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Square Dancing: Alive and Well in Portland, Oregon

How to attract young people to square dancing is a topic that square dancers regularly debate. One of my earliest recollections of square dancing was watching an exhibit at the Oregon State Fair. I was in my 30s, and every dancer promenading appeared to be over 70. What was my impression? Square dancing is for older folks.

As we look around our PAC and TVC and Evergreen clubs, we do see quite a few mature faces. And that’s great. But square dancing is growing in popularity among the young in some circles in Portland, Oregon. I first learned about the comeback while reading an article in Portland Monthly magazine about roots music. Then while listening to bluegrass music on KBOO one Saturday morning, I heard an ad for KBOO’s second annual square dance, held this January, the same weekend as Mid-Winter. What?

The station said all dances would be taught  and called–beginners were welcome. Two live bands were playing. A young caller, Paul Silveria, would again be the square dance caller. This second dance was so popular that Paul is now calling a square dance one Tuesday night a month at the Mt. Tabor Theater. (June 8 is the last one this season until fall.)

I went to Paul’s Web site and began looking for links, for information about what was going on. I learned that square dancing is hot among young people in Portland. But this isn’t the modern western square dancing of the PAC, TVC and Evergreen clubs.

I’ve heard us modern western square dancers proudly say that this “ain’t your grandma’s square dancing.” But your grandma’s square dancing is exactly what these young people are into. Old-timey live string bands. Old-time calls. Venues that serve alcohol. I watched a You-Tube video of a Portland square dance and one of a dance in Seattle. Yes, the moves resembled square dancing. But the dancing was different. For one thing, it was lively–almost rowdy.

I’ve seen a few young people dance at Mid-Winter. They move. A couple weeks ago I was at a square dance in Hillsboro where a middle-aged guy and his daughter kicked up their heels and actually acted like they were having fun. Maybe that’s part of the key to attracting young people. A little more movement. A few more spins and twirls. A little hopping around the square instead of plodding.

At too many dances, the eight dancers shuffle around the square like tired mules harnessed to a grind stone. Yeah, I realize that some square dancers have infirmities. But for everyone else, why not add a little excitement back to square dancing? For starters, look your partners in the eye. Put out your hands to turn that lady as you weave the ring. And maybe even smile.


3 Responses

  1. Hi – That is a great piece and you’re right. Some dances we all have been to seem very boring with everyone just moping around and going through the motions.
    At some dances you can’t hardly get anyone up to make a square or even dance with you when you visit their clubs. Are we getting too old? Change the venues and formats and get some excitement back into the dances. Not only does this pertain to the clubs and dancers but also to the callers and cuers. They are the ones who control the floor. They need to get everyone involved in the dance by stirring the pot and laughing and joking with the dancers in order to keep the evening entertaining and exciting. You get a boring caller and then you have a boring dance – the same with the cuers.

    You should send the piece you wrote to the OFN for publication.

  2. I’m the caller mentioned above. I stumbled onto this article and am glad I did. Our styles of dancing may be a bit different, but they’re completely compatable. I tend to call a mix of old-time figures and modern squares – the old-time figures have simple, fun, idiosyncratic moves that people enjoy, and the modern squares have sophisticated patterns that make dancers feel fancy.

    Calling for energetic young dancers helps make the night fun, but I love seeing a mix of ages (in fact, many dancers in their 50s, and even 60s, seem to have as much stamina as us younger folks…)

    The biggest difference may be the social dynamic, there’s a lot of mingling, people dancing for the first time, people changing partners from dance to dance, and same sex couples (sometimes you have to remember faces, not genders). The figures may be a bit different, but easy to pick up, especially for experienced dancers.

    I’d like to invite anyone interested to join us! Come to dance, or just to watch and enjoy the live music!

    Tuesday June 8th at the Mt. Tabor Theater (4811 SE Hawthorne). Dance at 8:30pm (an open old time jam will start the evening at 7:30) cover is $5.

    -Paul Silveria

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