Do-Sa-Do in Denver shifts di­rec­tion to at­tract new mem­bers

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - Sha­ban Athu­man, The Denver Post By Mark Jaffe

The strains of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” are puls­ing, and the dance floor is packed.

Yes, as the dark bluesy song pumped out of the speak­ers, the dancers — in a flurry that snapped into pat­terns — were square danc­ing. Just an­other Satur­day night at the square dance club.

Sixty-four dancers, mostly hav­ing for­gone tra­di­tional crino­line prairie skirts and West­ern shirts for shorts and polo shirts, packed the floor at the Maple Grove Grange in Wheat Ridge as the caller, Robert “Bear” Miller, sang out the steps.

Not your grand­mother’s square danc­ing? Well, ac­tu­ally, it still is, since there was a good chance some­body’s grand­mother was out there on the dance floor.

This is the Denver square-danc­ing scene circa 2018. In an ef­fort to keep it fresh, sound sys­tems have re­placed fid­dlers and ban­jos, and square-dance call­ers are us­ing blues, jazz and pop. It is as likely these days to dance to Bruno Mars or Michael Jack­son as Garth Brooks.

“For awhile, square danc­ing got stuck in time, in the 1950s, and now we are try­ing to get un­stuck and evolve again,” said Miller, who calls for Rollin’ Wheels and other clubs in Denver.

Still, the metro area’s square-danc­ing clubs are get­ting grayer and grayer, and work­ing hard — with var­i­ous de­grees of suc­cess — to re­cruit new mem­bers.

Part of the chal­lenge is that it can take months of lessons to mas­ter the ba­sics of the dance, which is sort of “Si­mon Says” with the com­plex­ity and speed of the video game “Cut the Rope.”

“It’s some­thing for peo­ple who re­ally like puz­zles,” said Bob Riggs, the caller for the Sun­flower Squares club in Cas­tle Rock and owner of Square Dance Etc., which pro­vides en­ter­tain­ment, lessons and work­shops.

In the 1970s, Denver was a square-danc­ing hot­bed with more than 70 clubs and thou­sands of dancers, as well as teen and col­lege clubs.

This was in part the legacy of Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw, the prin­ci­pal of Cheyenne Moun­tain High School in Colorado Springs, who in the 1930s and 1940s trav­eled the coun­try col­lect­ing square dances and calls and or­ga­niz­ing teach­ing pro­grams. Shaw cre­ated a high school square-dance team, which toured more than 50 cities. The square dance is Colorado’s state dance.

The Univer­sity of Denver’s Car­son Bri­erly Gif­fin Dance Li­brary cur­rently has an ex­hi­bi­tion and doc­u­men­tary on Square Dance in the Amer­i­can West from the Lloyd Shaw Foun­da­tion archives.

The num­ber of squaredanc­e clubs in the Denver area, how­ever, has dwin­dled to 18, with per­haps 900 dancers, in­clud­ing a good num­ber who have danced for decades, ac­cord­ing to the Colorado State Square Dance As­so­ci­a­tion.

“Look at any group ac­tiv­ity, (like) bowl­ing leagues, bridge groups,” Riggs said. “They’ve all had a sig­nif­i­cant fall-off. This isn’t about square danc­ing; it’s about our cul­ture.”

Har­vard po­lit­i­cal scien- tist Robert Put­nam, in his book, “Bowl­ing Alone,” called the trend a “de­cline in so­cial cap­i­tal.” While you can bowl alone, you can­not square dance alone, so the Denver clubs con­tinue their bat­tle.

One big hur­dle is learn­ing the steps. It isn’t easy. The tra­di­tional ap­proach has been a les­son a week for 24 weeks, with ses­sions cost­ing $5 to $10 each (of­ten with dis­counts).

Ba­sic square danc­ing in­volves learn­ing 50 moves. The Main­stream pro­gram, which is what is pri­mar­ily danced, uses 70 calls, and Plus takes it up to 100. Ad­vanced adds an­other 90 calls.

“It seems so com­plex, but ev­ery­body can do it,” Miller said. “If you can walk, you can square dance.”

Riggs and Miller, who both teach as well as call, are each try­ing to cope with square danc­ing’s learn­ing curve, such as tai­lor­ing shorter sets of classes, all-day ses­sions or a learn-at-your-own-pace pro­gram.

The lessons are of­ten spon­sored by clubs, and ef­forts are made to ad­just for costs, so no one is turned away. “If money is tight, you should come and dance,” Miller said.

Dancers work in groups of eight, or four cou­ples, called a square. (Get it?) The caller moves the dancers around, changes their part­ners, changes their di­rec­tion.

“You are try­ing to cre­ate pat­terns, throw an un­ex­pected call, a lit­tle sur­prise and get them back to their part­ners,” Miller said. “For the caller, it is a Rubik’s Cube.”

Each dance ends with dancers ex­chang­ing hand­shakes and hugs for a job well done.

A few nights af­ter call­ing for Rollin’ Wheels, Miller was at the Washington Street Com­mu­nity Cen­ter call­ing for the Rocky Moun­tain Rain­beaus, Denver’s LGTB club. When Miller shifted from Main­stream to Plus, ac­com­pa­nied by Jer­rod Nie­mann’s “Lover, Lover,” the in­ten­sity in the room ratch­eted up, the danc­ing punc­tu­ated with claps and shouts as Miller called the Acey Deucey, Peel the Top and Ex­plode the Wave.

While Rain­beaus have a rep­u­ta­tion as a lively, some­times rau­cous group, mov­ing to Plus had the same ef­fect on the Rollin’ Wheels.

Rain­beaus is the big­gest club in the area, with 94 mem­bers.

“One rea­son is they ac­cept ev­ery­body, straight, a mar­ried cou­ple, ev­ery­body,” said Paula Kauff­man, a straight woman, who owned up only to be­ing north of 70 years old.

Jake McWil­liams, 40, a trans­gen­der man who has been danc­ing with Rain­beaus for three years, said, “I think we’re all get­ting a les­son in be­ing to­gether.”

Rain­beaus may also be suc­cess­ful be­cause of its $5 lessons, with a spe­cial fund to help de­fray the cost for those who need a lit­tle fi­nan­cial help.

Lit­tle­ton’s Moun­taineers has about 70 mem­bers. Club pres­i­dent Ray DeAn­ge­lis said fi­nan­cially, the goal is just to break even. The club’s an­nual dues are $20. The cover for at­tend­ing a dance is $6 a per­son for mem­bers and $7 for non-mem­bers. Most clubs also pro­vide re­fresh­ments.

“It is a very af­ford­able night out,” DeAn­ge­lis said.

There is a dance some­place in Denver al­most ev­ery night. Moun­taineers dance the first, third and fifth Satur­days of each month. Rain­beaus dance Mon­days, Tues­day and Thurs­days, though some of the ses­sions are ad­vanced. Rollin’ Wheels dance the sec­ond and fourth Satur­days. Then, there are the 15 oth­ers clubs.

It isn’t by chance that Moun­taineers is a large club, since it has been ag­gres­sive in its re­cruit­ing.

“Part of our re­cruit­ment ef­fort is to bring the age down,” DeAn­ge­lis said. “We did pretty well last year.”

In lur­ing more peo­ple, age can be an im­ped­i­ment. “No­body wants to dance with their grand­mother,” Miller said. Mov­ing to con­tem­po­rary mu­sic and sound sys­tems is one at­tempt to shake square danc­ing’s hay­seed im­age.

The mu­sic has to have a strong walk­ing beat of 110 to 130 beats a minute, good phras­ing, and 2-2 or 4-4 time, Riggs said. “Coun­try mu­sic comes clos­est,” he said. Still, he has called to jazz and the Hus­tle.

But not ev­ery­one is a fan. Lyle Gil­lette of Lit­tle­ton came off the floor at the Rollin’ Wheels dance in his West­ern shirt and cow­boy boots. His badge (each club has its own badge) showed he was a vis­it­ing Moun­taineer.

“Square danc­ing was founded on coun­try mu­sic,” said Gil­lette, who has been danc­ing for 30 years. “Some call­ers think they can get young peo­ple with new mu­sic. I’m not so sure.”

Miller, how­ever, said that square danc­ing is just find­ing a “new iden­tity” and, it is hoped, new dancers.

Cou­ples square dance at Maple Grove Grange in Denver on July 14.

Larry Cap­pel, back, and Kelly Costello dance with the Rocky Moun­tain Rain­beaus at the Washington Street Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in Denver on July 17.

Bear Miller calls a dance at the Maple Grove Grange in Denver on July 14.

Pho­tos by Sha­ban Athu­man, The Denver Post

While square danc­ing still at­tracts an older gen­er­a­tion, there are ef­forts to bring in younger dancers with new mu­sic and moves.

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