Colorado’s official State Folk Dance may be shrinking in popularity, but it’s not going away yet.
“Square dancing is fast becoming a lost art,” lamented Bill Callaway, a licensed caller since 2010. Back in the 1970s, he said, there were an average of 12-15 squares, with eight people in each, at a dance. Now, six or seven is a good turnout. However, he’s encouraged by young people’s recent interest in the activity.
Callaway and business partner Mike Olivieri comprise Do-Si-Do Boys. The two American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers/Broadcast Music Incorporated licensed men give lessons as well as call at dances and parties. Sixty-year-old Callaway spent most of his youth in Montgomery City, Mo, which held some gigantic dances for such a small place. Upwards of 100 town folk often participated. It took a very long time for the crowd to pass one another as they circled the outside of the floor. Callaway’s childhood square dance fascination faded with his 1966 move to Colorado and remained dormant until a 2005 “party night” at his church. Callaway and his wife, Lydia, so enjoyed the square dance that they took lessons and attended events for the next several years. As Callaway’s skill and passion for the activity developed, he went to Callers School, purchased equipment and in 2009, contacted Olivieri to mentor him.
Olivieri had also found his calling, so to speak, later rather than earlier in life. He had long-resisted some square dancing friends’ urging to accompany them to what they described as “so much fun.” After all, Olivieri didn’t dance at all — not any kind of dance. Then, one night upon his return home from work, his wife flatly decreed that their “square” friends would be arriving at the house at 6:30 p.m. to escort them to a dance lesson. It was too late to decline, so reluctantly, Olivieri went along. He was instantly hooked and completed classes in 1992.
About five years later, Olivieri was at a Square Dance Callers-sponsored dance where several different callers performed.
“As the poor man on stage struggled to get anything right, another caller dancing in my square quipped, ‘You could probably do better than he is!’”
Olivieri agreed, practiced with a record, got a microphone and tried his luck at a “new callers” dance more than 18 years ago. He now calls in several states and currently has bookings scheduled into 2018.
New callers seek venues at which to display budding talents. Whenever Olivieri called a dance that novice Callaway was attending, he’d invite him up to do a guest tip, a segment of the square dance, with him. Dancers loved their combined sound. So they joined forces harmonizing and taking turns singing solos, beginning with a 2010 Relay for Life fundraising dance at Island Grove Park in Greeley.
It took Do-Si-Do Boys a while to get into their trade, but far longer for square dancing in America to evolve into its present form. The early British Morris dance was an exhibition of trained teams of six (men only) in two rows of three. In 17th century England, country dances were highly popular. French and Spanish influence further contributed to square dancing’s New England primary origins. Dance moves from the branle, gavotte, minuet, Quadrille, Cotillion, waltz and others were imitated.
Henry Ford built Lovett Hall, a fine dance floor still in use today in Greenfield Village, Mich.
A book, “Good Morning”, published by Ford and the hall’s namesake dance master Benjamin Lovett, further sparked 20th century interest in the rhythmical activity.
A young Colorado Springs school superintendent eagerly read that 1926 book, but Lloyd ‘Pappy’ Shaw quickly realized the pages stopped short, omitting details of American dance from his part of the West. So in 1939, he wrote and published a work called “Cowboy Dances” about western square dance, and later put out a round dance book as well.
Technological advances transitioned square dancing. New movements and introduction of 45 revolutions per minute records greatly heightened interest in the 1950s. Along with one’s partner, spinning vinyl was a far cry from screaming into megaphones! The U.S. square dance phenomenon walked across the water to England, Europe, Australia, Japan and other countries.
Ironically, what became a worldwide dance craze isn’t technically a dance at all, but rather a prolonged walk in figures and patterns now performed to all styles of music. Callaway uses a wide range from his favorite, traditional country tunes, to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. Further mixing it up, dance events can be themed — participants in green garb stepping out to Irish tunes on St. Patrick’s Day, or Halloween-costumed dancers enjoying spirited “Ghost Busters”.
Square dances last an average of 2-2 1/2 hours, Callaway said. “Tips” consist of two five-minute sessions of dance patterns separated by a record change. The tip’s first song, limited to music and calling movements, is Patter dancing, he explained. The second song is a singing call like “Do Run Run” during which the caller sings lyrics while dancers do various figures. Some calls Callaway mentioned are “Do-Sa-Do” and “Right & Left Grand.”
In “Do-Sa-Do,” a participant faces someone, steps past them passing right shoulders, slides to the right and backs up to their beginning position. Sometimes men clasp their hands behind their backs and women do ‘skirt work’ (holding and moving skirt sides around). Men and women walk in opposite directions, alternating handshakes as they proceed past one another in the “right & left grand” figure.
Special clothing isn’t required at all dances, although many women wear puffy blouses and layer petticoats under their skirts. Men are encouraged to wear long-sleeved shirts, denim pants, and cowboy boots or sneakers. They often add bolo ties or scarves that match their partner’s attire.
Square dancing clubs can be found across the country. Colorado holds an annual state convention that draws 600-1000 aficionados, some from out-of-state. Anyone who’s had lessons can attend the very intense event which offers a lot of fun, but no prizes, Callaway said. For example, clubs participate in a contest in which callers do their best to confuse with intricate or fast calls. As dancers muff moves, they must leave the floor. In “Musical Chairs”-fashion, the last one standing wins.
“Square dancing is a wholesome activity for people of all ages,” Callaway said. He graduated a 10-year-old boy from lessons in 2013 and has seen dancers as old as 90. Because the activity’s benefits include mild exercise, hand/eye coordination and memorization, frequent participation possibly postpones Alzheimer’s onset, Callaway said. Most older folks can keep pace with youngsters even though dancers might walk four to five miles in an evening. CDs containing pre-recorded calls are sometimes used, but Callaway touted one particular advantage of live callers — they can slow down or speed up depending on how the floor is going.
“Alamand left, alamand right, have a great time tonight.
Swing your partner to and from, right grand, left grand, do sa do!” ❖
To contact Dosido Boys, call Mike Olivieri at (303) 451-8631 or (303) 489-0407. Or, find a square dance and check it out. Observers, unlike dance participants, are welcome at events FREE of charge! Perhaps, like Callaway and Olivieri, you’ll add a new, intense interest to your life.