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Omaha Magazine

Ferris Wheels, Squares, & Spinning Tops: One American Tradition Keeps Us Connected

Jun 25, 2021 04:43PM ● By Chris Bowling

The love affair started six years ago. Familiar red, white, and blue Fourth of July parade floats promenaded through Lyle Waterhouse’s small town of Missouri Valley, Iowa, about 20 miles northwest of Omaha. Then, the dancers arrived.

Music blared as the couples stepped to the beat, swung each other around, and swapped partners. All the while a man held a microphone, announcing moves in time with the music.

A lightbulb went off—the Waterhouses needed to become square dancers.

The 58-year-old Waterhouse said, “My wife and I just kind of looked at each other and thought, “well, that’s totally us.”

While most people wouldn’t use “irresistible” to describe square dancing, that’s exactly how diehard fans like Waterhouse see the organized blend of music, dance, and socializing. And he’s not alone.

Across America, clubs gather in churches, schools, and performance halls to socialize and continue the tradition of this authentically American dance. In Nebraska alone, the state’s square and round dance association lists 28 clubs, including the Sandhill Twirlers, Prairie Promenaders, and the Heartland Singles.

While many of those dances satisfy the stereotype of cowboy boots, swishing dresses, and country western music, modern square dancing has come a long way.

There’s clubs for families, grandparents and their grandkids, singles, and couples. There’s clubs around the world, gay and lesbian clubs, and even more, said Carol Weaklend, an Omaha native and square dancer.

“That’s all it is,” she said. “It’s truly an activity for everybody.”

Weaklend, 71, got her start square dancing in 1968. She was a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her roommate in the Selleck Quadrangle asked if she wanted to take a trip. There was going to be a square dance in her roommate’s hometown, Odell.

Like a lot of people, Weaklend remembered square dancing from awkward school events. She still gave it a shot, driving in her Dodge Dart 50 miles south of Lincoln to Odell. Nearly a half century later, she’s still dancing. 

Through it she met her husband, traveled, and made close friends. And even as square dancing changed, the root of what makes it so fun remained.

“The people that come into square dancing and stay with it realize that they’re in a community that isn’t just their block or their city,” Weaklend said, “but they’re in a community that expands and contracts based on wherever they want to go.”

Across the world, organized and traditional dances are essential cultural touchstones. Square dancing dates back to English quadrilles brought to the North American colonies. As the dances spread, regions such as Appalachia and the West added their own flavor. By the time Weaklend was dancing in Odell, square dancing had its own music, standard moves, and structure.

Today, modern “mainstream” square dancing follows many similar rules. A caller announces from a repertoire of about 70 moves to dancers organized in squares of four couples. Dances usually last a few hours and take place in community spaces.

Waterhouse found the activity instantly clicked with him and his wife, Deborah.

“The more that we did it, the more that we got into it,” he said. “The more that we learned of the actual dance...it was the thing that had us hungering for a little bit more.”

Waterhouse considers it an art. The caller directs a crowd of people through movement and sound, piecing together the dance knowing full well it could break down at any minute.

Still, no one’s going to be upset if someone is learning and breaks the square. That’s part of the fun.

“There’s something so nuanced about it,” Waterhouse said. “It’s a little bit different for each individual who’s participating, but it really is something that you come to and create something [special] together.”

While many in grade school learned to do-si-do to “Turkey in the Straw” or “Buffalo Gals,” music today ranges from the aforementioned fiddle tunes to songs like “Live it Up,” a synth-heavy pop song by Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez, of which a square-dancing friendly version is available on the site musicforcallers.com.

Golf polos are as common as pearl buttons. Clubs that once only allowed couples are now usually open to everybody. Conventions have become increasingly more diverse as square dancing continues to be popular in countries such as China and Japan.

Even the way folk dances are taught is changing. Whereas Weaklend learned to square dance for Nebraska History Month back in the ‘60s, today’s kids learn dances from around the world.

Tom Michalek has taught music in schools for more than 30 years. The 52-year-old teaches kindergarten through fifth graders in Hastings with a curriculum that includes playing instruments, reading music, and folk dancing.

Because music and dance connects us in a way other things can’t. Especially in an age where everyone is simultaneously more connected and disconnected, creative expression reconnects us to a collective identity, or lets us find a moment of calm.

That’s the common thread, whether it’s folk dances around the world or the square dancing taking place in a local school gym. While it’s fun to dance, sing, and laugh off each other’s mistakes over a momentary water break, what keeps people coming back is the sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

Waterhouse is excited to get back to it, especially as dances return in the Omaha metro area. A lot of other people feel the same way, he said. And while he doesn’t foresee square dancing ever rising to the prominence of another cultural phenomena, all that matters is that for the people who love it, they know it’ll still be there.

“I don’t foresee the time in Omaha that we have, you know, 50 squares going at whatever venue downtown,” Waterhouse said. “But to have those opportunities continue and to have six or seven squares on at a social hall, or in a church someplace…I perceive that as something that would exist in this area for a good long time going forward.”

Visit squaredanceomaha.org or squaredancene.org for more information. 

This article originally appeared in the 60Plus section of the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.