FRAMINGHAM — Jon Roberts decided to give square dancing another whirl four years ago. “I did it in grade school,” he said. That was a long time ago. Roberts is 68.
“My wife, Cheryl, was trying to get me into ballroom dancing. I made an effort, but I just stumbled along. I was driving on Edgell Road one day and saw a sign: Learn to Square Dance.” Maybe that would fit his feet better.
The Marlborough couple checked out Fairs ’n Squares, which meets at First Parish in Framingham. “Square dancing clicked right away,” said Roberts. “I was comfortable from the start. It’s a good physical exercise, but you can get out of breath in a hurry.”
Not to worry, even though most of the members are deep into their senior years. “Some people have been square dancing for a year, or for 32, like me,” said Susan Sullivan, 74, from Sudbury, vice president of Fairs ’n Squares, which is in its 50th year. “We have dancers from 40 to 90. It’s not heavy exercise. It’s just walking.”
Square-dancing enthusiasts are trying to keep the activity alive into the next generation. The pool has dwindled considerably.
“When I started in 1980 there was a square dancing group in every town,” said Gene Saltsgaver, 75, the group’s president. “We used to dance two, three times a week. We’ve got to get young people involved.”
Square dancing may seem outdated to some, but Steve Park of Natick has taken action. Park is the caller, the person who picks the music and instructs the dancers during each session. He has diversified the music over the years, mixing in country western, blues, disco, even Lady Gaga. “The goal is to get kids and young adults interested,” said Park.
Fairs ’n Squares also coordinates with clubs throughout the state to promote the activity.
“Why do I like dancing so much? I struggle with that a lot,” said Saltsgaver, who lives in Maynard. “Most guys do it because they think their partners want to. Sometimes guys like it better than women.”
And to what does a septuagenarian like Saltsgaver, who also works out at a gym and plays tennis, credit his staying power? “I think genetics has a lot to do with it.”
Gerda Chalfin, 68, of Framingham, was nursing a bruised rib and getting antsy for something to keep her busy in the meantime. “I thought I’d try square dancing until the rib healed, and I got hooked. I was happy as soon as the music started. I think women pick it up faster. But no one cares if you make a mistake. It’s a very forgiving society.”
Chalfin dances three times a week.
“I’m retired, and I was looking for something that was fun and challenging,” said Maria Lesser of Sudbury. “I didn’t think my husband would like it. He said ‘I’ll try it, but I may not stay.’ He comes every time now. He dances better than me.”
Sheldon Lesser is a fit 75. “I’ve been exercising all my life. I came here with my wife. I didn’t think I’d participate. She pushed me.” He’s glad she did. “You learn a new step every week. If you make a mistake, the caller will have you do it again until you get it.”
“When I do a step correctly, I get excited,” said Maria. “I congratulate myself.”
His role keeps Park, a member of the Old Colony Callers Association, busy. “I’m out five nights a week. Thursdays I teach here,” he said.
There’s no telling who will grasp square dancing easier, he reports. “I’ve had engineers and doctors not pick it up as fast as truck drivers.”
For people who want to give square dancing a whirl, classes will begin again on Jan. 10, and take place most Thursdays from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in First Parish’s Scott Hall, at 24 Vernon St. in Framingham Centre. The group also hosts dances roughly once a month.
For more information, go to www.fairsnsquares.com.
For the regulars, square dancing is on the front burner of their lives. “It’s an indoor sport,” said Sullivan. “You can do it even if there’s a blizzard.”
Saltsgaver breaks down the charm of square dancing this way: “You get to dance with every girl in the room, and every dance starts with a hug. Can’t go wrong with that.”