Karl Arnold Belser
8 December 2015

“Square dancing? That’s old fashioned and dumb.”

I often hear words similar to these when we, the members of the Committee to Promote Square Dancing (CPSD), are recruiting people to join our square dancing class at the Camden Community Center in the City of San Jose, CA. But is it true? I want to describe how I think that square dancing is evolving.

The square dances done in California by the 1930s migrant workers from Oklahoma that John Steinbeck described in his book The Grapes of Wrath were crude and, I guess, somewhat dumb. There were four couples in a square and the calls telling the dancers what to do were simple. The calls were so easily followed that anyone could do them even if they had never tried square dancing before. Usually only one or two couples did any action at a time and the dancers usually stayed with their partner.

Square dancing evolved into modern western square dancing during the 1950s. It became quite popular after a 1953 TV broadcast showed the new queen of England, Elizabeth II, square dancing. Now many dancers moved at once and the ladies rotated around the square from man to man. This made the dance more social.

The downside for modern western square dancing was that it required several weeks of lessons to learn how to execute the calls. The calling was usually done rapidly so that the dancers might even perspire a little. The motions were fun because of the “body flow” in which opposite people interacted and counterbalanced one another so that the motion was fast and smooth.

Couples-only square dance clubs formed in which people would dance every week. The club I currently dance with is the Rockin’ Jokers that was started in the middle '50s as the Rafter Rockers. It is still going strong, but with major changes to account for the changes in public attitudes and demographics.

By the 1960s many states adopted square dancing as the state folk dance. The US congress even made square dancing the national folk dance for a couple of years in the early ‘60s. Square dancing is still the state folk dance in California and middle school children are required to learn some simple calls.

By the early 1970s interest was waning, but it got revitalized with the advent of singles square dance clubs. This was the era of “the pill” and the sexual revolution. I can remember that even at IBM where I worked, people were getting divorced in epidemic proportions. Some of these people took square dance classes with singles square dance clubs like Sunnyvale Single Squares (SSS) in Silicon Valley. SSS had more than 200 members at its peak. I got divorced during this period, and I was experimenting with various singles activities and singles bars in order to find a new life partner.

I learned to square dance in San Jose in 1985 at the recommendation from my electronics technician. He said “You’ll meet many single women” at the Bachelor & Bachelorettes (Bs and Bs) class for single dancers. My tech knew that I had been single for several years without finding a compatible girlfriend. I was not alone. Many single men and women were prospecting, and this is probably why the Sunnyvale Singles and Bs and Bs clubs were so large.

Even though the singles clubs were doing well, the couples only clubs were in many cases struggling. By the end of the 1980s even singles square dancing was declining in membership. I suspect that part of the reason was the advent of AIDS and other venereal diseases. The sexual revolution in square dancing was a mere decade long splash. However, I found my life partner, Jackie.

The other factor that affected entry-level square dance activities was the popularity of advanced-level and challenge-level square dancing. Many people looked down upon the plus-level clubs. There was “status” in being an advanced dancer. I think the status factor encouraged many of the best and brightest dancers to not participate in the plus-level clubs. This meant that the plus-level clubs did not have a large number of potential leaders, and I think that part of the entry level membership decline was simply poor leadership. Further the entry-level clubs did not like the fact that their classes were just a stepping stone for people to move to higher levels. Hence they were not motivated to train new dancers. 

Jackie and I joined the Rafter Rockers in the late 1990s. Rafter Rockers had been one of the largest couples-only clubs in the San Jose area. The club made tentative steps to continue to include members whose husbands or wives had died but it did not accept singles. The Beaus and Bows club was a singles and couples club. We noted that they consistently had a large membership when other couples clubs were shrinking.

The Committee to promote Square Dancing (CPSD)) was formed in 1998 to promote square dancing using advertising. Many of us were aware that square dancing was in dramatic decline.  CPSD became a 501(C)(3) nonprofit so that it could receive tax-deductible contributions. As a result over $15,000 were raised through gifts and fund raising hoedowns. Unfortunately this advertising campaign failed. We suspected that most people want to square dance as a social activity because student dancers are commonly invited by their friends. Advertising per se was not going to promote friendship, and CPSD stopped its activities.

By 2005 the Rafter Rockers, which had been one of the largest couples clubs was at death’s door. So were the Jokers, a nearby club. These two clubs merged to form the Rockin’ Jokers (RJ). Jackie took the helm as RJ President, and the board rewrote the club By-Laws to make the club a couples and singles club with round dancing. Round dancing is a type of cued ballroom dancing that can be  done between square dance tips so that there is non-stop activity. Every night became a party night with lots of food to share. The club had outside activities such as croquet, miniature golf or boccie ball  as well as charity drives such as Salvation Army and Giving tree, so that the club members would get to know each other better. The club blossomed to a membership of over 120 during the next five years.

The Rockin’ Jokers, whose members by this time were mostly older, were adamant that they did not want a class that would take time away from club-level dancing.. This anti-class sentiment was prevalent for many clubs.  As a result I took over CPSD in 2006. It had been inactive for five years. I redirected CPSD to teaching square dancing.

CPSD was able to get free space at the Camden Community Center in San Jose because it is a 501(C)(3) nonprofit. Ultimately the city made the square dancing a city-sponsored class. The CPSD class let existing club dancers (angels) help at no cost. This allowed the students to connect with people in various clubs. Also,
we observed that many of the dancers were empty nesters, that is, people whose kids have grown and left home. Square dancing was no longer a singles event like it had been twenty years earlier. there were many more women dancers than men dancers, so experienced women dancers were encouraged to learn the man’s part to fill out the squares. All student dancers were guaranteed to dance, even if they came without a partner. CPSD initiated a dancer rotation board in order to make sure that every student danced with different people. We realized that women would probably have to dance the man’s part some of the time at the clubs with the aid of a dancer rotation protocol. The students generally were mature adults looking for a long-term activity that gave them a sense of community.

By 2011 the Rockin’ Jokers had separated into two factions: members who wanted traditional, easy calling and lmembers who wanted tough, exhaussting calling. An explosion occurred starting with miserable board meetings and ultimately a general meeting to vote on major changes to the club.

Traditional square dancing uses a subset of the plus calls that can be done automatically. This level is good enough to entertain everyone and easy enough  to be done by older dancers. The caller prepared for every club night by writing down new call sequences so that the dancers never got bored. He also called relatively fast so that the body flow of dancers interacting with one another was enjoyable. The RJ club even encouraged the older dancers to stay in the club until they could not dance anymore, at which time they became club boosters. Boosters would not have to pay dues but they could come and socialize if they liked.
The tough calling faction wanted the full set of plus calls to be used from every possible position. This level of difficulty would essentially have driven the older dancers from the club. They wanted to fire the current caller and get a more challenging caller. The tough calling group even tried to change the quorum requirement in the bylaws to make a take-over easier. They wanted the large club treasury to cushion the transition. The battle lines were drawn.

Luckily, the tough calling group lost their bid to fire the caller, and they left to form another club. They initially said that membership was to be by invitation only. The club operated marginally in that some of the members had to subsidize the caller and hall costs. The level of dancing was really good, but i was told that many people felt like every dance night was like a workshop, rather that a fun social experience. It folded after two years of activity. Many of these people ultimately went on to join advanced and challenge square dance clubs. And as you might expect, they were some of the best and brightest dancers.

The Rockin’ Jokers was severely damaged by the exodus of the tough dancing people. The caller and cuer salaries had to be reduced and the monthly dues raised significantly. The RJs needed new dancers but only a few of the CPSD trained dancers joined RJ. Even so, the club had sufficient cash and profitable hoedowns such that they continued for some four years with barely enough members to support the club.

The 2015 RJ president had just retired and hit the ground running. She decided that the Rockin’ Jokers needed to have its own class. The club members agreed when they understood that the club would hire a second caller and a second hall at the same church location on the same night. The club members would be able to dance as usual.

The RJ class had 21 students. There were three squares and the class manager needed only three club dancers to fill out the squares. A phone call to the adjacent hall was all that it took to get these angel dancers. The large number of students without helpers required that the class caller do some teaching as two couples so that every new dancer was moving all the time. Further the caller continually mixed up the couples so that everyone danced with everyone else.  They had two hours of class every week with party-level food and drink on the sidelines. 
The result, much to my surprise, was that a strong bonding and friendship occurred among the dancers. The result was that after nine months 16 people from the class joined the RJ club. And the club was totally transformed by the energy and enthusiasm of these people.

The RJ board wisely decided to not have another class for 2016. They wanted to focus on their new members to make sure that they were really happy. The board was content to have CPSD train more new dancers, some of which would probably join RJ.

The next issue is that older dancers apparently do not want to become square dance callers even though
CPSD gives caller scholarships and has caller workshops. Callers are entertainers. Callers have to have a good singing voice and interesting patter from the stage. The problem is that many of the local callers are above the age of 70. It is just a matter of time before local clubs cannot find adequate callers. Fortunately for people that live in the San Francisco Bay Area there are several gay square dance clubs. The members of these clubs, both male and female, are relatively young. In other words they are not empty nesters. Some of these young people are learning to become square dance callers. Hence it will be important that the straight and gay communities work together.

I have described how the square dance community, at least in California, has changed to adapt to new circumstances. The adaptation is not done by any means because square dancing is mostly done by Caucasians. Caucasians are only about forty percent of the population of California and by the end of this century this percentage will fall below twenty. Frankly the local clubs have been unsuccessful in attracting Asians, Hispanics and blacks. If square dancing is to survive in the long term the non-Caucasian population will have to participate.

I am relating this history to make the following points about how square dancing has changed and in the future needs to change. It in some ways reflects the changes that are happening in the United States as a whole.

1)    American society has a strong focus on individuals, not married couples.

2)    Women are really important in their ability to make any club an enjoyable social experience.

3)    Single people have to be accepted and incorporated into the club.

4)    Women might have to dance the man’s part because there are more women than men at older ages.

5)    Clubs are not just highly technical dance groups. They are fundamentally social in nature. People want friends.

6)    There are not just men and women in the society but a continuous spectrum that includes the LGBT community, and they have to be accepted.

7)    It will be important that every racial, ethnic and religious group be included in club activities in the future.

Last updated December 9, 2015
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