Square dancing makes local comeback in Petaluma
By day, Dan Lyke is a software developer, but when the workday is done, he is often found serving as a square dance “caller.”
Lyke and his wife, Charlene Marie, have launched a weekly square dance in Petaluma that they hope will become a community event for all ages and levels of dance experience.
In modern square dance, eight dancers arrange themselves into four couples and form a square with one couple on each side, facing the middle of the square. You can have as many squares as the room will hold. To the beat of music, the dancers are prompted through a sequence of steps by the caller.
Dan and Charlene’s Thursday night dance at Hermann Sons Hall is a new venture. They started it in October. While they currently draw enough dancers for only a square or two, their large space at Hermann Sons Hall can easily accommodate ten to 15 squares.
Typically, square dancers already know the basic movements, each with its own distinctive call, but they do not know in what order the movements will be called. This is one of the keys to the fun of square dancing. The caller is always creating something new and the dancers are concentrating on execution.
“Modern square dancers don’t know what’s coming up. My job as the caller is to provide a challenge without breaking the square,” said Lyke. “Things fall apart when the square is broken.”
He stresses that there is an intellectual element to square dance.
“That’s why it’s popular at universities like Stanford and MIT,” he said. “It’s algebra in motion.”
Dan lists several reasons square dance has declined in popularity since the 1970s. First, many grownups participated in it in grade school and for that reason associate it with “kid stuff.”
“This isn’t kid stuff,” said Lyke. “My impression is that by learning the rudiments in school, many people missed out on the complexity of square dance.” Lyke agrees with Lloyd Shaw, author of “Cowboy Dances,” who wrote that children should be exposed to square dance, but not taught it. “Just bring them along Thursday night and let them pick it up on their own, or they can play with Lincoln Logs,” Lyke said.
Another reason for the decline?
“Our culture no longer has room for a weekly social experience of the community,” he said. “We don’t seek out that kind of thing.”
That’s the main reason Dan and Charlene started the weekly dance.
“It’s a fantastic feeling to be in a room crowded with dancers doing a puzzle together,” he observed. “But in an individualistic culture like ours, collective activities are less popular.”
Square dance has also declined because it requires a sustained participation over time to pay off.
“Because of the complexity, you need to keep at it regularly for several months,” he said. That said, it’s not hard to learn if you give it a chance. “I want newcomers to enjoy it the first time, but it needs six to eight months of regular practice to get really comfortable with it. You can’t just dabble with square dance.”
A common misconception about square dance is that it is done to old-fashioned country music, usually with a fiddle, banjo and bass. This is no longer the case.
“I want to be more creative,” Dan said. He describes the typical music as taped, adding, “Modern square dance doesn’t lend itself to live music.”
Dan describes a “tip” or musical arrangement as fifteen to twenty minutes long, with a four or five minute break. The first six to eight minutes are typically for teaching the moves.
“You need a strong beat, 126 beats-per-minute, with four-four phrasing,” he said.
Another misunderstanding is that you must bring a partner and that it must be of the opposite sex.
“At our Thursday night dance, everyone is welcome to come as they are, alone or with a friend or with their children,” assured Lyke. “It doesn’t matter. In fact, you don’t even have to dance, you can just watch and enjoy. We want to build a community event.”
Lyke further explain that square dance boomed in the gay culture in the 1970s and has remained popular there while declining in the broader culture. Part of its appeal in the gay world is that consumption of alcohol is generally not part of the scene, for the simple reason that square dance is too hard to do under the influence. Taking a lesson from the gay world, square dance is no longer dogmatic about who you bring with you.
An unusual feature of Dan’s calling is that he simultaneously dances with the group. Most callers stand and deliver.
“One night we didn’t have enough people for a square, so I mic’d up and tried it,” he recalled. “It’s fun but it’s much easier to deliver complexity in the calling when I’m not dancing.”
One of the participants in a recent Thursday night dance had high praise for Dan.
“Callers usually don’t dance while calling,” he said. “We’re lucky to have him. He’s amazing.”
Dan takes weekly singing lessons to improve his vocal strength and delivery. He has a strong, clear tenor voice and often uses it to sing his directions.
“Just in the last two weeks I’ve been getting a new vibrato in my voice,” he said. “Many callers don’t sing well-and I want to be good!”
Lyke started square dancing at the urging of Charlene.
“Until then, I just didn’t get dancing,” he said, “but square dancing gave me an introduction to using my body.”
After a while, fellow dancers started suggesting he try calling a dance. Three and half years ago, he finally jumped in.
“I filled in for a guy at Oakmont, and it was a disaster,” he said. But the experience inspired him to attend a couple of schools for callers. Later he joined a group of callers in the South Bay who practice with each other. “After six months,” he said, “calling two hours a week, I finally knew what was going on.”
There’s an allowed intimacy in square dance that is wonderful, Lyke has realized
“It’s a good way to get over any discomfort from physical contact with others,” he said.
For those who like to travel abroad, square dance is a great skill because English is the universal language for calling.
“And square dancing is popular from Japan to Germany,” said Lyke. “It’s fairly standardized internationally. Charlene and I want to help build a community. That’s our primary motivation.”
What will newcomers get out of it if they decide to try square dance?
Said Lyke, “Energy, challenges and successes.”