won again, and the Bergers are beaming.
“Now ladies, half of a half turn,” Miller calls. The female dancers do a double take, their feet fumbling. The champions are defeated, and the crowd claps and cheers.
“Half of a half turn,” Cook remarks. “I’ve never heard of that in my forty years dancing.”
“You sure?” his friend says.
“I think he called that to break them down.”
“No, I think he knew what to call next if the dancers figured that out.” The debate continues on, all in good fun.
If square dancing is an art, calling is a discipline.
Many square dancers get into calling because they want to try something different. They often work with callers in their area to learn the basics, and then attend caller schools around the country to refine their skills.
Though it requires a sense of rhythm and creativity to put calls together into a tip, calling is mostly based on math. Think of it as one giant logic problem: you have eight people in a square that have to get around the square and back to their original partners in the end.
Teressa and Andrew Berger, the winners of the dance contest, started calling to spice up their square dancing. The Bergers, upperclassmen in their high school in New Carlisle, got dragged into square dancing by their parents. Teresa and Andrew were bored by the basics, so they began calling.
The Bergers spent the summer in calling school. Teresa’s favorite music to call to is old gospel songs. “It’s a lot of work, but in the end it’s worth it,” Andrew says.
In the back of the hotel ballroom, crinoline skirts and blouses of every color line the walls. Paula Cleary sets up square-dance clothing shops at state conventions around the country. For couples not handy enough to sew their own, shops like this are a godsend.
It costs about $150 for a woman to put together her first square dancing outfit: a skirt and blouse, pettipants and a crinoline skirt. More relaxed clubs allow women to wear jeans and a Western-style top. Men must wear long sleeves, usually a Western-style shirt, and some wear scarf ties and a belt. Cleary’s popup store sells it all, even embroidered towels the men can throw in their pockets to wipe the sweat from their brows.
Julie Branham, one of the Indiana Square Dance Convention organizers, prefers when dancers wear traditional attire. “It’s America’s folk dance, so you should wear the clothes,” she says. “If you’re going to play a sport, you buy the uniform.”
All dancers wear badges with their name and the name of their club, but there are also specialty badges dancers can earn. Like Girl Scouts, many dancers eagerly collect and decorate their attire with the 350 to 400 possible badges.
Tony and Diane Rock take a break from the dance floor and find a seat along the back wall. In any other setting, their sunshine yellow outfits would be the brightest in the room.
For their 25th wedding anniversary, Diane told her husband she wanted to learn to square dance.
“But I’m blind!” Tony protested.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said. Six years later, the Rocks are the chairs of the Pennsylvania Square Dancing Convention. They traveled to Indianapolis from Pittsburgh to promote their convention and give away tickets.
“It was the best anniversary gift, the gift that keeps on giving,” Diane says, patting her husband’s knee.
On the dance floor, Tony needs his partners to touch his hands at all points during the dance so he knows where they are. But Diane says people are always friendly and understanding and do what they can to make it easier.
She still recalls the difficulties of being new to square-dancing culture. At their first square dance, she was at the water fountain with her friend. When her friend bent down to take a sip, they realized no one had told them about a woman’s most important clothing requirement: pettipants.
“Young people don’t like dressing up, but to us it’s like going to the prom,” she says.
Tony’s favorite part of square dancing is the friendly, conservative atmosphere. “You don’t have the bar room scene with drunk people hitting on your wife,” he explains, laughing.
Square dances are a family affair. For around $5 per person, dancers get a full meal and an evening of dancing. Alcohol is prohibited at all events, so as Tony says, “it’s all good, clean fun.”
After months of planning, Julie Branham sits back and looks at her success. A square dancer from Seymour and a member of the Star Promenaders, she helped organize this year’s convention.
Like Cook, square dancing has played an integral part in Branham’s life. As a teen, Branham danced as part of the Rural Youth program and met her husband there. The couple, who raise corn and soybeans, started dancing again 10 years ago. Now they dance about once a weekend.
Branham and her husband went to a convention last fall and wore a pedometer. By the end of three days, she had danced more than 27 miles.
Square dancing has been declining in popularity over the last 10 to 15 years. Branham speculates it’s because people are busy shuttling their kids around extracurricular activities.
She says her club has 35 members, ranging from ages 55 to 88. They do have a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old dancing, but they’re actively trying to recruit more young members to carry on the club’s legacy.
“It’s just fun. This is our entertainment. Some people go to the movies, some watch sports, we square dance.”