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Masters of spin

Dancers say it's still hip to be square - just follow the caller

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / March 19, 2009
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Out on the linoleum, there's a blur of petticoats and plaid prairie skirts and fluorescent polyester.

Arranged in three tight squares, 12 couples move with a jaunty step: twirls, spins, claps; arms looping, hands clasping, feet weaving.

Up on the stage, a man in blue velvet and a bolo tie gives sing-song orders: "Pass the ocean"; "load the boat"; "boys, run around the girls"; "follow your neighbor"; "sa-wing that girl"; "promenade!"

This is what you'd call an old-fashioned hoedown. Toe-tapping, skirt-flapping, hand-clapping fun.

"It keeps you young, it keeps you going," said 78-year-old George Brady of Woburn, escorting his wife and dance partner, Barbara, two years his junior, off the square-dancing floor at the Woburn Senior Center recently.

"It's excellent for your mind," said Barbara. "You have to be thinking all the time."

Lively as the activity may be, though, more and more emphasis is on the "old fashioned" part - it appears that square dancing, like many of its devotees, is cresting into old age.

"The whole world of square dancing is shrinking," said El Pillsbury, historical director of the Acton Square Wheelers, whose members have dwindled from roughly 100 couples in the 1980s and 1990s to about 22 pairs today.

Largely, the dancers say, that's because the younger generation hasn't been taking up the pastime as fervently as their parents and grandparents did.

"Just about everybody here is retired," Baldwin Apple Squares co-organizer Anna Perry of Stoneham said of her group's demographics.

Yet despite the decline, some enthusiasts say they believe square dancing will never promenade its way out of popular culture.

"I'm convinced it will continue to cycle and grow out," said Dick Severance, archive director with the Square Dance Foundation of New England, which runs a Manchester, N.H., museum dedicated to the quintessentially American dance form. He says he knows of some teenagers who are becoming interested in starting their own clubs.

Such divergent interests appear in the numbers - once, there were 300 to 400 square-dancing groups across the region, Severance said.

Now there are only about 100 groups across New England, he said.

But don't file square dancing away with dodo birds and disco just yet. Its enthusiasts are avid and energetic.

Contrary to popular belief, square dancing was cultivated in New England, evolving out of ethnic dances from England and France, Severance said. Becoming a social event, it spread west and back again with the railroads and, eventually, the advent of electronic music players. American soldiers also brought it to Europe and Japan.

The emergence of "modern Western square dance" after World War II cultivated the rollicking atmosphere you'll find today in any square-dance hall (as well as the cowboy-and-country-girl attire).

Group names are always creative; that's another part of the tradition. Local monikers include the Boston Uncommons, the Sea Shell Steppers in Acushnet, and the Hayloft Steppers in Sturbridge.

For those who cue up with their partners in the handful of clubs northwest of Boston, the enthusiasm is easy to explain.

"Once it's in your blood, it's all over, that's it," said 48-year-old Jay Silva of Northwood, N.H., a man in blue velvet who called - or directed the dancers - at a recent Baldwin Apple Squares workshop.

"It's friendship, music, meeting new people, laughing, having a good time. It's friendship set to music."

Square dancers, by nature, are "very tolerant," agreed Manuel Medeiros of Littleton, who dances with the Square Wheelers. "If you make a mistake, you mess up the square - but it's all fun, and everybody laughs."

And there's no better complement to good fun than good sweets: A large part of the square-dance tradition is a refreshment period - cakes, cookies, pies, all homemade to be shared among friends.

Philanthropy is another common theme. Both the Acton Square Wheelers and the Baldwin Apple Squares hold occasional fund-raisers; the North Shore-based Good Will Dancers, meanwhile, are a group of 60- to 80-year-old women who spend their afternoons square-dancing for the infirm at nursing homes across the region.

Today, the group will help grant a patient's dying wish by holding a hoedown at Meadow View Care and Rehabilitation Center in North Reading through Care Alternatives Hospice's Dreamcatchers program.

Beyond a chance to help others, "It's good for your head," said 78-year-old Dan Perry, Baldwin Apple co-organizer, who has cued up in the square with his wife since 1985. "It's exercise for the mind and body."

Specifically, he and others say, the physical and mental benefits come from square dancing's structure. During a dance, three to four couples arrange themselves in a square; then they follow the directions from a caller. With directions like "ping-pong circulate" and "cast a shadow," every call disperses and mixes the couples throughout the square.

While dancers independently know all the moves, the impending calls in each dance are unknown to them - so the fun is in the spontaneity.

"I just take it out of my head," said Silva, a caller for 29 years. That "gives the dancers surprises."

Indeed, square dancing seems to have an unmistakable allure - and one that can't always be described.

Many Baldwin Apples, for instance, couldn't explain what initially lured them; others simply couldn't remember. Some said it morphed out of a need to be social when stricken with "empty nest" syndrome.

"We decided we just needed to do something," said Anna Perry, 80. "All the kids were gone."

But the group's oldest member, 88-year-old Leo McLaughlin of Burlington, is one of the few with a sharp memory of his first time: Thirty-three years ago, he participated in an enormous dance held in the parking lot of the Burlington Mall.

"At first you don't know your left from your right - you really don't," he said. And, "it's hard to learn to take direction."

In front of him, out on the dance floor, 12 couples moved swiftly as Silva called, microphone in hand.

"Ladies circulate!" The women passed through the square as their partners stood at the four corners.

"Promenade, 3/4!" Two couples circulated the perimeter; the other two stayed still at center.

Many of the dancers were dressed for a hoedown: petticoats or prairie skirts on the girls and bolo ties on the guys. One couple made a loud statement with fluorescent polyester shirts that resembled the flamboyant disco floor that John Travolta trotted across in the 1977 classic "Saturday Night Fever."

The Bradys, meanwhile, were admittedly a bit of a mismatch - George wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt; Barbara a white puff-sleeved blouse over a black knee-length skirt ruffled out by a petticoat. She owns about 40 such square-dance outfits, she said, which she wears with nylons and white strapped shoes.

Dancing together for 20 years, the couple has progressed to the "Advanced 2" level: They know about 320 calls.

"I never danced in my life before I started square-dancing," said George.

"I don't think he would come if I didn't make him," his wife said.

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

More room on the floor

At the height of square dancing's popularity from the 1960s to the 1980s, there were 40 to 50 square dance clubs in Eastern Massachusetts. Now, there are roughly two dozen clubs spread out across Eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and southern Maine.

Some surviving clubs still draw enthusiasts, not only because of fanciful names:

Acton Square Wheelers - founded in 1963, welcomes 22 couples.

Baldwin Apple Squares, based in Woburn - founded in 1964, welcomes about 24 couples.

Some clubs are no longer active, such as North Andover's Turkey Town Trotters and Wilmington's Skirts and Flirts.

SOURCES: El Pillsbury, historical director of the Acton Square Wheelers; individual clubs.

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