I had really enjoyed my trip to Tombstone and in my continued pursuit of Western Adventure I rifled through the Tucson event pages and landed squarely (literally) on the perfect candidate for a good time. The Swinging Saguaros were giving inexpensive Square Dance Lessons Thursday night at 6:30PM on the east side; not too far from my house.
Now, I am not a dancer, I am what some may call rhythmically challenged, and NO, I cannot pat my head and rub my belly at the same time. However, I figured that things looked informal and the class was for beginners, so why not give it a try?
I cannot tell you enough about how glad I am that I did! You may have heard of square dancing, you may have seen square dancing, but if you have never done any square dancing, Stop. Stop everything you are doing and go find a place to square dance near you. Right. Now. (Or right after finishing this article.)
I had one of the most enjoyable experiences ever at this class!
When my husband and I got there we were greeted by several couples, and while there were a few seasoned people there, most of them were fairly new, or it was their first time; just like us. The folks we met were warm and friendly and really made us feel welcome.
I didn’t really know what to expect but they started us out by placing us in a circle that alternated between guys and gals and having us all hold hands; and although a Do-si-do is apparently a dance move and a girl scout cookie, we didn’t sing Kumbaya.
What happened next was a crash course on all things Square Dancing and though I managed to stay on my feet during the class, it’s been a while since I fell for something so hard…
Lets Start with a little history.
Square dancing is considered an American art form. It does have roots in certain types of European and Eastern European folk dancing, but much as Jazz took ‘old country’ and African influences and gave them a distinctly American spin, so it goes for “Traditional” and “Modern Western” Square Dancing.
As with many things in the cultural environment Square Dancing has ebbed and flowed in its popularity. Perhaps the most popular time in Square Dance interest was during a revival period in America that ran from just after WWII and into the late 70’s. This period in the history of square dancing gave rise to the many styles of dancing, dressing, and ‘calling’ (more on that in a minute) that are largely recognizable today, both within the Square Dance community and by the larger populace that may have only seen it in say, a movie.
During this time the style of dressing commonly associated with Square Dancing came in to being. This style is called “Traditional” despite the fact that it didn’t really exist prior to the revival time period.
(A “Traditional Style” Couples Outfit.
Outfits may have matching elements, but don’t always.)
Full Skirts are encouraged for ladies, as they may come in handy for “Skirt Work” which involves adding extra touches, using your skirt, to dance moves. Men are encouraged to wear long sleeved shirts because it makes some of the moves involving the arms easier for your partner. Many clubs today do not require you to wear ‘Traditional’ style dress and designate their dress code as ‘casual.’
I like to dress for occasions so I was wearing a full western skirt when we went.
After we formed our circle the ‘Caller’ had us move in a simple ‘Promenade’ to the left and then the right. The ‘Promenade’ is the most basic dance move and is pretty much just walking to the music. All of square dancing is composed of a series of moves, and moves are comprised of a set of steps or actions. These moves are announced to the dancers throughout the song by a person known as a ‘Caller’; named such because it is their job to “Call out” the movements the dancers are supposed to do. Most Square Dancing formations are comprised of four couples (8 people) arranged in such a way as to form, you guessed it, a square.
The Caller then uses his calls to create an intricate and fluid line of movement between all the couples, that allows them to dance not only with their partner but with the other members of the square.
The first, and most commonly participated in, level of Square Dancing is called Mainstream. Don’t let the fact that it’s the “entry level” fool you. To be considered proficient at the mainstream level means you have mastered SEVENTY moves.
I think after my first lesson I can safely do THREE.
Thank goodness we had a couple in our square that were already fairly skilled and were able to help guide us in our movements. The Square Dancing community is pretty open to new members and many clubs have an actual designation for more experienced couples who show newbies the ropes. These folks are called “Angels” and believe me, you will be thanking heaven someone is there to keep you in line…or a square as the case may be.
If you get a little mixed up your first few times, don’t worry, it’s expected and the caller will watch what is happening on the dance floor and bring everyone back to their starting position (or “Home”) if things get a little too confused.
(Couples Square Dancing)
The Couple that assisted us were named Joan and Blitz and I was able to speak to Joan a little more about what Square Dancing was all about.
Joan and Blitz have been Square Dancing for about a year and are pretty much ready to move on from the Mainstream Level to the Plus Level, though she remarked she wasn’t sure if they would ever try to take on the last level, known as “Challenge.”
“One thing I think is great about Square Dancing is how fun it is to stay fit with”, She said, “Square Dancing is a great way to get exercise.” I would agree. It is low impact and aerobic, and is purportedly especially beneficial for joint health.
One of the things I think is the most fun about Square Dancing though, is the whole process of “Calling.” The Caller is very important. It is his job to create the over-all dance. He or She needs to be very attuned to what is happening on the floor and make sure things are moving smoothly. The Caller also needs to make sure calls can be heard clearly and are not made so quickly that it becomes too difficult for the dancers to keep up.
I asked Joan what she thought was the most important thing about the relationship between a Caller and the dancers. “That’s a very good question”, she said. “There are different styles to calling, and I think each caller has a distinct personality and way of calling. Some people, like Dave Walker, (That night’s Caller) are more traditional, while there is another nationally known Caller named Rick Gittleman, at the Old Pueblo Dance Center, who uses more modern music, and organizes his calls in a pretty different way. I think one of the most important things is finding a call style you like and for a caller to be in tune with the dancers on the floor.”
She went on to say that we are pretty spoiled here in Tucson because some of Square Dancing’s most famous Callers make their home right here in the Old Pueblo.
Callers like Rick Gittleman, who is very well known throughout the Southwest, and Marshall Flippo.
Marshall has also had a long and storied career in the Square Dance Industry. He has won numerous awards and Called all over the world, including Spain, Sweden, England, Japan, and Canada.
( Marshall Flippo LP )
Fun Fact: No matter where you go in the world Square Dance Calls are always made in English.
I had no idea that Square Dancing was so popular around the world and still so popular in the US.
“Oh”, said Joan, “You could probably find a place to Square Dance every night of the week in Tucson if you wanted to.” She went on to say that despite the prevalence of options for Square Dancing in the Tucson Community, many of the participants are from an older generation and some of them are worried about the lack of interest by the ‘younger set’. One such member of the ‘younger set’ a fellow Square Dancer named Craig, whom Joan knows from the Old Pueblo Dance Center has remarked to Joan in the past that despite many of his friends coming to a lesson and really enjoying themselves, it does not seem to gain much traction with others in his age group and he wishes that it would.
Considering how much fun I had, I can’t imagine why.
So I would like to make this article a ‘call’ to folks who have never delved into this unique American Art form, especially if you are of that ‘younger set’.
Sure, I knew what it was, or at least thought I did. I found out I really had no idea.
Square Dancing is more than just a fun exercise, though it is a great workout.
Square dancing is more than just a wonderful way to socialize and make new friends, though you will find the community warm and inclusive.
Square Dancing is a way to connect to our heritage, to remember where we all came from, with our many cultural pasts melding together to create something distinctly American. It is something that has grown from folk tradition into a pastime across the globe and an international industry. It is something worth keeping alive.
So if you are looking for a new experience that will delight not just your desire for fun, but also give you an interesting way to learn about American History than you should definitely make a Square Dance class one of your “To Do-si-Do’s” when traveling to Tucson.
For More information on Square Dancing or where you can stay in Tucson and find Square Dance lessons click on the links below: