Western whirlers meet in Charm City

Convention: Dancers bring their good-neighbor flavor to Baltimore and show that their pursuit is anything but square.

June 24, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

If you've been anywhere near the Inner Harbor in the past few days, you couldn't have missed the invasion of the puffy-skirted women artfully weaving through crowded restaurants and sidewalks, gleefully greeting each other with "yellow rocks."

That's square-dance speak for a hug.

Some 10,000 square dancers have come to Baltimore for their 49th annual convention, toting along their comfortable shoes and several changes of dazzlingly loud dancing costumes.

The brighter, the fluffier, the better.

There are no competitions during these three days of nonstop dancing at the Baltimore Convention Center and Inner Harbor sites. The friendly spirit of the convention frowns on naming winners and losers.

Groups of serious-faced dancers move swiftly and almost gracefully to the direction of "callers," who rhythmically command the steps into a microphone.

For this crowd, square dancing is more than practicing the do-si-do, larger than perfecting the wheel-and-deal.

It is a way to live pure Americana.

"Square dancing is a fun, moral activity. It is a very wholesome thing," said Gregory Richardson, 36, from Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "We're a community, and we support our own. Square dancers care about each other. When you see a square-dance bumper sticker, you honk, and there's an instant bond."

It's not about church, he said, but in many parts of the nation, the only place to dance is a church.

The square dance is the official state folk dance of Maryland, as many proud Marylanders at the convention will tell you. Gov. William Donald Schaefer designated it so in 1994.

Throughout the convention center, the buzz was that square dancing is waning in popularity. Richardson, who has been a serious square dancer since he was 9, was concerned. His parents met at a square dance.

A total of 25,000 people turned up at the 1984 convention, the last one held in Baltimore. It returned this year because then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke went to Alabama five years ago and gave the convention committee a key to Charm City.

Attendance at the conventions has been steadily declining. This year, it is down to about 10,000.

"Square dancing is going downhill," Richardson said, wiping his sweaty brow with a small towel embroidered with the silhouette of a dancing couple. "The average American sees square dancing as Hicksville, backward. People don't want to take the time to learn it anymore."

Does he see that as an indication of America's moral decline?

"No," Richardson said after a brief hesitation. "It's just that instant gratification people want. It's like they want everything now."

Richardson, a self-described liberal, said the majority of his fellow dancers have conservative political leanings, which doesn't bother him a bit. He's encouraged by the number of children at the convention.

"The Midwest is where people are actively trying to get the kids to do healthy things," he said. "Getting young people involved is hard. When they become teens, it's not cool anymore."

Convention-goers, ranging from ages 3 to 90-plus, are from every state and 13 countries, including Australia, Germany, Japan, Netherlands and Taiwan.

There are no language barriers because English is the official square-dance tongue.

"Even if you go to Germany, you can still hear the calls in English and dance together," said Norva Pope, assistant general chairman for the convention. "There are no strangers in square dancing. You might not know someone's name or where they're from but they're like your next-door neighbor."

Such is the case of Bao-Fu Chen, 79, and his wife Lin Tseng Chen, 74, retired soldiers who flew in from Taiwan for the convention. It's their seventh.

"It's not so popular in Taiwan," said Lin Tseng Chen. "Many people don't understand it."

But in Baltimore, they were in their element, turning and stepping with the pros. The two wore matching blue-and-gold costumes with big white stars.

In addition to dancing, the convention offers seminars including: "Create your own sleeves," "Unique motifs through embroidery," "Making a petticoat" and "Fabric swap." There is also a shopping area with 212 vendors selling square dancing gear and, of course, food to keep them going.

But you will never see beer at a real square dance. Even mentioning it will elicit an angry response from some.

"Hell, you can't square dance drunk," said Ray Harris of Dallas. "Your mental facilities have to be keen. Even the thought of mixing alcohol and square dancing is a no-no. Don't even mention my name with that concept."

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