Be there and be square

As traditional square-dancing clubs struggle to recruit new members, more casual groups are learning to love the do-si-do.

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Ifrah Jimale swings with her partner at Julia Hutchinson’s square-dance birthday bash.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Ann Carter has a square reputation. So does Dee Scott, and both are danged proud of it.

Scott is sort of old-school, Carter sort of new. But their passions for square dancing are equally fervent. The most dreaded activity of fifth-grade gym class is actually a lot more fun than you remember, they'll tell you. And once you see it, you believe them.

Scene: Grandview Middle School auditorium in the western suburb of Mound. Dee Scott buzzes around the room, greeting fellow members of the Westonka Whirlers, one of the state's largest square-dance clubs. Attire is varied: regulation petticoats for maximum twirlage, long prairie skirts with red-fringed cowboy boots, knee-high nylons with orthopedic sandals. Onstage, pro caller Abe Maier, sporting a Lincoln beard and impressively busy vest, calls out in a Johnny Cash baritone: "fox trot up the middle ... shoot that star ... prommennnaaade!" as groups of eight maneuver to his challenging commands.

Observation: Square dancing is like working a Sudoku puzzle during aerobics class. You need to know not only the moves, but the math.

Scene: The Eagles Club in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood. Ann Carter is calling dances, accompanied by an old-time music quartet of fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass. Attire is varied: tie-dyed tees and cargo shorts, trucker caps and low-slung jeans, Dockers and polos. The moves of these 100 or so dancers are more improv than the ones you'll see from the Westonka bunch, but the mood is just as communal.

Observation: Nothing brings a motley crew of tie-dyed West Bank lefties, suburban seniors and boho hipsters together like a good old country-in-the-city dance.

According to the United Square Dancers of America, the number of square-dance club members has declined by more than two-thirds since the late 1970s, from more than 1 million to about 300,000. Adding to that numbers problem is another one: Five years ago, fewer than 1 percent of square dancers were in their 20s, and only 36 percent were under age 60.

Several Minnesota square-dance clubs have closed or consolidated in the past decade. Westonka Whirler Don Meyer of Bloomington, who has been dancing for more than 40 years with his wife, Alice, gave two reasons why it's hard for the old-style clubs to replenish membership with younger blood.

"It's not something you can approach too casually," he said. "You have to be a regular or you can't keep up. You used to have to invest in all these fancy clothes. A lot of older folks have closets full of them. Everyone's into casual clothes now."

Scott said it's hard to ask young families today to commit to as many classes and social events as once was common. The Westonka Whirlers now offer five levels, from beginner to expert.

Better than ballroom

While the attendees of the Westonka event skewed senior, there were several couples on the younger side of middle age. Peg Becker and her husband, Chuck, had completed 20 classes and were celebrating their "graduation" to the next level. Peggy, a data processor for United Health Care, and Chuck, enrollment director for the online education site Capella University, said they hadn't laughed so hard in years as when they started square dancing after seeing an announcement for beginners' classes in a neighborhood paper.

"We tried ballroom dancing, but this is so much better," she said.

Scott, who co-runs the Westonka Whirlers with her husband, Ken, goes square dancing three to four times a week. She's in it for the "fun and fellowship," but also swears by its value as great exercise: "The average square dance is like walking 3 to 5 miles. It's endorsed by the American Heart Association, and you work your mind so much it's got to reduce risk of dementia."

Carter, also active with the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers, got hooked on square dancing while in college, but only started calling about three years ago. She recently used a Jerome travel-study grant to observe square dancing in cities nationwide, and found thriving scenes in San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Seattle and Chicago. She views club dancing as a "different scene. You have to take classes; the music's not usually live. It's just a different hobby."

Lee Guthrie of Hudson, Wis., a fiddler whose day job is making bows for string instruments, is the unofficial overseer of the Eagles Club dances, which take place the first and third Monday evenings of every month. His band, the Mastodons, often accompanies the dancers. The Monday dances started in 1979 at the Union Bar in southeast Minneapolis, and moved to a few locations before finding a good home in the Seward neighborhood.

Guthrie traces square dancing's current appeal for young urbanites to the old-time music circuit of the late 1990s and early 2000s -- low-budget, counterculture musicians who traveled from Oregon to Minneapolis to North Carolina and points in between (often by freight train).

"The music drew people, and the dancing followed," he said. The laid-back, welcoming atmosphere of the Monday dances comes from what he sees as "a gleaning process, I guess. If people come and that feeling isn't in their character, they don't come back, and if it's comfortable for you, you stick around. We sort of find each other that way."

Square party, dude

Not everyone recalls those grade-school square dances with distaste. Julia Hutchinson of Minneapolis asked her parents, Peter Hutchinson and Karla Ekdahl, to arrange a square dance for her recent 25th birthday bash. "I love all different kinds of dancing, and this is the best for bringing people together," she said.

Lica Tomizuka, a lawyer with Faegre & Benson, plans to make square dancing a part of her wedding this summer.

"I loved it when I was little, with the boys and girls alternating on asking each other to dance, and the built-in etiquette lessons," she said. "My wedding happens to be on 4th of July weekend -- how much more American could this be?"

Square dancing may be a truly American art form, but it's not the artistry that draws people. It's the company -- the hootin' and hollerin', the old-style social atmosphere, an antidote to the isolating elements of modern life.

"People are craving joyful connections," Carter said. "We're tired of all the high-tech distraction all the time, you know? We just want to hold hands and circle left."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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  • Birthday girl Julia Hutchinson and Vaughn Kelly.

  • The Westonka Whirlers.

  • GET SQUARED AWAY

    www.squaredanceminnesota.com

    Eagles Club dances: 7:30-10:30 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of every month. Eagles Club, 2507 E. 25th St., Mpls. Open to the public. No experience necessary. Dances taught and called to live music. Suggested donation $5.

    Westonka Whirlers: Dances with professional callers held the third weekend every month, including a large buffet. For classes and a calendar of activities, see westonkawhirlers.com or call 952-941-1076.

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