For Larry Hanna, square dancing isn’t so much a hobby as it is a way of life.
He dances three to four nights each week at different clubs’ events and is currently working to build an event space at his home so he can host more dances. His dedication to square dancing starts first and foremost with the friendly people and atmosphere he experiences at each and every dance.
“We’re just trying to make the world a better place and if you can figure out your left from your right and whether you’re dancing as a guy or a girl, we’ll take you,” Hanna said. “They’re really some of the nicest people I’ve met.”
This is the story you hear over and over when you visit the Cougar Squares in Toledo. The square dancing club, which is now in its 59th year, draws dozens to its monthly dances, who say they come for fun, fitness and camaraderie with fellow dancers.
Square dancing has been the official dance of Washington state for 40 years. It is a heritage dance that grew out of a dance called the quadrille, which pioneers brought with them from Europe. It is best characterized by dancers moving in a series of figures, directed by a caller. Though not required, many of the women who square dance wear traditional full skirts with petticoats underneath, which look impressive when their partner swings them around.
“The man’s job in square dancing is to make the lady look good,” explained Cougar Squares president Dick Piesch.
The Cougar Squares group holds dances once a month at the St. Francis Xavier Mission in Toledo and usually hosts twice-yearly lesson series for beginners. Like most square dancing groups, the Cougar Squares ask that only those with squaredancing experience attend their dances. That is because the dance’s calls are almost like a language unto itself. Piesch explained that once you learn square dancing, you can go anywhere in the world and participate in a square dance. The same basic dance language is used and dances are called in English in all countries. Jim Raupp, who has been caller for the Cougar Squares for 40 years, is one of the few remaining square dance callers who use records instead of digital dance music for dances. He said of the many types of calling, his favorite is called a singing calling.
“We pick music and insert the moves into the lyrics of the music,” Raupp explained.
Cougar Squares members Paul and Patti Hagquist said they didn’t even know square dancing existed 10 years ago when they first saw a demonstration of the dance form at Garlic Fest. That inspired them to sign up for the next Cougar Squares lesson series. Paul Hagquist said he enjoys the mental challenge of learning the dances and recalling them as the caller gives directions.
“It’s a challenge,” Paul Hagquist said of what he enjoys about square dancing. “You’re always trying to learn more and the stuff comes at you so fast.”
Square dancing is also a great social outlet, noted Hanna. Many couples come to the dances together, but a partner is not required to attend dances. He also noted that as each dance progresses, dancers get a chance to interact with many different people. Just the act of doing a dance where you come into physical contact with other people is important, he noted.
“It’s really a spiritual experience,” he said.
Many of the dancers choose the Cougar Squares as a form of exercise. Square dancing burns between 200 and 400 calories every 30 minutes. Cougar Squares member Pete Swift said he started dancing with the club several years ago but had to take a break because he went through open heart surgery. He just recently returned and said the dance has been a very positive part of his recovery.
“If you dance every dance, you’re walking over five miles, and I need the exercise,” Swift said.
The Square & Folk Dance Federation of Washington counts 97 square dance clubs within Washington state alone. The Cougar Squares and the Prairie Steppers of Centralia are the only two located in Lewis County. But square dancing is popular beyond Washington, as there are clubs located across the United States and throughout the world.
It was at least partially this large network of dancers that drew Piesch and his wife, Marti, to try square dancing. They first learned square dancing in 2003 through the Cougar Squares lessons. They said they were looking for something to do and a way to meet new people after retirement.
“Your social life just really explodes when you start square dancing. When you retire, it really shrinks,” Dick Piesch said. “Suddenly we know people all over the state, and some beyond the state, on a first name basis.”
The fact that the square dances are alcohol-free events is another reason some seek them out. Hagquist said they have a small number of families with children who participate and children are encouraged to dance along with their parents. Peyton Thurmon, 9, who has been coming with her parents for a few dances now, said square dancing has helped her build coordination and strength for her many sports, including soccer, softball and basketball.
“I think it’s fun and kids can do it,” she said.