Square dancing groups attract members of all ages, all skill levels

The Jolly Twirlers, a Willmar area square dancing club, has been providing a social activity for people of all ages for more than 30 years. They have had dancers as young as 7 and dancers in their 90s over the years.

Members of The Jolly Twirlers dance in the gym at the Jefferson Learning Center. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

Square dancing is so named because four couples start out arranged in a square. There’s one couple on each side with everyone facing the center.  Dancers listen to the caller and carry out his instructions in time to the music.

Square dancing opportunities have been available in the area for more than 30, according to Becky Jaenisch, a member of The Jolly Twirlers.  She said the group officially started in the late 1980s with dances held in Clara City, Atwater and  Willmar. 

The group offers lessons every fall, starting the first Monday in November in an effort to try get more people interested in the club. They give them mainstream lessons and there are 60 different calls, the common ones include  “promenade,” “do-si-do” and “face the sides” square dance.

“They learn those and graduate from mainstream square dancing. If you want to go on you can learn more and that’s called plus lessons. The Jolly Twirlers dance once a month in Willmar on the third Saturday of the month in the gym at the Jefferson Learning Center. The club members come and they also often support each other by going to each other’s dances, she said.

“Paynesville has a club, as does St. Cloud and other towns,” said Jaenisch.  “It’s really fun, and great exercise. A dance usually lasts two hours and if you dance every dance it’s like walking five miles. It’s a great exercise that’s fun,” she said.

Jaenisch got involved in square dancing when her daughter was 8 years old. Jaenisch wasn’t excited about putting her into the dance classes available to the girls.

“We were a more conservative family and I wasn’t excited about the little girls’ dance (opportunities),” she said.

Jaenisch learned the boy’s position and her daughter learned the girl’s position. Then her husband and her son learned and she had to take lessons to being a girl dancer. The boy dancer is on the left side and the girl on the right side. “You dance the same dance but on different sides. Then our whole family dances,” she said.

You can go to other clubs to dance and each dance is a little different because callers have their own style of how they call. That makes it interesting, she said, noting there are national callers who are certified or licensed nationally and they travel all over.

“One guy from Nebraska makes a loop around Minnesota and calls. They are excellent at what they do so its very enjoyable to dance to them. Mostly, we have callers who travel two to three hours to call at a dance. They’re very committed to what they do,” she said.

Jaenisch said they always want more people to come learn and get in on the fun. They usually have two or three squares filled. Each square is made up of eight people.

“You have four couples so there’s eight people in a square.” There are usually a few people who sit and take a break between dances because you get pretty tired, she said. “We could have 30 to 40 people at dances. If you have the national callers that brings out more people.”

If a song has a fast beat, she said, you’re going to be dancing faster but if it’s a slower song then it’s not as fast.

“You don’t need to know rhythm or anything. It’s just listening to what (the caller) says. It’s just listening and then you walk to wherever he says.

Do-si-do is when you’re facing your partner and you walk past each other rubbing shoulders. You kind of slide back to back and then you back up to where you started. That completes the do-si-do move.”

The dances are designed to be good clean family fun with no alcohol or tobacco allowed.

“We’ve also had several home school families who come and take lessons. It’s something you can do as a family where you’re all involved. It’s not like just sitting and watching one kid play in a sporting event. All of you together as a family are doing an event.”

She said modern callers often sing popular songs and weave the square dance calls into the lyrics. There are about 65 mainstream calls that the caller can use. There is also plus dancing where about 30 more calls are added. Plus calls put two or more calls together under one name.

Dancers from The Jolly Twirlers Square Dance group enjoy a good dance at the Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

The history of square dancing has deep roots going back to 16th century Europe. It crossed the ocean with the colonists and some changes were made here, she said. The use of callers wasn’t introduced until the 19th century.

The history of the Jolly Twirlers square dance club goes back to 1981 when Jim Kraus, a student in John Arndt’s carpentry program, told Arndt about the square dance lessons being offered by Irene Miller at the Garfield School, which today is the Area Learning Center in Willmar. Arndt, his wife Leila, and some of their friends planned to take lessons until tragedy struck. The instructor was killed in a car crash.

Cliff and Carrie Sommerfield helped them out by giving lessons. Some of them continued dancing with the Koronis Night Owls, the square dance club in Paynesville, for two years. Bert Dibley, a caller from Kimball, and his wife Ruth, encouraged them to start their own club in Willmar and gave them the guidance needed to make it happen.

In 1986, The Jolly Twirlers became a reality in Willmar. The first meeting took place at Garfield School. Couples served as officers and the first ones were John and Leila, president; John and Millie Myers, vice president; Charlie and Audrey Dalien, secretary; and Clayton and Inez Vreeman, treasurer.

In 1989, Bert Dibley was the instructor for the first lessons the club offered.  Seasoned dancers also come to lessons to help the beginners learn the calls. These helpers are referred to as ‘angels.’ At The Jolly Twirlers first lesson, there were 20 students and about 30 angels. In the spring they had their first graduates. When a club has new dancers graduate, a graduation ceremony is held, followed by a dance. Dancers from other clubs join in the celebration.

The club was bigger back then, said Jaenisch. In 1991 there were 68 members and nine more dancers graduated that year. Most of the Saturday night dances brought in four to five dozen dancers. Many were from other square dance clubs in the area. Dances were held at Garfield School, then Lincoln School, and today are held at the Jefferson Learning Center.

Because the club was bigger and there were more square dancers in the area, The Jolly Twirlers sponsored many more activities. In July 1992 they held a weekend Summer Square Dance Campout at Ambush Park in Benson that was attended by about 50 dancers. Later that year a New Year’s Eve dance was held at the Community Christian School. The next year they had a Valentine Sweetheart Banquet, which was a catered meal attended by 68 people. At the dance that followed, there were 12 squares made up of 96 dancers.

Dibley was the club caller, so he taught lessons until he retired in 1994. Gene Hofmann from Dawson was the club caller until 2011 when he began teaching at the newly formed Dawson club. In 2012, Myron Hollatz from Morris taught the club’s lessons and he is the club caller today.

Members of the group love square dancing and want more people to join in this fun event. There is no age restriction, young or old, married or single. 

“There’s always somebody to dance with. You don’t have to bring a partner, we have people who help,” she said.

If interested in lessons or attending a dance, contact Jaenisch for more details.