Not So Square Square-Dancing

Wanted: a younger, hipper image for a home-grown American tradition

SQUARE dancing will try to shed its hillbilly image. That is, if the Duo has anything to do with it.

Paul C and Ted Lizotte like to think of themselves as the callers who put youth and vigor back into a historic American tradition that has an image so far out of the mainstream it is considered quaint.

Indeed, when Mr. C and Mr. Lizotte hold their annual introductory fun nights, Lizotte says, ``I can't believe the number of people who still insist on wearing checks, because they think this is still just something for hicks. It never fails,'' he adds, frustration rising in his voice, ``every year somebody brings in bales of hay.''

To people who still harbor that concept of square dancing, C says, ``Give me one night, and I'll change their misconception.''

After the first fun night at a square-dance club, dancers may sign up for a year's worth of lessons to dance at the basic, or ``mainstream,'' level. Most people discover square dancing by word of mouth, but local clubs are often listed in phone books or can be located through western-wear stores.

C and Lizotte are now taking on a new class of dancers, teaching them the 60-plus standard moves and showing them their new, energetic image of square dancing. Many local clubs are struggling to broaden an aging membership, although the number of square dancers has been growing since the 1980s to a total of more than 6 million now, according to the American Square Dance Society.

Lizotte attributes people's misconceptions about square dancing, which grew out of English country-dancing and the French cotillion, to their high school experience. ``Square dancing was something the P.E. coach made you do,'' he says. ``And usually it was something unpleasant,'' he adds, because the calls were boring and the music outdated.

By contrast, C chooses upbeat music - from country to rock-and-roll to big band. The Duo also strives for more intricate choreography.

When the Duo called the final dance at the New England square-dance convention last spring, more than 325 people forsook bigger halls with better-known callers to pack a grade-school gym in Manchester, N.H., to hear C and Lizotte. Lizotte says he had never seen such high-energy dancing. The dancers say it was the Duo that fired them up. They wanted an encore.

The Duo answered with a scorching rendition of ``The Devil Went Down to Georgia,'' sending 40 squares of dancers (four couples per square) whirling at breakneck speed to complete complex patterns amid unusually raucous whooping, whistling, and clapping for more.

``We definitely attract the rowdies,'' C says, ``and that's good, because it's the rowdies who are going to continue in square dancing.''

To ensure that, C says, he and Lizotte focus on entertainment; that was what drew him to square dancing. C saw a parade float with square-dancers on it, and admired the caller.

``That guy up there was bigger than life,'' he says of the caller. ``He had a presence that said that he was the star of the show.'' And, C adds, that's what he wanted to be. A month later, he started square-dance lessons, then roped in Lizotte.

The caller's name was Lou Taddia, better known as ``the voice.''

``Instead of just dancing to some guy up there,'' C says, ``you knew you were dancing to Lou.''

The Duo has the kind of presence that draws crowds and a hard-core following of fans who scour the ads in square-dance magazines to find where C and Lizotte are calling. Most are young and many single.

Eddie Kantorosinsky is one. ``They just fire up the entire hall,'' he says, explaining why he seeks them out.

``We're different from other callers,'' Lizotte says, ``which is what we do best.''

Bob Foye, president of the Riverside Squares in Danvers, Mass., was so impressed that he hired C as the club's instructor. ``They get the young people, and that's what the square-dance movement needs,'' he says, noting that his club's dances are now drawing dancers from other nearby clubs.

One weakness the two of them found when they started square dancing, Lizotte says, ``is that very few square-dance callers can sing.''

The Duo aims to fill that gap singing harmonies to most of their songs. When they use more typical auctioneering-style patter calling, dancers often clamor for them to ``harmonize.''

The two first sang together in the choir at Timberlane High School in Manchester, N.H. Lizotte also played in a number of bands there.

Both have regular jobs in addition to calling: Lizotte is a bank manager, and C works for a company that makes optical filters.

Before he started square-dancing, Lizotte says, ``I didn't listen to country [music], I had long hair and wore a dangling earring. When I told my friends I was going square dancing, they would say `You?' ''

Now they draw dancers from across the country to their annual square-dance weekends and even called at the national square-dance convention in St. Louis in June.

Nationally, young callers are being encouraged to recruit younger dancers, says Jim Seagraves of the United States Dancers' Association. ``Young callers fit into the youth movement by providing an image young dancers can relate to,'' he says. ``That's our future.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.