In squares of eight across the country, Americans of all ages are linking arms, sashaying and do-si-do-ing themselves to happier, healthier and longer lives. In Alton, all are welcome to come and experience the fun and excitement of square dancing with fellow Missourians (and a few Arkansans) at the Alton Schools Multi-Purpose Building on Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Larry and Daisy Simmons, presidents of the Alton Flutter Wheels, were among those welcoming newcomers and experienced dancers of all ages at their weekly get-together.
"Square Dancing is just so much fun," said Daisy. "It's like setting friendship to music."
And as someone who had never danced square dance before, this reporter can confess to having quite a bit of fun her first time around the square with the "Taller Caller" Dan Halliburton calling the steps.
Square dances have their beginnings in folk and courtship dances brought to the United States by European immigrants. The music is lively and often played on banjo or fiddle, with the caller directing the dancers by singing out the name of the steps to be performed.
With all of its moving, twisting and turning, square dancing provides more than the daily dose of heart and bone-healthy activity plus it adds in the factor of being a fun social event. Square dancers lower their risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, osteoporosis and depression, all while laughing and smiling and keeping time.
But that's not all -- remembering all of the calls -- from 'do-si-do' to 'alemand' -- keeps the mind sharp, potentially staving off age-related memory loss, according to experts.
There are two main types of square dancing, Traditional and Modern Western. Traditional square dance, which is also called "old time square dance" is not standardized and can be subdivided into regional styles. The New England and Appalachian styles have been particularly well documented; both have survived to the present time. There are several other styles; some have survived or been revived in recent years, some have not. Traditional square dance is frequently presented in alternation with contra dances or with some form of freestyle couple dancing. One ancestor of New England style square dances is the quadrille and older New England callers occasionally refer to their squares as "quadrilles."
Modern Western square dance, which is also called "Western square dance," "contemporary Western square dance," or "modern American square dance," was established during the 1930s and 1940s by Lloyd Shaw, who solicited definitions from callers across the country in order to preserve traditional American folk dance.
A square dance call may take a very short time or a very long time to execute. Most calls require between four and 32 "counts" (where a count is roughly one step). In traditional square dancing the timing of a call is dictated by tradition; in some regional styles, particularly that of New England, the dance movements are closely fitted to the phrases of the music. In modern Western square dancing, many calls have been given formally specified durations, based partly on direct observation of how long it takes an average dancer to execute them.
Traditional and modern Western square dancing have a number of calls in common, but there are usually small differences in the way they are performed. For example, the "Allemande Left" is traditionally performed by grasping left hands with the other dancer, pulling away from each other slightly and walking halfway around a central axis, then stepping through. In modern Western dance the grip is modified so that each dancer grips the forearm of the other, and there is no pulling (that is, each dancer supports his or her own weight). These modifications make it easier to enter and exit the movement, and thus easier to incorporate into a long sequence of calls.
Traditional square dance uses a comparatively small number of calls--between about 10 and 30, depending on the region and the individual caller. Every dance is explained before the participants dance it, unless everyone present is familiar with it. Participants are made to feel welcome to make mistakes, and the mistakes can sometimes make the dance a lot more fun.
In modern Western square dance, the participants are expected to have learned a defined set of calls. Dancing modern Western square dance is constantly challenging and surprising due to the unknown or unexpected choreography of the caller (that is, the way the caller ties together the "calls" and the formations which result). Unlike traditional square dance, very rarely are two modern Western dances ever alike. Like traditional square dancing, recovering from occasional mistakes is often part of the fun.
Square Dancing is a fun activity for the whole family, from youngsters to seniors. Last Thursday night was no exception, with the youngest dancer at age 12 and the oldest in their 70s.
"Where else can you take the family out for a fun evening of togetherness, without breaking the bank?" said Haliburton. The Flutter Wheels charge just $4 a night for adults and only $2 for children.
Starting Sept. 30, they will be offering three weeks of free classes to anyone interested in learning.
"Anyone can square dance," said Jim Ryan, instructor of square dancing at the Mountain View Family and Youth Center on Monday nights. "It's a fun way to stay healthy and in shape and is easy for anyone to learn."
Most doctors will tell you anything that keeps you active will keep you healthier and feeling younger. In most cases if you can walk, you can square dance, but it's always good advice to talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise regime.
On May 31, 1995 the Square Dance was adopted as Missouri's official American folk dance. There are currently 31 states that have designated square dancing as their State Folk Dance and a movement is afoot to make the Square Dance the national folk dance.
So what are you waiting for? Don't be square -- dance!
For more information about the Alton Flutter Wheels call Larry or Daisy Simmons at 417-778-6164 or Frank Stewart at 417-264-3409.