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Not Your Grandpa’s Hoedown: Square-Dance Calls Get A Remix

square dance
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Callerlab kicked off its 2017 convention with a square dance.

"Do an allemande left with the corner maid. Drop hands, pass, now promenade. Heads square through, four hands…"

To some it might sound like a riddle, but others know exactly how to follow those directions. They’re square-dance calls — directions for the dancers. And they’ve gotten a remix of sorts.

Modern Western square dancing was taking its first steps in the 1920s and 1930s, gaining lots of momentum by the 1940s. Barry Clasper has been a caller for more than 30 years and he said the dance was popularized ‘round and ‘round the globe during and after World War II.

“It’s grown as a result of mostly U.S. servicemen traveling around the world, and so they would start doing it wherever their bases were,” Clasper said. “And the people in the local area would see it, and they picked it up. So now there’s dancing all over Europe, in Sweden, in Germany, in England and France.”

And later, the Philippines, Australia, Japan ...

“It’s really big in Japan, they really enjoy it,” Clasper said.

The dance is a testament to memory skills. There are hundreds of those calls to learn, in seemingly endless combinations.

To make things even trickier, Clasper said, before the 1970s, the names of the calls meant different things to different people.

“Most people know the call ‘do-si-do’,” he said. “There were 27 different defined actions for do-si-do depending on where you were in the country.”

Get those people together on the dance floor and it would probably be a mess. So an organization called Callerlab was established, holding its first convention in 1974 to define square-dance calls.

And they still meet each year. This year’s convention is happening in Mesa, and they kicked it off with, what else? A square dance.

Dancers know the calls now. People from around and outside the country dance together on the same floor. Clasper said what they talk about now is how to pass the mic to new callers. He said the average age of Callerlab members is around 65.

“The hurdle we’ve had to get people over is the perception that square dancing is this hick thing from the movies. The hay bales and that kind of thing,” he said.

Sure, you’ll find a lot of square dances set to country music. But Clasper said if that genre’s not your thing, no problem.

“The thing that you need to dance is a regular beat, roughly 125 beats per minute. But beyond that, it could be anything,” Clasper said.

Even something like the pop hit, "Blurred Lines."

“When I first started, I heard square dance and I’m like, I don’t know …” said 16-year-old Courtney Sewell. “But now that I’m into it it’s so much more fun.”

She was at the convention dressed up in a poofy blue skirt adorned with foxes wearing waistcoats and monocles. She’s been calling dances for two years.

“A friend of my mother’s got us into it,” she said.

So Sewell went along, a little reluctantly, that first time. Now she calls, and mom and dad dance.

“It’s also fun because when I started I realized I’m telling my parents what to do," she laughed.

And she realized, hey, maybe this hobby isn’t so … square.

“And then I progressed even further once I figured out that there are songs that I knew, just me personally from my time listening to the radio,” Sewell explained.

Now, Sewell said, she has her classic standards and her pop go-tos. And even some Disney hits.

“I have 'Colors of the Wind' from 'Pocahontas' over here,” she said.

And Sewell's really hoping someone will create a caller version of "24K Magic" by Bruno Mars.

But you don’t have to be a 16-year-old to call to a new tune, as evidenced by a few seasoned callers at the convention singing "One Call Away" a Billboard hit from 2015.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.