There were all smiles in the Niehaus barn near Sauk Centre for some good old fashioned square dancing last month. The barn has become a popular destination for square dancers. Photo by Nancy Leasman.
Square dancing clubs remain strong, active
Here is a secret… people in the 21st century are having just as much fun square dancing as they did in the 20th century. They are smiling, laughing and having fun.
Square dance clubs throughout Minnesota dance regularly in schools and halls and barns, walking to music while enjoying the exercise provided for the body and the brain. They have also elevated their organizations to nonprofits, providing education to those who want to join this all-American pastime.
LeRoy Elfmann, chairman of the Minnesota state organization Square Dance MN, is a member of the County Line Squares in Monticello. Unlike most of the 105 members of that club, LeRoy learned to square dance while he was in the Army and stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Many years went by when he didn’t dance, but he picked it up again about six years ago. His wife Mary started only five years ago.
“Men don’t think they’re going to enjoy it,” he said, but they usually find out it’s lots of fun. “Everyone is welcome to join: solos, couples and families. No partner is needed to join. One of the best things is that people make new friends quickly and look forward to the next dance.”
David and Andy Flint met at a square dance in St. Cloud. They’ve been married for 13 years. “A friend said I should go,” said Andy. She attended dances a while before she met David, who has been dancing for 15 years. “Square dance lessons are good social activity. It’s a safe place: no drinking or smoking,” said Andy who is now learning to be a caller.
Callers tell the dancers what to do within practiced patterns or “calls” such as promenade, allemande left, swing your partner, weave the ring, four ladies chain. There are 51 basic calls, 17 mainstream calls and 30 calls on the “plus” level. “Advanced” dancing is divided into levels 1 and 2 and then there’s “challenge” dancing–all created for the pleasure of those who want to learn more and more calls. Callers must learn the calls and put them together in patterns that fit the music. While it may take a while to learn some calls, callers come in all ages. Mitchell Christen, of Sauk Centre, is a preteen who is just getting started. Larry Johansen, from Underwood, has been calling for 39 years.
Some learn by doing. Others attend “caller’s school.” Myron Hollatz, Morris, got started when the caller at a dance he was attending played the wrong side of a 45 rpm record. One side had the music and the other had the calls. The caller lip synched to the record which gave Myron the idea that he could do that too. He started by lip synching and graduated to calling. He’s been doing it for 30 years.
Square dancers Anne Hutilla and Dennis Hagen at a recent dance at the Niehaus barn near Sauk Centre. Photo by Nancy Leasman
Square dancing is a good workout, both mentally and physically. A dancer learns and practices the calls in class. At a dance, the dancers execute the calls as they are announced by the caller, which keeps the dancer’s brain and body busy. The dance can be energetic or sedate, depending on the ability and age of the dancers. It’s been estimated that an evening of square dancing generates about 3,000 to 4,000 steps. LeRoy said his wife did 6,000 steps at a dance the night before the Niehaus barn dance. We’ll get to that one in a minute.
Dancing several times a week is the norm for many dancers. Willard Leinonen, of Annandale, dances three times a week. He’s 91. He was named Square Dance King by his club in 2014 so he was the club’s ambassador for square dancing that year, which he enjoyed very much. “I went to my first dance at age 17,” he said. There were quite a few years in which he didn’t dance, but he started again in 1984. And he hasn’t quit yet.
“You don’t have to be crazy to square dance,” said veteran dancer Jay Orton, “but it helps when you’re having this much fun!” He’s been square dancing for 36 years, frequently joined by his wife Terry. Their club is the third-oldest club in the state, Ray’s Promenaders in Brainerd. That group has been dancing for 63 years.
Michelle Jenson has only been dancing since 2013, but she’s already the vice-president of the Square Dance Federation of Minnesota and is the Queen of the Hotfoot Stompers in Coon Rapids. On a spring Sunday, Michelle boarded a bus with about 50 other square dancers and though it was a mystery trip and they didn’t know where they’d end up, they knew they’d be dancing. Their destination was the loft of the Niehaus barn a few miles east of Sauk Centre. Shortly after their arrival the music started, couples gathered in groups of eight, and the first caller sent them through their paces. Michelle didn’t have much time to talk. “I gotta go dance now,” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared into the swirling dancers.
Most clubs charge annual dues of $3 to $5. Membership in a state organization is $10 ($5 for dues and $5 for insurance). Admission to dances is usually about $8, which covers rental fees or custodial costs and pays the caller. There are also family rates to encourage young people to get involved. Holiday parties, conventions, travel and special events (like the mystery trip) are all perks of membership.
There are online sources of information about square dancing, but the best way is to get involved in a club, sign up for lessons and start dancing! Many clubs take the summer off and start again in the fall. Now is a good time to take a step toward learning lots of new steps. Check out the websites below for lots of great information and dance calendars.
Square Dance MN shares information on its 24 member clubs and their schedules of dances: www.squaredancemn.com. Square Dance Federation of Minnesota lists 32 clubs on its website www.squaredanceminnesota.com.