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.
THINKING OF GOING?
What: Community Square Dance
When: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Hermann Sons Hall, 680 Western Ave.
Cost: Suggested $7 donation