Skip to main content

Gillette residents teach and learn to embody the square dance language

News Letter Journal - Staff Photo - Create Article
Dandy Dan Hopper calls a square dance Tuesday, March 19, during a weekly lesson hosted by Levis and Lace Social Square Dance Club at the Rockpile Community Center in Gillette. Hopper’s been calling dances with the local club since the late 1980s.
Cassia Catterall with the Gillette News Record, via the Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — A complicated language greets anyone visiting a square dance class for the first time.

Slip the clutch. Spin the top. Do Paso. Allemande left.

The words ring out as music bops behind it, choreographing a pattern dancers seem to magically follow.

What do they mean?

Slip the clutch — someone having car trouble? Spin the top — play time with kids?

Dan Hopper’s role as a square dance caller explains the language and phrases to newcomers, opening the door of the square dance community to those taking lessons for the first time.

“I’ll teach them the calls and then I’ll throw music on and we’ll do what’s called a patter, music with just calls,” he said. “Then you move onto a singing call, which has lyrics and calls. You do two of them and that’s called a tip.”

Hopper began in his role with the Levis and Lace Social Square Dance Club in Gillette in the late 1980s, shortly after learning square dance itself in 1985. In the beginning, he said the club’s dances brought out about 50 couples. Those numbers dropped throughout the decades and especially during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social distancing separated dancers and many venues where clubs met also temporarily closed down.

Locally, the dance club still gives lessons to those who’d like to learn but the amount of interest has dipped. Shirley Study, a longtime club member, said this year was better, with about 10 signing up for lessons in November and 12 who recently joined lessons beginning in February.

Learning the lingo

On Tuesday evening, the new students came into the Rockpile Community Center with a better understanding of the square dance lingo.

Specific phrases or words inferred turns, a trade of partners or quick releases in the square made up of eight dancers. As Hopper made the calls, many followed quickly into formations, moving smoothly to end up where they needed to go.

If they missed a step, Hopper was quick to fix the issue, speaking lightly into the microphone while music continued.

Hopper said he’s stuck with calling for the last three decades because he enjoys it.

“I used to rodeo as a bull rider and this is what the old cowboys do when they quit rodeoing,” he said with a chuckle. “They become square dance callers.”

“Give him a mic and he’s dangerous,” Jeff Kuray quipped.

Hopper steers dancers through calls each week that represent different movements. All together, there’s 68 calls or movements he can use in mainstream square dancing that dancers should know how to follow.

The number drops to about 50 calls if students learn only the social square dance movements. Once they learn the language, dancers simply have to keep up.

Hopper’s task is more multifaceted.

“He hides his light under a bushel,” Kuray said. “Being a caller is a multi-tasking position. He has to watch the square, he has to sing a song and then he has to filter the calls in among the lyrics.”

Most dances begin with a patter, where a caller will speak or chant the words in a pitch to give dancers a taste of what to expect. After the patter, Hopper transitions into music with lyrics, chanting the calls into tunes like “Fisherman’s Luck.”

Study said that once dancers know the calls the feet follow.

“It’s really not too difficult,” she said. “You know where to go.”

Willus Elsasser said dancers always keep their ears out for the calls because callers can chant them in whatever order they’d like, always changing sequences and keeping dancers on their toes.

The 84-year-old said keeping everyone in tandem — the eight dancers needed to make a square — is one of the most difficult parts of the dance.

“You just kind of listen to him and then watch where to go with your arms,” he said. “It can just be so fun for this old man.”

He and Study said the square dance community remains one of the main factors that keeps them involved. Dancers will come to the center to watch the lessons and dance. They mingle with longtime friends. It’s a social time for younger dancers and seasoned vets.

Those in the audience are also ready to jump into action if a single dancer needs a partner, something Heidi DeStefano said she appreciated about the group. DeStefano said she and her husband would see the group’s A-frame signs around town advertising the club throughout the years but finally decided to act on taking lessons last year.

She spoke to the mental effort it takes to follow a caller’s sequence.

“A lot of it’s muscle memory because the calls are the same,” she said. “But you do have to concentrate, it’s good for the brain by the time you’re done.

“It’s a workout for your brain for sure because you have to keep up with it and you can’t really talk because you just have to move.”

As DeStefano described the movement, dancers in two squares at the front of the room showcased the new skills they learned that evening. Feet moved swiftly and carefully around others, while arms led or followed the called out motions.

The once foreign language was becoming familiar.

This story was published on March 23, 2024.



--- Online Subscribers: Please click here to log in to read this story and access all content.

Not an Online Subscriber? Click here to subscribe.

Sign up for News Alerts

Subscribe to news updates