Asked Friday evening why he drives from Quinter to attend The Shooting Stars monthly square dance at the Reed Center in Hays, Jack Salyer explained, “it keeps you from falling asleep in front of the TV.”
Salyer and his wife, Sharon, were among several dozen dancers who came for the first dance of the season Friday night, ending the group’s summer break.
Cookies, cupcakes, and veggies and dip had filled up a side table, and the floor was cleared for the couples twirling, stepping and weaving in and out.
From an MP3 player, square dance caller Lanny Weaklend was managing the tunes, including an oldie by Chad and Jeremy from the mid-1960s.
“They say that all good things must end someday,” went the tune, a song many of these dancers would have heard back in the day as young kids. “Autumn leaves must fall, but don’t you know that it hurts me so to say goodbye to you.”
Weaklend, from Omaha, a longtime national caller, was on his way back from calling a dance in Denver, and the club had hired him to stop in Hays.
“Boys run,” he instructed from the microphone, clearly announcing the name of a standard step familiar to the dancers.
The couples listened as they moved, following each of his calls, one after the other, immediately after he said it — “Ferris wheel. Centers swing. Side space. Allemande left.”
“He’s a top caller,” said one woman sitting on the sideline. “We take him as he’s passing through, otherwise we couldn’t afford him.”
At the end of each song, the eight dancers in each square on the floor shake hands or hug and say “thank you” to one another.
“You just do what he tells you to do,” said Carol Gordon, of Hays. “He picks the music and does the calls to fit the pattern of the music. When you learn to square dance, it’s like a child with building blocks. You learn a couple calls, then you learn a couple more, and you just learn to put them all together. It’s fun to have different callers, they put the steps together differently.”
Gordon and her sister, Phyllis Robertson, keep the club going, said Mildred Garner, who started square dancing in 1996.
Back then, there was practically a square dance club in every town around, she recalled. That’s not the case now, with Great Bend the only other one nearby. And the number of dancers is dwindling, too.
“They’ve moved, they’ve died, they’re too old, or they can’t dance,” she said.
It’s hard to get people to come, agreed Linda Wood, sitting next to Garner. She drove over from Hoxie. She first learned square dancing in high school, several decades ago, when it was taught as part of P.E.
“It’s a lost art,” said Wood. But that’s not all, she said, lifting the dancing skirt that fell nearly to her ankles. “I’ve got a brace, I’ve had a knee replacement.”
Club dues are $15 a year, and each dance has a $5 admission. Lessons for $25 are held each Monday up until December, taught by Peggy Anschutz, also the club’s caller.
This Monday the club is holding a Taco Night at the Reed Center, 317 W. 13th St., to introduce newcomers to square dancing. It starts at 7 p.m., and the dinner and lesson are free.
Gordon started years ago, after some friends talked her into going to a lesson, she said.
“I thought I’d go one time and then they’d leave me alone,” she laughed. “But the rest was history. It’s addictive. You’ll never make so many friends so fast in your life. It’s like a family.”
“That’s where I met my husband,” said Lara Baldwin, Great Bend. “My second husband. It’ll be 11 years the fourth of October. He’s been dancing since about 1968 — he danced when he went to college here.”
Marvin Baldwin grew up in Zurich and went to high school in Palco, which had a square dance club. After serving in the Army for two years he went to Fort Hays Kansas State College on the G.I. Bill, and asked P.E. teacher and basketball coach Cade Suran about the possibility of a square dance class.
“We filled the Gold Room,” he said of the ballroom at the FHSU Memorial Union. “That was in the heyday of square dancing. We would travel to go to dances in Colorado, and the city club here was pretty good too. But square dancing is dying, I’m afraid to say. We do what we can to get people interested, but you can’t twist their arms too hard.”
Keeping it going in Hays hasn’t been easy, Gordon admitted.
“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of being stubborn,” she said. “Clubs are folding all over the country, but it’s so much fun if you just get into it.”
Aiden Robertson, of Hays, a fifth-grader at O’loughlin Elementary School, has been square dancing off and on since he was 4, said his grandma, Phyllis Robertson, of Hays, the club president.
“I need a little more experience,” said Aiden.
Weaklend, who has been calling dances for 35 years, said the trick to square dancing is knowing your left from your right, even though there are about 100 calls and an endless number of combinations for putting them together.
One dancer said Weaklend gets the dancers back on track when they goof up: “When there’s a little bit of a screw up, he can straighten it out right away, he gets it done.”