Square dancing keeps crowd swinging at Howard County Fair

When I first heard about square dancing, what came to my mind was a country-western shindig in a barn filled with farm animals.

Columbia resident John Maloney, a member of the Tom Thumb Square Dance Club, said that's a common misconception among newcomers, neither of which was found inside the 4-H building Saturday night at the Howard County Fairgrounds.

"There are not usually hay bales or chickens running around," said Maloney, laughing.

Instead, the Ellicott City square dance club introduced the instructional, upbeat dance to dozens of fairgoers, beginners and veterans alike.

A group of socialites, the Tom Thumb Squares keep the traditional dance alive during two-hour classes on the first and third Fridays of the month, September through mid-June, at Hollifield Station Elementary School. The club also belongs to the Mason/Dixon Square Dancers Federation, which consists of 15 different square dancing clubs in Maryland.

Other federation clubs participated at the fair on Aug. 5, including the Casual Squares from Catonsville; Frederick County Promenaders from Walkersville; Four County Squares from Sykesville; and the Swinging Squares from Fort Meade.

Maloney, a Tom Thumb club member of 14 years, said they participated at the Howard County and Maryland State fairs decades ago but lost their performance space due to the fair's growth. After some persistence, members brought square dancing back to the county and state fairs around 2010 and 2012, respectively.

The goal is to increase public awareness in Howard County, Maloney said.

"It's a very social activity," said Maloney, 73. "It's also good for the mind and the body. It keeps you moving and makes you think. Anybody who can walk and count to eight can do this. It's not difficult."

First-time square dancer

On a cool summer evening, I joined the square dancing clubs and fairgoers in the 4-H building, where groups of four couples each formed squares, one couple on each side.

In a clockwise motion, caller Virgil Forbes, 68, designated each pair as couples one, two, three and four. Couples one and three were named the heads, while couples two and four were named the sides. This came in handy later during the dance.

Forbes then explained the move, "do-si-do." Do-si-do requires the partners to move forward and pass right shoulders, graze their backs and then pass left shoulders as they move backwards and return to their original position.

As dancers faced the center of their square, Forbes stood at the front of the room and sung dance steps into a microphone.

"Heads, up to the middle and back. Sides, up to the middle and back. Do-si-do your partner," Forbes sang.

The caller choreographs the entire square dance in the moment with no prior planning. Forbes, a Pikesville resident, said he started square dancing at 10 years old in 1959 and became increasingly interested when he entered the U.S. Navy in 1967.

He later became a caller in 1979 while stationed at Fort Meade before retiring from the Navy in 1993. Forbes has called for clubs in more than 30 states as well as Iceland, Spain, England, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia.

Forbes is not a member of the Tom Thumb Squares but said he is one of the founding members of Swinging Squares.

"[Some of my family members and a neighbor] formed a square dance quartet in southern California in the '40s and '50s," he said. "Some of my earliest memories are literally laying in a basket under the piano while grandma pounded out the tune."

Although the caller doesn't dance, they're still performing as they sing each step in their adlibbed dance.

Music is integral to square dancing; however, Maloney said it has evolved with popular songs, like Liza Minnelli's "All That Jazz" and Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." The tempo, also known as the speed, of a song must be right for the dance.

"It's not what people think, like old yee-haw stuff," Maloney said. "I've danced to everything from an opera to a church hymn."

Lynne and Chris Powers, also members of the Tom Thumb Squares, said they not only enjoyed the lively music but also meeting new people. The Clarksville couple started square dancing in the late 1960s.

"I didn't even know what square dancing was, [but] we did it and loved it," Lynne Powers said. "It's a good group of people. I like dancing and it's social."

"I don't really like dancing," added Chris Powers, "But with square dancing, a caller will tell you what you have to do. I like following directions."

Columbia resident John Rhead and Baltimore resident Marilyn Clark said they haven't performed square dancing in the past 50 years. It was good to get back on the dance floor, Rhead said.

"I'm ready to try it again. I love it," he said.

Maloney said he was glad to see a good turnout at the county fair and some new faces in the square dancing crowd.

"We have people who get up and try it," Maloney said. "We have a lot of fun."

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