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Jim Melton, left, of Vinemont has been calling square dance for 37 years. “Ten years ago, there were 15 or 16 callers in Northern Alabama,” he said. “Now, there’s about six.”
Daily photos by Jonathan Palmer
Jim Melton, left, of Vinemont has been calling square dance for 37 years. “Ten years ago, there were 15 or 16 callers in Northern Alabama,” he said. “Now, there’s about six.”

Declining interest doesn’t keep Decatur dance club from do-si-do-ing to ‘good, clean fun’
DARE TO BE SQUARE

By Danielle Komis
dkomis@decaturdaily.com · 340-2447

It’s a cool, quiet March evening in Southwest Decatur. The glass roof covering the Aquadome swimming pool glows serenely like an unorthodox crystal ball that does not offer the future, only the past.

Oddly attired shapes appear as if stepping out of a dream of yesteryear. A woman wearing a red, feather duster-shaped ruffly skirt walks arm-in-arm through the front lobby of the recreation center with a man wearing a white Western shirt.

In a large room inside, strains of folk music play from a 45 rpm record as about 50 holdouts from a bygone era — many in their 60s and 70s — do-si-do, promenade and sashay.

The women’s petticoats twirl and spin and switch directions, and the men’s belt buckles and boot tips gleam when the light hits them. The dancers laugh and joke with each other between songs. Many of them are longtime friends and members of the 31-year-old “8er’s from Decatur” square dance club.

Watching the scene seems strangely unreal, like watching ghosts of a scene that once was, or soon will be no more. In today’s world, traditional square dancing is almost completely off society’s radar, a subculture rarely featured on TV or anywhere else in the mainstream.

Bebe Holtzclaw, left, Barbara Jenkins and Glenda Williams pass time between dances during the weekly 8’ers square dance club meeting. Holtzclaw said she and her husband started square dancing so they could have quality time with her parents, and swore they never would wear the traditional dress. Now, it fills their closets, she said.
Bebe Holtzclaw, left, Barbara Jenkins and Glenda Williams pass time between dances during the weekly 8’ers square dance club meeting. Holtzclaw said she and her husband started square dancing so they could have quality time with her parents, and swore they never would wear the traditional dress. Now, it fills their closets, she said.
“You run into a lot of people who don’t know about it,” said Tammy Melton, the wife of caller Jim Melton.

“The typical joke is that square dancing is one of America’s best-kept secrets,” said Jerry Reed, executive director of CALLERLAB, the largest international association of square dance callers. “We’re trying to look to ways to increase the public’s awareness of square dancing and the benefits of square dancing, but it’s not easy to do, and we’re all volunteers.”

‘It kind of sucks you in’

Because there’s typically little advertising or other media attention for square dancing, many square dancers got into it on a whim or at the coaxing of friends.

Four-year 8er’s member Pete Holtzclaw and his wife, Bebe, started square dancing so they could have quality time with her parents, and swore they never would wear the traditional dress. Now, it fills their closets, Holtzclaw said, laughing.

“It kind of sucks you in,” he said. “You get up and dance one or two and the next thing you know it’s 9:30 and you’re still dancing.”

But to many people, square dancing is hokey and old-fashioned.

Ray and Edna McIntosh moved to Decatur four years ago and have been practicing with the 8’ers square dance club since.
Ray and Edna McIntosh moved to Decatur four years ago and have been practicing with the 8’ers square dance club since.
Unfortunately for the activity, nothing has projected the sport’s image to the “it’s so dorky it’s cool,” notoriety, the way the 2004 movie “Dodgeball” catapulted the underdog elementary school game to mainstream hip.

Hence, few young people try it. But if they did, they could help bring the sport back to the popularity it enjoyed during its heyday in the 1970s.

“Young people think it’s not a thing for them,” said longtime square dancer Marvaline Smith of Decatur. “I think they think it’s not cool.”

Several youth square dance groups exist nationwide, but mainly in urban areas, Reed said.

Young people missing out

Decatur 8er’s caller Jim Melton, who has been calling square dances for 37 years, said the decrease in popularity of the sport in this region is obvious.

“Ten years ago, there were 15 or 16 callers in Northern Alabama,” he said. “Now, there’s about six.”

The number of clubs in Huntsville also has decreased from 13 to two, he said. The decrease occurred after callers and dancers began to die off.

Dancers say the sport is declining due to busier schedules, too many competing activities, two working parents and minimal resources for advertising.

8er’s square dancer Hank Williams, who appropriately shares his name with a country music icon, also said many people aren’t patient enough to take six months of lessons to learn the 125 mainstream calls. In fact, Williams has been looking for a dance partner for months.

“A lot of people quit before they give it a chance,” he said.

Juanita Smith, who recently started lessons with the 8er’s, said she and her husband, Don, thought it would be a good way to get away from the TV on Friday nights. All the veteran dancers have been patient and welcoming, she said. Young people are missing out on a great sport.

“It’s a shame because it’s lots of fun,” she said.

If square dancers could just get young people in the door, then the battle would nearly be won, longtime 8er’s member Ken Busbey said.

“Once you get into it you make friends,” he said. “The hardest thing is to get someone to come.”

Do-si-do your partner!

If you’re interested in learning to square dance or already know how and want to join a group, three local clubs offer lessons:

  • Decatur 8er’s square dance club, 7:30-9:30 p.m.; except fifth Fridays, Aquadome. Call 772-3926 or 355-1589 or visit www.8ers.com.

  • Shirts and Skirts Square/Line Dance Club, second and fourth Thursdays, 7-9:30 p.m., Athens Recreation Center, U.S. 31 across from Kmart. Call 355-1038.

  • The Fun Bunch square dance club, Tuesdays, 7 to 9:15 at Central Hall, 1931 Central Parkway, Decatur. Call 353-1618.

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