(Host) If you’ve ever contemplated the question:
"What if the Hokey Pokey is really what it’s all about", you may be relieved to know it’s not -at least for the members of the Twin State Squares.
This month the upper valley square dance club marks its 55th anniversary.
And what it’s lost in declining membership over the years, it makes up for in enthusiasm.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports.
(Zind) One a month they take the floor at the White River Elementary School gymnasium.
Some of the couples wear matching outfits, the women in poofy skirts, the men with string ties and western shirts.
The four couples that make up each square turn and bow to each other, then they move to the caller’s commands – holding hands they glide in circles, stepping to the rhythm of the music as they move in and out of the square.
One word describes this scene: Wholesome.
Vina Sanborn of Bradford is here with partner Lloyd Raymond. They’re decked out in matching black and pumpkin colored outfits.
(Sanborn) "I’ve been doing this since I was a young girl and that’s a lot of years. I just love it. There’s no alcohol or smoking involved and the people that stick with it are the nicest people you’ll ever meet."
(Raymond) "It gives you good exercise for one thing. I used to like doing the old time dancing but this has kind of taken over."
(Zind) That older version of square dancing involves a set routine that doesn’t vary.
Modern, western style square dancing became popular about 50 years ago. It’s where a caller improvises, so every dance is different and spontaneous.
In the past, the music was live. Now the callers use recordings. Along with the familiar spoken calls, there are singing calls.
(Zind) Gerry Hardy and her husband Chuck are doing the calling tonight.
(Hardy) "Being a caller involves choreography. It involves directing the dancers on the floor, so that the dancers respond and react to those calls instantaneously."
(Zind) As you can tell, there’s a lot more to this than just a few ‘swing your partners’ and ‘do-si’dos’.
(Zind) There are several skill levels: Each one requires a dancer to learn more calls and increasingly complicated moves. The most advanced dancers can respond to more than 200 calls. If one dancer in the square makes the wrong move, it causes a brief hiccup in the proceedings as the other dancers adjust.
(Zind) "It sounds nerve-wracking!"
(Thorne) "It’s not. Because you know the calls. It’s like if you go to shake hands with somebody you don’t have to think ‘uhhh…do I use my right hand or my left hand?’ You know that you reach out with your right hand and with square dancing it’s the same thing….
(Zind) Meet Marta Thorne. She and her husband Doug are co-Presidents of Twin State Squares. It’s hard to imagine two people more enthusiastic about square dancing. They descend on a potential convert with a missionary’s zeal.
(Doug) "You’d be surprised how easy, if we could get you up there, just to do something simple.
(Marta) It really would, I really think we oughta do this. I talked on your little microphone, I think you ought to dance in our square!"
(Zind) And who could argue with that?
(Zind) After a few minutes I begin to understand what club member Gwen Tusen is talking about.
(Tusen) "You have to focus on it and its good brain health because you can’t think about what else is going on in your life. Its like stress reduction. You stay here, you’re in the room and the rests of your worries or concerns just float away."
(Zind) But despite the enthusiasm of its practitioners there just aren’t enough square dancers these days. At one time there were large clubs all over New England. So many that early in his career as a caller Dona Prudhomme made a pretty good living.
(Prudhomme) "Years ago, when I first started I was booking four or five years in advance, and booked six or seven nights a week. I’d be up in Portland, Maine one night and Albany, New York the next night and Hartford, Connecticut the next night. All over the place."
(Zind) Prudhomme and his wife Vera have been callers for half a century. As he looks out on the floor where there are three squares of people dancing he reflects on the pastime’s decline.
(Prudhomme) "This floor years ago would have 15 or 20 squares on the floor for a Saturday night dance. Most of them dropped out because they’re dead. We have a lot of people falling out the top end but nothing coming in the bottom end."
(Zind) Prudhomme is doing his best to keep square dancing alive. He teaches classes and continues to call dances. But he’s fighting a cultural battle – and hoping that, as sometimes happens, what’s long been out of fashion will one day be fashionable again.
For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.