AURORA, Kan. -- At a hoedown here, aspiring square-dance callers take turns at the microphone. Two dozen dancers obediently do-si-do, swing and promenade.
My turn comes, and I step up to the mike to deliver a square-dance version of "New Attitude" by the Pointer Sisters. My calls, between refrains of "ooh-ooh-ooh, I've got a new atti-toode," are so fast that most of the dancers run themselves ragged. Some simply stop. Soon the dance degenerates into pure chaos.
The next morning, Herb Egender, my coach here at "caller college," takes me to the woodshed. He tells me my timing is "atrocious," my voice "monotone and off-key." What's more, I'm talking instead of singing. "You sounded like a rap singer," Mr. Egender scolds. "You made me feel like doing a moonwalk." He deems me a "hopeless case."
I've never been to a square dance before, so I don't know what a caller is supposed to sound like. But it is plain to everybody else that I suffer from a tin ear, a froggy voice and acute stage fright. My six male classmates aren't exactly ready for stardom either. Some have never held a mike before. Others are still earning their spurs on square dancing's cow-town circuit.
There are an estimated three million regular square dancers in the U.S. -- not counting those who give it a whirl only once in a long while -- and there are some 7,000 active callers. A community caller makes about $50. a night. A full-time, top-of-the-line caller traveling around the country can make up to $75,000 a year. So there is plenty of incentive to become good at the trade.
From the start, Jim Hayes, our other caller coach, makes it clear we are a long way from the pinnacle. "The big hat, the big buckle and the fancy boots will only carry you till you put the needle on the record," he says. Ron Jirovsky, an aspiring caller from Lincoln, Neb., needs to convincing. "It looks like I'll be lucky to make the back yard," he laments, "never mind Madison Square Garden."
My classmates have frequent memory lapses. They can't lead dancers "home" to their starting positions -- also called "resolving the square" -- without a lot of prompting. They stuff their hands in their pockets, sway back and forth on their feet, and hiss their s's like tornadoes sweeping the prairie.
"People think you can step up to the mike and just start calling." says Stan Burdick, the editor of American Squaredance Magazine. "But callers are like jugglers who have 10 balls in the air at once."
And most callers will do anything to keep from dropping them. One of my classmates, Ron Schroeder, a farmer from Battlecreek, Neb., recalls jumping at the chance to be a guest caller last summer. But as he opened his mouth to start singing, a bug flew in. His solution: swallow it whole. "The record doesn't stop," Mr. Schroeder explains, "I was determined to get through that baby."
At the Aurora college, we are taught never to bad-mouth a fellow caller. We get the lowdown on square-dance groupies. As Mr. Egender delicately puts it: "The charisma that the mike gives the caller might be attractive to single ladies -- to the detriment of his marriage." (Almost all callers are men because square dancers typically dislike high-pitched voices.)
We also learn that calls like "yellow rock your corner gal" (which means hug the woman on your left) are strictly verboten. Besides embarrassing shy folks, Coach Egender says, yellow rocking once left a woman with three cracked ribs.
Being a caller wasn't always so complicated. Traditionally, a caller simply memorized the patters of the old dances and rattled of a handful of calls that most dancers already knew by heart. But in the 1940s, square dancing entered the modern age. Callers began to introduce fancy figures, and the new calls spread rapidly. (Today, there are 68 basic patterns and hundreds of advanced ones.) By the 1950s, square dancers had to start taking lessons just to keep up with the lingo.
On arrival in Aurora, I need lingo lessons, too. For starters, I don't know a "rollaway" from a "half sashay." And to me, popular moves like California Twirl, Flutterwheel, and Fan the Top all look like euphemisms for dizzy.
Eventually, my coaches take pity. They hand me crib notes. These cheat sheets, which an honest-to-goodness professional caller wouldn't be caught dead with, help callers to direct dancers "home" without undue damage to the dancers' limbs.
Still, I have plenty of rehearsing to do. In preparation for the schools' gala graduation dance, I strive to still my wiggling hips. (To my dismay, a videotape of my previous, "New Attitude" performance has captured these unseemly movements.) I even take remedial square-dance classes. Coach Hayes contends that a firsthand understanding of how long it takes to execute various calls is the only way for me to live down my reputation as a "rat race" caller.
Finally, the last night of college comes, and the graduation dance draws a crowd to Aurora's square-dance hall. As the opening strains of my signature song, "Tequila Sheila," fill the air, I step up to the mike and start calling:
Pour me another tequila, Sheila.
Put on that red satin dress..
Allemande that corner do-si-do now.
Left allemande and weave around you go.
I feel like Old Pancho Villa, Sheila!
I need a horse and a friend -- Promenade.
So pour me another tequila, Sheila,
and come here and love me again.
The dancers are having a ball. They all shout "Sheila!" in unison. My hips stop grinding. My timing is right, and my calls sound singsongy instead of rappy. So far, so good.
but my troubles being in the second verse. I instruct the dancers to progress directly from a "curlique" (a two-persona formation) to a "swing thru" (a four-person formation). Despite my cheat sheet, I've forgotten to utter the intermediate call "walk and dodge." Suddenly the dancers look as if they have been tippling Sheila's beverage.
By the time I belt out the final refrain, "So pour me another tequila, Sheila, and I'll ride for the border again," the dancers are farther from home than ever. But they are so grateful just to stand on terra firma again that they give me a rousing ovation. Taking the cue, I gallop offstage on a stick-horse.
Although my performance is good enough to get a diploma (and a slew of dancers partners). I don't expect to win any more bookings. I get the point when Neal M. Herndon, a square dancer from Lebanon, Kan., volunteers: "The best part was when you rode off on your horse into the sunset."
Lyrics from "Tequila Sheila" copyright 1978 by C Bar C Records. Used by permission.