Square dancing works feet and chases the woes away

Posted: June 26, 2014 at 2:10 a.m.

Square dancers from as far away as Sweden, Japan and Australia will participate in this weekend’s National Square Dance Convention in Little Rock.

Correction: The full name and position of publicity chairman Ed Baker was omitted from this story.

The Statehouse Convention Center will be a mass of twirling skirts, vibrant shirts and thousands of people weaving the ring, passing through and doing a do-si-do.

Even those who don't know the difference between allemande left and promenade are welcome to check out the action at the National Square Dance Convention, now in its 63rd year and, for the first time, taking place in Little Rock.

National Square Dance Convention

10 a.m.-11 p.m. through Saturday, Statehouse Convention Center, 101 E. Markham St., Little Rock

Registration: $75

Visitors: $5


(580) 704-2588

The convention is a huge undertaking. This one has been in the works since Little Rock won its bid in 2010, and they're hoping for 4,000 dancers.

It may be the national convention, but it's not only Americans who will be promenading across the convention center floor. There are dancers registered from as far away as Sweden, Japan and Australia.

In addition to the dances, there will be a series of educational meetings and workshops on dance moves, square dance promotion and sewing. There's a history room and a vendor hall for dance-related items and crafts. In the Showcase of Ideas, square dance organizations from all over the world can set out leaflets and information on their clubs and tourism in their area. And there will, of course, be food.

"It's kind of a must when you go to a square dance convention," Baker says. "There has to be an ice cream vendor."

Registration is still available. Every year, they get a large number of walk-ins.

Nondancing visitors are also welcome at the convention, although they are asked to register and pay a $5 fee so the convention leaders can keep track of attendance and to help with insurance coverage. Visitors are allowed to participate in everything but the dances. They'll have to be content with watching.

There's a certain image that goes along with square dancing. It's for old people or it's just one of those activities they make you do in middle school physical education class.

Baker acknowledges the image, which he calls "kind of discouraging."

There will be a youth hall at the convention -- an area open only to youth ages 17 and under -- and for convention volunteers and callers. But young people aren't drawn to square dancing the way they used to be. Some of the convention's educational workshops and panels are devoted to addressing that very issue.

It's also usually associated with a bluegrass or country-western twang, which some people find to be a turn-off.

Baker says one of their callers feels the same way: "He doesn't like country music. He'll play Steppenwolf and other rock bands from back in the '70s."

After all, all that's really required is a skilled caller and music with a good strong beat.

At the convention, it's not all square dancing. There are halls devoted to country-western line dancing, round dancing and contra dancing, which Baker describes as "like the Virginia Reel, but they use a variety of music."

"My wife and I did that last year. They wore us out!"

Square dancing is a pretty good chance for exercise and Baker points out that a two-hour dance is roughly equivalent to a two- or three-mile walk.

As Baker says, "It really works your brain and your heart."

But more than just exercising the body, it gives the mind a vigorous workout. Square dancing is quite complicated and takes 16 to 20 lessons just to advance beyond a basic level.

"You absolutely forget your troubles for a little bit," Baker says. "You're listening to the caller and you're having to give somebody next to you your right hand or left and you're turning one way or another. You're concentrating on that and not on life's problems."

Dancing starts at 10 a.m. but during the morning and afternoon hours, visitors might not see the colorful shirts and matching, puffy dresses. Casual dress is allowed until 6 p.m. but after 6, it's strictly square dance attire.

"It'll be very colorful," Baker says.

And that color will spill out onto Markham Street at 5 p.m. Saturday for the Parade of States, in which the dancers and participants will parade from the convention center to Robinson Center for closing ceremonies.

Weekend on 06/26/2014