Restlessness grows daily in the Kelly home. Midsummer boredom is percolating in my kids and threatening to boil over. Some new hobbies are needed. Pal Bernice suggested square dancing. “We danced a lot of summer nights away down South when I was a kid,” she offered at the last ladies’ night out. I was skeptical. How could an arcane style of dancing entertain my techno/media-saturated kids? But desperate times call for desperate measures, so I put in a call to the San Diego Square Dance Association (619-235-8151; sdsda.org).
“I got involved in square dancing on a bet,” explained their president, L. Paul Schmidt. “Really, I lost a bet. They always say the man is the hardest one to get into square dancing, but once you get any man into it, they bring the woman. After the men have gone for three lessons, they get hooked, and then they drag their wives and their girlfriends to it. I have been square dancing since 1983.
“Square dancing is done with eight people per square, four couples, on the normal.” A few dances fall under the heading square dancing. “Contra [the Virginia Reel, a type of contra] is part of our flag. Line dancing is another, as is round dancing, which is cued ballroom dancing. Cued means a person is calling out the dance moves for the dancers. Then there is clogging, which is the tap-type dance.
“The people on the Mayflower brought with them their dances,” offered Schmidt. According to an article from the Mid-Atlantic Challenge Association, the origin of square dancing was in New England. “It began in New England, when the first settlers and the immigrant groups that followed brought with them their various national dances, which we now call folk dances but which were the popular dances of the day in the countries of their origin — the schottische, the quadrille, the jigs, reels, and the minuet, to name a few. After a week of toil in building new homes and carving homes out of virgin forest, the settlers would gather in the community center on Saturday evening and enjoy dancing their old-world favorites.
“In almost any group, however, there would be at least one extrovert, the hail-fellow-well-met, the life-of-the-party type with a knack for remembering the dance figures. With typical Yankee ingenuity, the settlers let this person cue or prompt them in case they happened to forget what came next. In due course, the prompter (or figure caller, as he became known) acquired a repertoire of various colorful sayings, or patter, that he could intersperse with the cues.”
There was a period later in history where square dancing’s popularity waned only to be rescued by someone more synonymous with the march of progress than the preservation of tradition. “Henry Ford saved square dancing back in the early ’30s,” explained Schmidt. “He brought it back and made it more sophisticated, with people wearing tuxedos as they danced.”
Again, I was skeptical. But Schmidt’s story checks out. According to many websites dedicated to the art form, square dancing was a personal pastime of the automobile tycoon, and its revival and promulgation became a project of his. Ford, according to save-squaredancing.com, “believed square dancing taught social training, courtesy, good citizenship, along with rhythm. [He] felt it should be a part of every school’s teaching of physical education.” School boards around the country agreed and implemented a square-dancing program developed by Ford.
“To start off,” Schmidt continued, “basic moves take approximately a half a year to get down. In square dancing, you are evolving off of the basic move; it is progressive dancing. You take a move and you are doing several different things. From basic you move to the mainstream and that takes another two to three months. To move to the plus [level], it takes about a year to a year and a half.” After plus level there is advanced 1 and 2, then challenge 1, 2, and 3. “Challenge levels are for people who are bored with other stuff; they want to do a little bit more.
“The most common dance in the United States right now is the mainstream. On the West Coast, it has gone to the plus, which is a little more involved.”
I can see hubby Patrick’s head spinning with all the different levels and steps to be learned with square dancing. “If you have an angel with you for the first few weeks, they can usually pull you through it.” An angel is an experienced square dancer who already knows the moves. “You always have an angel at your side — that is how they start out the class. You go over the basics, the same moves for three weeks in a row, and then they give you two or three more moves, which they do for a few weeks, and that is how you learn.”
The cost: “[Dance] is probably one of the most reasonably priced things you can do. Our class is only $3.50 a week. And the club level is around $4 or $5 per night.