The Press Democrat
Tuesday, March 28, 1989
Santa Rosa, California
Bow to your partners, corners all,
Now circle to the left go'round the hall
Here chick-a-chick-chick pickin' up dough,
Hand over hand and around we go.
Allemande left with the old left hand --
Partner right, now right-and left grand.
Swing your partner round and round,
Promenade, go 'round the town.
Colorful skirts swish and collide with the soft rustle of crinoline as square dancers shuffle around each other to the caller's orders.
The familiar fiddle music makes you want to join this American tradition, even if you don't know exactly what the instructions mean. But a second look at the dancers doesn't reveal many smiles.
"The first dance, they're thinking," said Louise Dunford, president of the Markwesterners. "When you get to advanced dancing, you're really trying to remember your calls. It's quite humiliating to be the one who breaks down a square. Beginners laugh and think it's funny -- in a way, they have more fun."
Square dance evolved from Scottish country dancing, and changed very slowly over several hundred years. About the time of World War II, square dances usually shared a bill with folk dances, the caller directing both. All square dancers knew roughly the same 100 figures.
Today, explained caller Steve Minkin, Sebastopol, there are nine levels of increasingly complicated square dancing, with the initial 100 maneuvers being taught in the year-long beginners' class offered by most clubs. This, Minkin said, takes you through "basic" and "mainstream" to the "plus" level. About 90 percent of the dancers and most of the hoedowns are at the plus level, said Minkin.
Some take advanced training, which has two levels (A-1 and A-2), and a few clubs go to the four-part challenge level (C-1 through C-4).
"In the old traditional square dance, usually just one couple was moving," he said, "In the modern version, most figures involve all eight dancers. The choreography is more flowing and dancelike than the old style."
The definition of suitable music has broadened, too, he said. Most callers still use "Skip to My Lou" and other old folk-fiddle tunes, but you're just about as likely to hear a call sung to Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" or "Seventy-Six Trombones." Virtually any style is fair game. Minkin will do "That Old Black Magic" for the Sebastopol Saucy Squares' Apple Blossom Parade routine, in keeping with the theme, "Apple Magic."
To keep the dance fresh, every three months the Northern California Square Dancers Association announces the new "quarterlies," or calls and corresponding maneuvers the advanced dancers will learn over the following quarter. This is done at each club's regular (usually weekly) "workshop," where dancers constantly practice old figures and learn new ones. The association also announces the fate of older calls, which may be retained, eliminated, or moved to another level.
"If you danced 10 years ago, and haven't danced within those 10 years, you would not be able to keep up with it now without going through a refresher course," noted Nancy Azevedo, who grew up watching her parents square dance at Monroe Hall and has belonged to Circle 'N' Squares since 1972.
"A lot of people don't care goon to A-1 because it's so complicated you have to do it constantly. If you miss two weeks, you really get fouled up," said Azevedo.
"It's a learning process," said Dunford. "you really have to come regularly. It's not like going to a show that you can go to whenever you feel like it. To get to A-2 takes about three years of lessons. Then he really fanatical go on to the challenge level."
Besides the square dances, most clubs have a few round dance sets, either before the square dance or mixed with it. Round dancing is ballroom dancing done by couples moving in a large circle, or those like waltzes or polkas, which are done in a circular movement. Some have separate round dance "cuers" -- it's a rare square dance caller who also cues rounds, though Circle 'N' Square caller Roger Loney does -- but often the round dance music and cues are recorded.
Ask just about any square dancer what she or he likes about it, and there's a good chance the answer will include the fact that people of all ages can take it up and do it most of the rest of their lives (and disappointment that it's not more popular with youth). And, they'll say, it's inexpensive, good clean fun, good exercise and a great way to meet people.
In fact, said Azevedo, "many people build their whole social life around it. All these people have this ting in common and enjoy being together, learning together. A bunch of us have RVs and go away for square dance weekends -- or just go away for the weekend. We play volleyball or baseball; some people bring their children and grandchildren and have fun just being together for the weekend."
So dedicated are some aficionados that they spend most vacations at square dance festivals, and some go for weeks or months every year to Mesa, Ariz., a city of about 350,000, which Jerry Lemontt, of the Markwesterners, described as the "square dance capitol of the world," though he said Phoenix, Yuma, and Tucson have similar phenomena.
Lemontt and his wife, who live in Rohnert Park, recently returned from a stay in Mesa, where, he said, square dancing is centered around mobile home parks. They all have halls suitable for dancing, and "you could dance morning, afternoon, and evening, seven days a week, if your legs hold out." The city's population swells by 80,000 in the winter, many whom come to do just that.
Aficionados have been lobbying to have square dance named the national dance, but the best they've been able to do is to have it declared, as of Jan. 1, the "official folk dance" of California. At the same time, Western swing was named the state's "official dance."
It's progress in public awareness, most say, although they vehemently deny that square dance is a folk dance. "Well, it really isn't but when you get involved with the state, you know how it is," said Georgia Potts, Petaluma, who shares the office of second vice president of the Northern California Square Dancers Association with her husband, Warren.
"We hold the office jointly -- couples do because there's a lot involved in it," she said. A single person could hold the office, as does association president Eunice Bowen, Lakeport, a member of Clearlake Squares.
Not quite 100 clubs belong to the association, which includes 10 districts around the Bay Area and Redwood Empire. There are about a dozen member clubs in Sonoma County (District 5) and Lake and Mendocino Counties (District 9). About seven clubs are not members.
Insurance is the most compelling reason to join the association, said Potts, but there's no rancor against non-member clubs; even the Pottses belong to a member club, the Adobe Squares, and the non-member Diamond Dancers.
"You could dance here every night of the week," said Dunford, who personally only dances three or four nights a week. She and her partner belong to the Markwesterners and the Diamond Dancers, visit one in between, and usually make a Saturday hoedown whose sponsorship rotates among the clubs.
"Here" is Monroe Hall, at 1400 West College Ave., former home of the now-defunct Monroe Community Club. Built in the 1920s by husbands of the club members, it has been home to the square dance clubs for years, said Charlotte Freitas. She and her husband, Clarence, bought the hall about 11 years ago when the club was disbanded by the few remaining members.
The club's maple floor, said Freitas, "isn't finished -- it's just polished by the square dancer's shoes. It's not slippery and it's not sticky. It's just perfect."
The caller must know the figures, new and old, well enough to incorporate them into both songs and dances. He must be able to devise a chanted call that has the required 64 beats, repeated seven times, and which places corners together three times, partners together four times, including at the beginning and the end.
"You have to be a square dancer to be a square dance caller," said Vanya Leighton, of Lower Lake, the area's longest-established woman caller.
"It's a form of dancing, because you do move your feet to music. But you don't do any special with your feet; the hand movement is what makes it. If you do one call that ends with the right hand, the next should start with the left hand, or with no hands."
There is some flexibility, but if the calls don't follow an appropriate sequence, the dance is jerky and uncomfortable to perform. It's the caller's job to see that all goes smoothly, she said.
Leighton fell into calling when she and her husband, career federal employees, were stationed on Guam. She tried out when the Navy officer who called for their club was transferred. The Leightons were also transferred back to the Bay Area shortly afterward, and she signed up for the eight-week Caller's College training in San Francisco. She subsequently also spent several years practicing at square dance conferences, which include callers' workshops.
Leighton said only one to two percent of the callers are women. Square dance records feature a song on one side, music only on the other. The records are put out mostly by men, so they are arranged in keys suitable for baritone voices -- medium-range for men, but beyond the range of most women.
"I have a low voice," she said, "I can pick up any man's record and call to it. Most ladies have to be very picky because they're sopranos. It's hard to dance all night to a soprano. It begins to grate. Ladies who have lower voices are the most successful."
Leighton calls for several clubs over a wide geographic area: the Konocti Kickers, in Lower Lake; the Grapevine Twirlers, St. Helena; and the Healdsburg Country Dancers, Geyserville.
Some travel even farther. Bob Elling, Markwesterners caller for three years, is from San Leandro. He calls five nights a week for clubs from Foster City to Clearlake, and sometimes get stuck in commuter traffic on the way.
A widely reported square dance phenomenon was described this way by Nancy Azevedo, a member of Circle 'N' Squares:
"Men drag their feet, but once they get started, they're hooked. My mother and a girlfriend decided they would go, so my father went. He has gone almost constantly since. Same with my husband. He dragged me there nine months pregnant."
Caller Steve Minkin reports that he began calling about seven years ago, while still attending the beginners class "my wife dragged me into." Calling has been his full-time job for the past two years.
Minkin, whose native Brooklyn accent is noticeable but considerably diminished after years of California residence, calls for Singles and Pairs, the largest club in Northern California Square Dancers Association, and the plus-level Sebastopol Saucy Squares.
Minkin said he enjoys calling all levels. At a recent workshop of the Diamond Dancers, "a strong A-2 club, I had a great time trying to challenge them, and them trying to figure me out. The next night I called for a church group of non-dancers. If I just did beginners or just did advanced, I would miss the scope."
He often does sessions in elementary schools. For a kindergarten class's back-to-school night performance, "there were only a couple dances in my normal repertoire they could do. I had to invent a couple dances on that level. In fact, my 6-year-old son helped invent one of them."
Calling is multifaceted and takes considerable thought, but Minkin's approach seems slightly more cerebral than most: "I'm a tournament chess player, and the figures reminded me of chess moves, especially at the advanced and challenge levels."
--- Suzanne Boynton
Before you consider taking up square dancing, take stock of your musicalitiy (ability to step in time to the music), and, if you're a woman, your sewing skills.
Can you make one of those fancy flouncy dresses, or will you need a sewing class and a new machine?
Square dancing is set up to be an inexpensive hobby; as little as $4 an evening per couple gets you the dancing and coffee-and-cookies type refreshments. Annual club dues run about $6. to $10.
Men get off easy, wearing Western-cut shirts and string ties, readily available at any number of stores in most communities at prices comparable with other shirt styles. (Only long-sleeved shirts are worn, to shield partners' hands from the occasionally perspiring arm.)
But a woman could squander the family fortune on dancing dresses.
"Most everybody makes their own outfits," said Louise Dunford, president of the Markwesterners, clad in a chartreuse princess-line dress of her own manufacture. "It's just too expensive (to buy them). Most buy the crinolines, though."
A crinoline stiff and voluminous enough to hold full skirts almost perpendicular to the body may take 40 to 120 yards of material, said Tina O'Neill, who, with her daughter, Bobbi Albini, runs Dancin' Pretty, the only place in Sonoma County that currently sells square dance clothes.
They carry crinolines that cost $26 to $50, and can order those costing several hundred dollars. They also carry skirts and blouses, the choice of many women because of their versatility; ruffled pettipants, and the square-toed, low-heeled shoes favored by square dancers.
The skirts are full circles, and are sized petite to extra-large not by girth, but by length. A full-circle skirt, sans ruffles, will take almost four yards of material.
But the woman make dresses only to order because, O'Neill lamented, "The majority of ladies just don't fit into the square dance dresses right."
They also make shirts for men who don't fit ordinary shirts, usually because their arms are extra-long, or they are so long-waisted that their shirttails won't stay in.
The store is in front of their beauty shop at 660 S. Main St., Sebastopol.