It was 1979, and Bob Bovee was smitten.
He’d met Gail Heil, a performer and teacher of traditional music, at a St. Louis folk festival, and was hoping she’d join him in Minnesota.
“She said she was not going to move up here unless there was an old-time square dance,” recalled Bovee, who is now in his 70s. “So I said, ‘OK, we’ll get one going.’ ”
Within months, the Monday Night Square Dance held its first event at the now-defunct Union Bar in northeast Minneapolis.
The initial turnout was disappointing. “Essentially, no one showed up,” Bovee said.
But by 9 o’clock, enough people had arrived to form one square. So Pop Wagner called the dance, while Bovee and Matt Haney played fiddle and guitar.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough for Heil. Two weeks later, she moved to Minneapolis.
Week by week, word-of-mouth grew attendance. As the years went by, Monday Night Square Dance (MNSD) became a focal point of the Twin Cities’ traditional music scene and formed tight bonds among performers. It introduced hundreds to the energetic, old-style dance — and dozens to their romantic partners.
For Bovee, it led to a long, music-filled marriage to Heil.
“It was our epicenter of old-time music, dance and raging hormones in the Twin Cities,” longtime attendee and current co-organizer Lee Guthrie explained in a recent Minnesota Bluegrass Magazine story about the group.
Filming of “Purple Rain” forced MNSD from the Union in 1983, and it hopped from spot to spot around the Twin Cities, including a summer at Boom Island, where they played acoustically and danced on cobblestones. In 2005, the dance landed at the Eagles Aerie #34 in the Seward neighborhood.
Recently, MNSD celebrated its 40th anniversary by filling the Eagles’ backroom nearly to capacity. Dancers configured themselves into square formations, made up of four sets of partners, as Wagner began to call out commands, backed by Bovee and Haney, reprising their original roles.
Most dancers had plenty of experience, so the figures were more advanced, and their execution far smoother than what you might remember from middle-school gym class or the Girl Scouts hoedown. Each square of dancers formed chains and figure eights, or clasped hands and rocked smoothly in pairs when Wagner instructed, “Swing your partner.”
Baby boomers were best represented, but there were plenty of millennials and a few elderly folks, as well as several young kids up past bedtime. A few dancers wore cowboy boots, plaid shirts, and bolero ties, but Hawaiian shirts and dreadlocks were equally represented.
Wagner ended a song and then asked how many people met their significant other through MNSD. Several hands shot up.
Rita LaDoux’s and Paul Swedenborg’s were among them.
“He thought I was a professional,” LaDoux said of their meeting 39 years ago.
“That was my line,” Swedenborg explained.
The couple danced for a few years, enjoying the exercise and creative expression, until they got too busy with jobs and kids. They returned to the event when they retired four years ago — and still recognized many of the faces.
“Even after all these years, the community’s still here,” LaDoux said.
When MNSD began, most of the dancers were in their 20s and 30s, and it was something of a singles scene. A 1983 Star Tribune feature on the group was headlined: “Square dancing: Romance seems to be natural byproduct.”
Julie Young, a musician, clogger and caller, who was wearing her Kansan grandmother’s square-dance dress, attended the anniversary dance with three generations of her family. Her experience, she said, represented both MNSD’s coupling power, as well as how it has evolved to include a wider range of ages.
Young met Bob Walser, a musician who also calls, at a Monday Night Square Dance in 1985. They moved in together three days later. Marriage followed along with twin sons, now 21 years old, who play banjo and fiddle. The foursome had brought Young’s 89-year-old parents with them.
An extended family
MNSD’s traditional music and dancing initially drew attendees, but it was the sense of community that kept them coming back.
Longtimer Lee Gilbert described the early days as “a scene without the regular bar scene,” a welcome alternative to booze-soaked nightspots with sports games blaring on TVs.
Several 30-somethings echoed that sentiment. Musician Chanel Sasse, who has been attending MNSD for a few years, was introducing first-timer V Perkins to the scene. Both said they appreciated the friendly, communal touch between the dancers — a contrast to the unwelcome grabbing that can happen in some clubs and bars.
Rina Rossi, who played bass on stage wearing a vintage MNSD T-shirt at least as old as she was, said she’s been attending since 2006. While she was lured by the live music and physical workout, she quickly came to appreciate the connections she’s made with a wide range of people.
“It feels like an extended family,” she said.
One generation to the next
After MNSD’s founders spent about an hour on stage at the Eagles club, they were relieved by the group’s current organizers: Guthrie on fiddle, alongside two musicians a generation younger, Sarah York and AJ Srubas.
The group’s energetic, toe-tapping tunes brought back some of the magic Guthrie recalled from his days playing at the Union: “Nights when there were 200 people out there and the band was on a stage 3 feet tall and you were looking out over the dancers and seeing all of their heads bobbing up and down exactly in time with the music we were playing,” he said.
The caller walked dancers through the steps of a complicated figure called a “peekaboo,” in which dancers mimic the motion of a double Ferris wheel. She advised them to keep their elbows in and circles tight.
When a square near the stage pulled off the move, a young guy with tattoos fist-bumped his partner, a woman about his age wearing hip cat-eye glasses. The longtimers already had it down pat, but the youngsters were quick learners, too.