It’s toe-tapping fun that has been on Whidbey Island for 40 years, and members of the Whidbey Whirlers would like to share the pleasure of square dancing with anyone who’s willing to learn.
“It’s fun set to music,” said square dance fan Harold Gates, 87.
“Square dancing is not only a lot of fun, but it’s great exercise and it’s good for mental acuity, too, because you have to pay attention to the calls,” said Bob Berka. He and his wife, Linda, are co-presidents of the Whidbey Whirlers.
The roots of square dancing go way back. Its closest European cousin might be the Morris, which is performed by six men arranged in two rows of three, but there are also touches of the quadrille, the schottische and the minuet. It’s thought that square dancing was born in New England after the first settlers arrived and all their various national dances got mixed together. Today square dancing, which features four couples arranged in a square, is an American institution. It is the state dance of 19 states, Washington included.
In our country’s early years, square dancing was a great social event for pioneers who needed recreation and a way to socialize with neighbors. It was easy to scare up someone with a guitar or violin and nearly every community had a wooden floor somewhere. If there was no caller available, couples would do the dances from memory.
As America grew and became more urban, new music, new fashions and new dances nearly wiped out square dancing. However, automaker Henry Ford helped revive it by giving it an overhaul of sorts, making it more contemporary while still retaining the basics. Square dancing clubs began to form all over the country and its members helped keep the dance alive by sharing it with others.
That’s the goal of the Whidbey Whirlers, which was formed in May, 1942, and other area square dancing clubs. Bob and Linda Berka got into dancing several years ago thanks to some persistent neighbors.
“Our neighbors came over and told us they’d found a babysitter so we were to get our duds on because we were leaving in 10 minutes,” said Linda. “What do you do when the babysitter is bought and paid for?”
Although Linda liked square dancing right away, Bob took a little more convincing.
“I saw them practicing round dance, which is patterned ballroom dancing,” he said. “At that point, they had me hook, line and sinker.”
Today it is the social aspect of the dance that draws so many to it, Bob believes.
“There is a connection with people that you just can’t get anywhere else,” he said.
Harold Gates has been square dancing for three or four years.
“I don’t want to sit at home in the rocking chair feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “It’s good exercise, a good social outing and it’s a real good environment for people of all ages.”
Members of the Whidbey Whirlers are hoping to increase their ranks by holding lessons periodically. Anyone age 12 and older is welcome to participate. At the group’s most recent round of lessons, Gena Kraha, 28, was giving it a whirl.
“I love it!” she said. “It’s so much fun, I’ll definitely be back for more.”
“A night of square dancing is equivalent to a three-mile walk,” said caller Oren Gaskill. “But you don’t think about the exercise part of it because you’re having too much fun.
“It’s also socially engaging,” he continued. “It’s been recorded by medical professionals as an antidote to Alzheimer’s because it engages the mind on so many different levels.”
Gaskill’s claim does bear some weight. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, research shows that a combination of physical and mental activity with social engagement are the most likely to prevent dementia. Square dancing clubs are one of its recommended activities.
And for square dancers who like to travel internationally, they can participate in dances anywhere, because they’re always called in English.
“It’s international,” said Rick Kaiser. “Even if the dance is in Japan, the calls are in English. You can’t talk to everyone after, but you can dance.”
Kraha said she can see why people might be hesitant to try square dancing, because it’s kind of unknown.
“It’s easy to pick up and the people are really friendly and supportive,” she said.
“That’s the hardest part,” said Bob Berka. “Getting somebody started.”