Fieldwork Sponsored by AZ Commission on the Arts

With the generous support of at Professional Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, I was able to attend three dance events that were critical for the development of my book. These events were the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival in Tucson, Arizona; May Madness Contrafest in Prescott, Arizona; and the National Square Dance Convention in Long Beach, California. At each event, I spoke with a range of individuals including key leaders, observed interactions on and off the dance floor, and participated in dance to gain a thorough understanding of the culture.

The weekend prior to the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival, I attended a square dance fly-in (or mini-convention) in Tucson sponsored by T-Squares, a gay and lesbian square dance group. Since there is some crossover between the gay and straight square dance communities, this experience introduced me to notable square dance figures in Tucson and helped paved the way for in-depth cultural exploration at the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival. I met professional square dance caller Rick Gittelman, the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival Chairperson, who asked me to videotape the festival and create a publicity video for next year (It’s coming, Rick — don’t worry!).  I also shared meals with legendary square dance callers, who debated the flaws in the current modern western square dance program and made suggestions for improvements. Additionally, I recorded several one-on-one interviews with dancers and square dance callers, asking them to elaborate on themes I observed during the event.

 When I registered for May Madness Contrafest in Prescott, Arizona, I was put on a waiting list of “single” female dancers. Because contra requires a near-even number of men and women so that everyone can dance, my attendance depended on enough single men registering (18, to be exact). Two months before the event, I mentioned my dilemma to a group of international folk dancers during a Tucson focus group. They said it was unlikely that enough men would register, but that I should ask  a local contra dance enthusiast and dance anthropologist to register with me. This generous person has been an active member of the international folk dance and contra dance scenes, and provided me not only with ethnographic reflection at May Madness, but also organized a home-stay for us. During this event, I learned the importance of carpooling, after-parties, and home-stays — all serve to reinforce a sense of community off the dance floor.

The 58th National Square Dance Convention was another invaluable learning experience in terms of dance and community. When interviewing square dancers, many remarked that national convention was a quintessential part of the culture, and that people saved year-long to be able to attend and see friends they had made in prior conventions. When I arrived at the convention center in Long Beach, I felt excitement in the air as thousands of people poured into the building to register. The program offered all levels of square dancing, as well as round dancing (cued partner dancing), country line dancing, clogging, contra dancing; a youth room, hadicapable room, and “rainbow” or gay room for square dancing; and a series of educational seminars. This was the first national square dance convention to include a square dance competition, which seemed to be successful but sparked a lot of debate. While some dancers believe competitions will be the death of square dancing because they defeat the activity’s recreational nature, others perceive it as a way to attract younger people.

The idea of preserving a dance form by attracting youth is a common concern among all the communities that I am researching — square dance, round dance, contra dance, clogging, and international folk dance groups. It is obvious that some modifications will have to be made to make these dance forms relevant to young people. Square dance and contra dance callers reflect that one of the biggest problems is when elementary school PE teachers use outdated “Turkey in the Straw” type square dance records to teach the dance, which leaves the students with an impression that square dance is hokey, old-fashioned, and uncool. In the youth room at the National Square Dance Convention, I heard contemporary pop music as well as classics like “Pretty Woman.” In one session, the organizers even dimmed the lights and gave the children glow bracelets and necklaces to wear. One 18-year-old who has been calling square dances for four years stated, “In schools they do it the wrong way. If they did it the right way, more kids would be interested because they would see how much fun it is.”

It is no coincidence that when the older teens left the youth hall, they migrated to the rainbow room to continue dancing. The gay square dance community has made modifications to the dance form that are more appealing to younger people (and many older ones who find regular square dancing too rigid or boring): 1. A relaxed dress code; 2. The ability to dance either the man or woman’s part regardless of one’s own gender (and therefore dance more often); and 3. “Flourishes” or extra details added to standard dance moves to make them more exciting (hand-clapping, twirling, and kicking). As my research progresses, I will continue to investigate the gay square dance community, which has been holding its own national conventions for over 25 years, as well as the gender-free contra dance community. I believe much can be learned from these groups’ efforts to revitalize and preserve traditional dancing by attracting new dancers.

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July 7, 2009. Field Notes.

10 Comments

  1. Timothy Berg replied:

    Erica,

    THANK YOU for the work you are doing for the folk dancing world! I learned about your work at the 2009 IAGSDC convention in Washington DC. It will be fun to follow your adventures, and hopefully we will all learn something valuable that will help keep our activities alive.

    Timothy Berg
    President, Rosetown Ramblers
    An LGBT-identified square dance club in Portland, Oregon

  2. Chris Homer replied:

    Very interesting article. My spouse Osamu calls with vibrant modern music for straight & gay clubs. I would like to find some way of introducing competitive square dancing (maybe without the formal costumes) into the school system and universities around Toronto, since this city supports less and less dancing (mostly due to the average dancer’s age increasing beyond their capacity to move in time and remember the definitions). Some teachers say, it doesn’t matter how you dance as long as you’re having fun. But, since it’s a group activity (minimum eight) better fun can be had if the dancers know the definitions and can keep the beat. It also allows the caller to call more challenging moves, even at the Plus level.

  3. Bill Eyler replied:

    Thanks for sharing that, Erica! This certainly became a huge project for you!

    x0x0

    Bill

    • erica511 replied:

      Absolutely, but it’s never tiring because I love the topic and meet so many wonderful people who inspire me.

  4. Arlene Kaspik replied:

    Thanks, Erica!

    What a great project. I look forward to reading more posts. I don’t know whether you had a chance to pop into the caller school in Long Bearch. If you plan on coming to Chicago for the 2010 IAGSDC convention and can come a day or two early, you might find it interesting to see what a caller school is like and include some in fo on caller training in your writing.

    Whether or not I’ll see you in Chicago over 4th of July weekend next year, I look forward to hearing more about your project.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

    -Arlene

    • erica511 replied:

      I’m definitely interested in caller school. Whether or not I’m able to attend (I can’t say for sure yet), I will include info on CALLERLAB and caller training. Thanks for your support!

  5. Tom Rudebock replied:

    Erica,
    I had the opportunity to meet you in Long Beach. Keep up the ‘good fight’. Our wonderful activity needs more positive publicity from people like you.
    Tom Rudebock
    http://tomrudebock.mysquaredance.com

  6. Martha Berner replied:

    On youth involvement in dance…
    We’ve been concerned as well, until 2 years ago when our Louisville Contra Dance group was inundated with kids, mostly in their 20’s. Where we had had 1 contra line, we now have 2 or 3. The energy is great. There have been no changes to the dancing, music or presentation to encourage this new enthusiasm. It just happened. It would be interesting to know what’s going on. The kids are great. We old timers are cool.

    • erica511 replied:

      Thanks for sharing, Martha! That brings up a few questions in my mind — is the dance near a university? What night of the week is it held? Did these people know each other beforehand? Are there food/snacks? (Hey, it could make a difference).

      I heard a similar story from Northfield, MN, where some students from Carleton College and maybe St. Olaf started going to local contras and word spread through word-of-mouth. I talked to one dancer, a sophomore in college, who said he liked dancing with people from all ages and doing something off campus.

  7. Sharon Lopeman replied:

    Erica—I feel so priveleged to have been involved in your study. You’re certainly ambitious, and the dance community can only benefit from your research. Not only was it an honor to be interviewed while you were in Prescott, but you’ve inspired me to “keep on cloggin’ “!

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