Thinking Outside the Square

Columbia’s square dancing community makes the right call

Robert Clark

From kayaking to karaoke, painting classes to ropes courses, Columbia offers endless opportunities for entertainment and enjoyment. But what about other lesser known recreational opportunities — like square dancing? Nothing is more wholesome or memory-evoking than envisioning a night spent square dancing. Believe it or not, quite a few square dance clubs around the Greater Columbia area are eager to spread the good word about the joy it can bring.

When thinking of square dancing, images might hearken back to the days of “Hee Haw” and Minnie Pearl, with visions of hay bales, gingham, and honky tonk. While that version of dancing, called barn dancing, still does exist, it is not the type of dancing members of the Tanglefoot Square Dance Club and Star Promenaders, two prominent clubs in Columbia, practice. Western dancing, a more disciplined square dance routine, is the type of dancing that more modern square dancers are performing in Columbia. 

In Western dancing, before attending an actual square dancing event, dancers are required to take classes to learn the myriad of dance steps, or “calls,” as they are known in square dancing jargon. Clubs offer classes periodically. Just walking into a club and hoping to learn along the way is nearly impossible with the variety of different steps. Depending on the level of the dancer, there could be upwards of 75 calls, which consist of specific foot and hand moves that become increasingly complicated as the dancer becomes more skilled. Most calls, however, require simple walk forward and back, face right, and circle left. Four couples make up a square, each facing their partner from opposite sides. A regular dance during an average night in Columbia might have three or four squares, with 24 to 32 people. On busier nights, the clubs can have upwards of seven to eight squares, with 57 to 64 people.

A caller leads the dances, taking participants through the dance schemes as they go. The more experienced the caller, the more challenging the dance. The caller is the most integral part of the square dance. In some clubs, a permanent caller attends each dance; in others, different callers rotate in. Most callers have other jobs and call in their free time, while some callers are very well-known in the industry — celebrities in their own right — and travel the country or globe calling square dancing events. Typically, a good caller must have a strong voice, be able to make the call interesting, and have a sense of humor. It helps if they can change things up on a regular basis so the dancers are not always doing the same moves. “The more experienced you are, the more you like the variety of the calls,” says Mark Fox, a member of the Star Promenaders. “It’s always fun when the caller generates new arrangements and makes it more complex.”

In short, the caller controls the event, and dancers have to follow closely in order to maintain the flow. “It’s challenging because you have to have a solid mind-foot connection,” says Gaye Betcher, a long-time square dancer and member of the Tanglefoot Club. “Sometimes the brain knows what it is supposed to do, but the feet don’t want to listen. But new, and even not so new, dancers mess up all the time. You have to be patient and gently nudge them to where they belong in the square. We never want to discourage anyone. We’re all there to enjoy ourselves!” 

While the footwork and the flow are important, Mark cautions against the mentality of those who think they have two left feet and could never square dance. “With practice, the moves become easy. And it’s so much more than a dance. It’s a family environment. It becomes more about friendships and a social outlet in addition to the dancing,” he says. 

A square dance tip, or sequence, includes two dances. The first part is called a patter call, and the second is a singing call. In the patter, the caller announces different dance steps for the participants to follow. These are the steps the dancers have learned throughout their training classes. In the dancing call, the participants dance to a song with input from the caller — and it’s not the music some might think. While occasionally a bluegrass or honky-tonk song is featured, dancers more often are square dancing to more popular music, from gospel to patriotic to Michael Jackson tunes, and, in the case of Gaye’s last dance, even to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.” 

Energy and enthusiasm are never lacking on the dance floor. During a particular sequence, the men stay put and the women dance around the circle, stopping to dance with each man. By the end of the song, they have made their way around the square back to their partner. To observers, it is a remarkably well-choreographed event. 

Square dancing establishments in Columbia are the epitome of wholesome family fun. Cost is minimal to participate, typically around $6 to $8 per person, and alcohol and smoking are not generally allowed. As an added bonus, plenty of refreshments are always available. Square dancing is also great cardio! The different speeds of the steps can make for a strong workout. Members wear whatever they like: some may come bedecked in typical square dancing outfits, but many are dressed casually, in jeans and comfortable shoes. 

Dancers who have participated in training classes, which generally last about three months, and have learned all of the calls are then considered “mainstream,” meaning he or she can dance anywhere in the world. Square dancing competitions are held all across the globe, from Tennessee to Germany to South Korea, and in all cases, the calls are done in English as opposed to the native language. “When we have national conventions in the United States and dancers come from across the world, they all know the calls. They may not speak another word of English, but they all understand the square dance language,” says Gaye.

For Gaye, square dancing has been a part of her life since she was a child, when her parents danced. She began dancing in the 1970s, but after having children and other priorities, she took a hiatus. About eight years ago, she found out her neighbor was into square dancing, so she decided to take a refresher course and began dancing again. While the ages vary from 12 to 90 years old, most dancers in Gaye’s club are in their 40s and older. 

Mark, too, learned of square dancing from a friend while attending a singles group at church. He was initially thinking of taking up ballroom, but when one of the members invited him to a square dance lesson more than eight years ago, he was hooked.

Unfortunately, both Gaye and Mark see square dancing declining in Columbia. Perhaps it’s the busyness of everyone’s lives. Maybe square dancing has an unfair stereotype. Or many Columbians may be unaware of the great clubs that exist around the city. “We went from a society in the ’70s and ’80s that looked forward to getting out of the house to one where the house becomes the refuge and the place for entertainment. People hear the word square dancing, and it has a negative connotation. Maybe we should rename it,” Mark says. 

Whatever the reason, square dancing is an activity worth trying — two hours to escape into a festive culture involving dancing, singing, friendship, and fellowship. 

“We seem to be graying out, and we want square dancing to survive,” says Gaye. “We need people that like to dance and have a good time. People are amazed at how much fun it is. It may sound old-fashioned, but if I can dance to ‘Uptown Funk,’ it most certainly is not!”