Be there or be square

Missouri square dancing continues to thrive in two forms
Sunday, August 31, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:33 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Steve Young beckons to the crowd. The musicians are ready, fiddles in one hand, bows in the other. A group of 16 gather, dressed in T-shirts and blouses, shorts and overalls, cell phones clipped to pockets. When the fiddling begins, the dancers look at Young to guide them through a clumsy first set of do-si-dos. Although the dancers have been invited, the square dance looks impromptu.

And that’s just the way Young wants it.

He’s part of a group in Missouri itching for the return of the days when folks flocked in from the fields and gathered in the barn to square dance. “I grew up on a farm in central Missouri. There’s a big barn up there, and my grandfather would tell me stories of 1920s barn dances,” Young said.

Harry Griffin, 81, remembers those days. Neighbors would crowd into his family’s living room on Saturday nights in the 1920s. They’d push the furniture out on the porch and everyone would dance. Griffin, then 6 years old, first started calling dances at these get-togethers.

“They didn’t have babysitters in those days,” he said.

On the other side of town

Women carrying cake pans and vegetable trays file into the Columbia Senior Center ballroom one Friday evening. Some women dress in colorful skirts padded with petticoats. The men wear cowboy boots, jeans and dress shirts.

On one side of the dance floor, there’s no band, but a DJ set-up with boxes of records. The president of Tiger Squares, which is part of the Missouri Federation of Square and Round Dance Clubs, welcomes everyone before handing the microphone to Ray Crowley, a 1997 Missouri Square Dance Callers Hall of Famer.

Crowley calls his first set to Cher’s “Believe.” He has cool control over the record player, “rolling” the music up and down so dancers can hear his voice. Skirts swish as the dancers follow Crowley’s calls with ease. There’s no giggling about a missed step like among Young’s dancers: Crowley’s bunch weaves organized patterns, like threading in a petticoat.

Welcome to club-style square dancing.

Wal-Mart or Patricia’s?

Square dance fiddler Howard Marshall likens club square dancing to Wal-Mart. He said traditional square dancing is similar to the locally owned Patricia’s IGA grocery.

“I like local things, so a person like me would rather square dance to a local guy and listen to a live band,” Marshall said.

Wal-Marts are the same everywhere. Likewise, square dance club members hear the same calls from Florida to Alaska. But traditional square dance calls vary between Rolla and Columbia.

Square dance clubs sprung up as a way to revive a folk tradition, designed to appeal to modern society, according to the Folk Dance Association’s Web site. Club dancing organizations replaced fiddles with records, and soon the square dance became the official state folk dance of Missouri.

“We have a tendency toward regimentation,” Marshall said. Old-time square dancing “was about unwinding and listening to music, having a couple chugs of homemade booze. It was very local, very flexible and somewhat chaotic.”

They still do that?

Some of the club dancers learned to dance the traditional way growing up, and most were surprised to hear old-time square dancing still exists. Club members aren’t even aware of the traditional-versus-club debate.

Maybe club dancers don’t need the fiddler: They have their own traditions. Members from different towns will raid a square dance and steal the banner from the club, whose members must steal it back. Callers even go to a kind of college.

Club dance caller Ray Crowley attended one such college, but the skill was first passed down to him by another caller.

The familiarity of club dances is why many people join. Members are welcome anywhere, as long as they have the official pin awarded upon graduation from classes.

“They can go anywhere in the world and dance,” Crowley said.

In the ballroom, Crowley’s voice purrs through the speakers as he croons “Have I Told You Lately,” and then switches to his calls without changing the tune.

“I don’t really want them to hear my music,” he said. “I want ’em to feel it.”

A call for callers

Ron McHenry of La Plata, an old-time caller since age 14, never took to club style.

“Whenever the modern square dancing came in, quite a few people wanted me to learn,” he said. “For some reason, it just didn’t appeal to me.”

He doesn’t prepare before a dance, he just calls off the top of his head. “It comes natural.

“It’s just like these singers — I can’t figure out how they can get up and sing one song after the other and keep it going,” he said. “I can call square dancing like that.”

Twenty years ago, McHenry would go to a dance every week. He said now there just aren’t as many opportunities. Lately, he calls and his wife dances once a month at his Moose lodge.

Old-time caller Harry Griffin said in his day, dance lessons were unnecessary.

“Everyone knew how to dance when it first started, so it didn’t matter,” Griffin said.

Old-time caller Steve Young promises he can have square dance amateurs promenading in five minutes. McHenry said a one-time walk-through will do the trick.

When Young saw fewer young people interested in calling, he bought some square dance books and started practicing.

He started the Missouri Fiddle and Dance Network and began to collect names of area callers.

Young set up an old-time square dance at the Boone County Fair, and he plans to have one at Columbia’s Fall Heritage Festival and one on New Year’s Eve.

But besides that, he said, old-time dancers lack a venue to regularly get together. And the impromptu nature of traditional square dancing means it’s difficult to gather people. Traditional square dances are still going on in Missouri — Griffin and McHenry attest to that — but without an official association, organization goes to the wayside.

Dancing with first-timers can be slow. At the county fair, Young had to interrupt his calls to remind dancers that a do-si-do means left shoulders together, a move club dancers would learn first lesson.

But Young doesn’t want to put people off square dancing by making it complicated. He just wants people to have fun, old-school style.

Marshall said the club-versus-old-time debate says a lot about American culture, adding he feels no ill will toward those who choose “Wal-Mart.”

“It’s not just a silly thing called square dancing,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle choice.”

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