It’s cool to be square at these fun dances

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Robert Friedman

Members of the Tom Thumb Square Dance Club meet regularly to enjoy the couples’ dance that has been popular for hundreds of years. The school gym where they dance is an appropriate location, as participants find they get both a physical and mental workout, as well as enjoy the social interaction.
Photo by John Maloney

The Tom Thumb Square Dance Club  starts its 51st year of swinging partners and do-si-do-ing on Friday, Sept. 4, continuing on the first and third Friday of each month through May 2016.

The dances take place starting 8 p.m. at the Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City. The dance club will also offer modern Western square dancing lessons to newcomers and those who want to brush up their moves on Mondays, starting Sept. 14, at the Catonsville Senior Center in Baltimore.

Columbia residents Rom Harris and his wife, Luann, both 82, will be starting their 49th year as Tom Thumb square dancers.

“We usually go to two dances a month [here], and may make some visits to one of the 15 square dance clubs in Baltimore and the 50 clubs in Washington,” said Harris. “There’s lots of cross visiting,” by members of different clubs, he noted.

Why the more than half a life (so far) commitment?

For one very important thing, “square dancing is excellent exercise,” said Harris. “There are people in their 90s dancing for exercise. It’s also a good way to meet a lot of nice people. The saying is that square dancing is ‘friendship set to music.’”

Harris, who was the director of the Howard County Office of Planning for 26 years before his retirement, said that you don’t have to be “a square” to enjoy square dancing. While noting that new members usually are over 40, the dances are often called to “all kinds of music, from very Western to pop tunes.”

Exercise your mind, too

It’s called a square dance because four couples face one another in a square when the music begins. The steps to be taken by the dancers are cued by a “caller” who choreographs the dance based on the music being played.

You’re always on your toes, so to speak, as the caller at a dance won’t always make the same calls to the same songs, according to Harris. “The caller mixes up the calls, and there are over 200 different calls,” so dancers have to stay alert, he said.

Square dancing is not for dummies. There are multiple standardized levels of difficulty: Basic, Mainstream, Plus, Advanced and Challenge.

The Tom Thumb club does Basic through Plus square dancing. Here’s a warning from the Tom Thumb club: If you are on a Plus level and go to an Advanced club, there is a good chance you will not recognize many of the calls.

While square dancing took off in 19th century America, its roots have been traced back to 15th century Europe. Take the “do-si-do” call. It’s from the French, telling the dancers to move back-to-back.

Soon after the first immigrants arrived in America, the English country dance and the quadrille caught on in Appalachia and became forerunners of the square dance. That’s when callers were enlisted to cue the dancers about the steps, instead of having them rely on their memories.

Square dance calling gradually became an art form of its own, with callers studying and refining the cues while adding humor and pizzazz.

Recent historians have noted that African Americans were involved as the dances developed, often providing the fiddle and banjo music, while being callers in the early years, as well as contributing songs and dance steps.

Fluctuating popularity

Square dancing lost some steam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as waltzes and polkas came to the fore.

Then, in the 1920s, Henry Ford, the automaker, decided that square dancing would keep his factory workers and their families hale and hearty. He required the workers to take lessons, and opened a ballroom for the dance in Michigan.

Ford promoted the dance in schools as well. He said square dancing helped children learn manners, exercise, values and grace. In 1928, many boards of education endorsed the Ford square dancing program.

GIs took the dances overseas with them during World War II. Tom Thumb member Harris noted that wherever the dance is now done outside the U.S., the calls are made in English. “That includes Japan,” he said.

In 1982, President Reagan declared square dancing the national folk dance, a designation that lasted only through 1983, however. 

And while reports say that the numbers of square dancers have been dwindling — from about 1 million in the late 1970s to about 300,000 at last count — the square and round dances have been modernized, and are even performed to Elvis classics.

The Tom Thumb Square Dancing Club was named after the first steam-powered railroad engine in America, whose initial run went from Baltimore to Ellicott City.

Hollifield Station Elementary School, where the dances are held, is located at 3701 Stonehouse Dr. in Ellicott City. 

Guests pay for each dance they attend, while members pay annual dues in September, which also cover the cost of other activities — such as the club picnic, the holiday dinner dance and other special dances. Those interested in more information may contact Tom and Luann Harris at (410) 730-7326.