Dance group have been ‘stomping’ for 25+ years
By Carlienne A. Frisch
“Step side left, cross right foot behind left foot, step in place left, step side right, cross left behind right foot, step in place right.”
If you follow that choreographed routine, you will be in step with the VINE Stompers--a group of women who challenge their bodies with a physical workout and challenge their minds with the memorization of new steps--while just plain having fun.
The group practices every Wednesday afternoon in a large room on the fifth floor of the VINE Community Center in Mankato, as they have done for many years. The Stompers include boot-scootin’ dancers from Mankato and the surrounding communities.
Once COVID restrictions were lifted, the VINE Stompers resumed their tradition of weekly practice for performances they enjoy giving at county fairs, church meetings, town celebrations, retirement parties and a variety of other occasions, as well as at senior living residences.
The VINE Stompers have 24 active members—all women—but men are welcome to join, according to recently retired line dancer, Clara Jean “CJ” Leiferman, who has been a key member of the group for several years.
Line dancing first began in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Originally, line dancing was often performed to disco music as much as to country and western tunes. The dance became widely known in 1993, when entertainer Billy Ray Cyrus sang “Achy Breaky Heart” while performing line dancing steps. In October of that year, a Minnesota State University student who was serving an internship with VINE’s predecessor, Mankato’s Summit Center, offered line dancing lessons to members. Some of her students went on to form the original group, the Summit Stompers.
The boot-scootin’ group first performed at a Mankato nursing home in January 1994, wearing jeans, boots and straw hats. (Their name change to the VINE Stompers took place when the Summit Center, which was the community’s original senior center, grew and developed into the VINE Community Center.) Still going strong a quarter century later, the line dancers were performing at least 25 times a year before the COVID pandemic. They do not charge a fee; any donations made to the group go into VINE’s budget. Any VINE member can join the boot-scootin’ group.
For performances, the VINE Stompers usually wear denim skirts that flare out slightly as they dance, along with a red shirt and, of course, western-style boots. For special performances, they wear skirts that represent a theme--a poodle skirt for a 1950s show or a grass skirt for a Hawaiian-themed show.
Leiferman wasn’t with the original group when it was formed in 1993. She was introduced to the line dancing troupe by a friend four years later and quickly became involved. She was eager for her first performance—the one with a Hawaiian theme--at the Kato Ballroom, when her doctor nixed the idea, causing Leiferman a huge disappointment. She explained, “I had been practicing line dancing. I had gotten my grass skirt and the lei that goes around the neck. That was the first time I was supposed to dance, but my doctor said the pressure on my heart meant ‘no dancing,’ so I had to just sit and watch the others dance. I hated that—it was devastating.”
Leiferman soon rejoined the group’s practice sessions and performances. After having a stent put into the main left artery of her heart, she began a 24-year run of performances, as well as serving as the troupe’s choreographer—creating the pattern of steps for dances. She always printed a program of eight to ten dances for each dancer to practice at home. She also served as the program announcer at events, explaining the names of the songs and dances to the audience. As the leader of the troupe for about 15 years, she was instrumental in arranging the music as well as in arranging each program.
After nearly a quarter century of line dancing, Leiferman retired just a few months ago. In addition to Leiferman, the VINE Stompers have had several leaders, including Barb Maxwell, Lorraine Rogers and Margie Jensen.
Another one of the line dancers, Anita Dittrich, joined the Stompers in January 1997 because the group offered a new kind of dance experience. She explained, “I had done social dancing, modern dance and folk dancing—even a couple of years of ballet at a refugee camp in Germany.” (Dittrich experienced World War II as a child in Europe and lived with her family in a refugee camp before moving to the United States.)
Dittrich said that what she likes about line dancing is its flexibility and its popularity. She explained, “You do not need to have a partner for line dancing. At most social events, some part of the event is devoted to line dancing. Line dancing is good for the mind--learning more different steps. My favorite dances are those done with a waltz rhythm. Line dancing is not difficult, you just need to have a sense of rhythm.”
Another dancer, Mary Hoffman, joined the VINE Stompers about 10 years ago because, she said, “I love dancing—all kinds of dance. Line dancing is a little hard at first because it seems to move pretty fast, but it repeats, so it’s not difficult to learn because there’s all that repetition.”
As for the variety of songs to which the troupe dances, Hoffman said, “I like them all. I was not a country music fan before I started, but I am now. The Long Black Train is my favorite.
“We have a good time,” she said. “We have all kinds of people—shy, not so shy, people who like the spotlight and those who just love to dance. I really like being a VINE Stomper.”
After taking a break from performing during the COVID epidemic, the VINE Stompers are eager to begin filling their performance calendar again. They are delighted about regaining the stage at the Blue Earth County Fair this year and look forward to entertaining a variety of audiences again. For information about the VINE Stompers, contact VINE at (507) 387-1666.
“Right heel forward, close. Left heel forward, close and repeat. Then shuffle forward RLR, LRL, RLR, LRL.” Give it a try.