Is Square Dancing on Its Last Legs?

Activities like square dancing, which requires teamwork and a sense of play, allow people to tap into the heartbeat of a neighborhood or a town. After Steve called to interview me for this article in the San Diego Union Tribune, I went on line and found 17 separate square dance clubs in Cincinnati. Later, I learned that we are not alone in Cinci — consider, there are some 20 clubs in Austin and more than 70 in the Chicago area. Plus, a quarter million people nationwide belong to the United Square Dancers of America. Interesting measures of social fabric. Or might be showing the re-emergence of more participative forms of connecting.  ~ Peter ~


It’s not a buzz magnet. It’s not the subject of a 3-D movie. To see it in full flower, with all that bowing and sashaying and petticoat-swishing, you’d think it’s not even of this century.

Yet somehow square dancing survives.

The American folk tradition with ties to the barn and the grange hall is trying to keep its footing in an era when so much of life seems to work against it.

Now a square dance club in El Cajon and similar groups nationwide are stepping up efforts to attract younger people to the activity.

Say, anyone under 60.

“We’re trying, gosh darn it,” said John Becker of Louisiana, the 78-year-old president of the United Square Dancers of America. “Getting them to come in and see what we’re doing, that’s the hard part.”

Instructors are offering shorter classes, often in new venues, and are even fiddling with the name of the pastime — both in a bid to broaden its appeal.

The Valley Twirlers Club in El Cajon last fall began teaching Tuesday night classes through Grossmont Adult School. So far, it has drawn a smattering of younger people, though most are middle-aged.

The Twirlers call what they do “modern western square dance.” Some believe the word “modern” gives it a contemporary spin.

They talk up the benefits of the activity — the exercise, the social give-and-take, the mental agility needed to follow a dance caller’s every instruction.

What is it?: An American folk art that begins with four couples arranged in a square. A caller leads the group through a series of specific movements, often to Western-style music.

History: The dance has roots in the 17th century French quadrille and English country dance. Embraced by residents of the American South and West starting in the 1800s.

What’s changing: Square dance clubs are simplifying classes and expanding the range of music in an attempt to lure younger people.

Other qualities, however, like the Western duds and old-timey music, can turn off outsiders. Each dance begins with four couples arranged in a square. The caller, who is not part of any square, leads the group through a series of timed steps.

Given the marked decline in participants, some worry the dance is on its last legs.

“I don’t see square dance coming back because it’s a participatory activity and people don’t want to participate,” said Bill McCormick of El Cajon, a longtime Twirler.

Sociologists and other academics in recent years have noted a steady erosion in traditional social groups and activities that were once at the heart of American communities.

Face-to-face relationships, perhaps developed through membership in a Kiwanis Club or a bowling league, have been supplanted by online ties. The hectic, career-centered schedules in many households make it harder to sustain friendships.

“Associational life in general has been in a long decline,” said Peter Block, co-author of the recent book “The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.”

He believes activities like square dancing, which requires teamwork and a sense of play, allow people to tap into the heartbeat of a neighborhood or a town.

“Dancing is an expression of our capacity to celebrate life,” he said. Losing that, he said, “is a true loss for a community.”

Graham Hempel, a San Diego State University dance professor who studies folk traditions, doesn’t expect square dancing to disappear entirely, noting it nearly died out a century ago, only to see a comeback.

He agreed with callers who believe they need to simplify the activity. Many newcomers find the flurry of steps daunting.

Seasoned participants point to the success of a convention last month in Balboa Park as proof that there are still a lot of do-si-do die-hards out there. Some 1,300 people attended the three-day gathering.

The dance also has a foothold in Japan and in many lesbian and gay communities, including in San Diego.

The overall trend lines, however, keep heading south.

LPaul Schmidt, who served as chairman of the recent convention, said similar get-togethers 10 to 15 years ago drew as many as 15,000 dancers.

Schmidt, a former president of the San Diego Square Dance Association, estimates that about 2,000 people in the region are active square dancers, down from 15,000 to 20,000 a decade ago.

In a bid for fresh blood, one caller at the Balboa Park convention used rap music as a musical backdrop. Another played music from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“We’re trying anything just to get the enthusiasm back,” Schmidt said.

But Hempel said it’s important to embrace what makes square dancing square dancing. He said marrying steps to newer or unconventional types of music undercuts that.

“Square dancing has its own unique charms,” Hempel said. If younger people are drawn to it, he added, “they’ll want to do it for its own charms, not because of rap music.”

Dick Neumann, who leads the Tuesday night Twirlers class in El Cajon, believes a youth movement is possible.

He is 66 years old and began his calling career in the 1970s, while serving overseas in the Marine Corps. Severely injured a few years ago, he calls today from an electric wheelchair.

He’s witnessed a lot of eye-rolling over the years, especially from the young.

“Teenagers think square dancing is weird,” Neumann said. But when they try it, they seem to enjoy it, he added.

Now if someone — heck, anyone under 40 — would only show up on Tuesday nights. Neumann is trying to keep it more newcomer-friendly these days.

“There’s an old Marine Corps axiom: Improvise, adapt, overcome,” he said.


Originally posted May 17, 2011 at Re-posted by permission.

Home page photo: Zack Sheppard

About the Lead Author

Steve Schmidt
Steve Schmidt
Steve Schmidt writes about East San Diego County (CA) and is a longtime resident of the region. In his 25-plus years in the area, he has also written at length about education, transportation, local politics and the West. Steve Schmidt: 619-293-1380; Twitter: @steveschmidt1; Facebook: Steve Schmidt; Stories here.

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