AUBURN — Box the gnat. Weave the ring. Sashay, circle, swing.

Yeah: square dancing.

You probably did it in middle school phys ed classes. Your parents, grandparents, great-grands and great-greats probably did it.

But they probably didn’t do it to rock, jazz, disco or hip-hop music, or learned the simpler way it’s taught today.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Square dancing can be traced to 15th-century Europe, influenced by dance moves from England, France, Scotland, Scandinavia and Spain. Modern dancers who attended a recent session at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Auburn say they do it for fun, exercise, and friendship.

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The session was led by Al Hipkins of Auburn, a professional caller who leads dances in Lewiston-Auburn and Brunswick.

“It’s primarily an activity for fun, not competition,” he said.

Once people had gathered in the school cafeteria, he picked up a microphone and crooned into it, with a bit of a twang. Singsong.

“Allemande left, right grand, left grand, ladies chain, ladies center and men sashay, promenade.”

Four couples were positioned in a square, two people on each side facing the center. They bowed, joined hands, circled, changed partners, sashayed, promenaded, met in the middle, called “Whoo!” and eventually rejoined their partners.

“I mix them up and then I put them back in order,” Hipkins said.

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Partners Cam and Edy Churchill of Auburn have been dancing together since 1983 when they met here at Sherwood Heights. They got married the following year.

“She was so fun to watch, always smiling and laughing,” Cam said.

She arrived that first time without a partner. Everyone else was matched up, he said. “But she never sat out a dance.”

Back then, Cam said, the dances would draw 40 or 50 people. On this evening, about a dozen people attended, enough for one square.

Back in the day, “we’d have eight or nine squares,” Cam said. “Now it’s mostly us old folks who’ve been dancing a long time. Some of us are a little rusty.”

But the Churchills still love dancing.

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“Oh, my, yes,” Edy said, just off the dance floor and a bit out of breath.

“It keeps the mind sharp,” Cam said.

Indeed, one novice had a difficult time following some basic steps on her first try. It wasn’t so much complicated as fast paced. But truly fun.

“In one evening of dancing, you can get 5,000 to 8,000 steps without ever thinking about exercise,” according to Hipkins. “Dancing engages your mind, relieves stress, and includes you in a larger community.”

Wally Vickerson, like many others, wore a Twin City Spinners nametag and a badge he earned when he graduated from a 20-week course in 2012.

The draw for him is friendship, he said, and “you get to use your mind as you get older.” He met his wife, Carol Vickerson, at a square dance five years ago. She’d been widowed for seven years.

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“Wally was very kind,” she said. “It’s nice to have a companion.”

Square dancers move in a circle during a session Sept.15 at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

THE ORIGINS OF SQUARE DANCE

Before square dancing came to the U.S., it was a folk fad in Europe, according to sanjuan.edu’s “History of Square Dance.”

“In England around 1600, teams of six trained performers — all male, for propriety’s sake, and wearing bells for extra oomph — began presenting choreographed sequences known as the Morris dance.”

This was thought to have inspired English country dance, in which couples lined up on village greens to practice weaving, circling and swinging moves reminiscent of modern-day square dancing.

When Europeans settled the first colonies here, they brought this tradition with them.

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Over the generations, it became less popular in most places, but it caught on in Appalachia in the 19th century.

“Instead of memorizing each and every step, participants began relying on callers to provide cues — and as square dance calling became an art form in its own right, humor and entertainment,” according to the “History of Square Dance.”

The practice got another boost in 1923 when Henry Ford sponsored a dance program for the Dearborn, Michigan, public schools.

He later sponsored a Sunday radio program in which a professional would call dances that had been printed in the newspaper the previous week.

Ford’s friend Thomas Edison began to produce 78-rpm square dance records.

“Old-fashioned square dancing became the rage,” according to the website. Folk dancing also received a major boost in the 1920s when the New York City public schools, the first major school system to do so, made folk dancing a required activity.

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Square dancing expanded rapidly after 1939. The dance especially grew in the decade following World War II. Many American GIs had been introduced to square dancing at USO cantinas.

Today, thousands of clubs have been established in communities across the country.

Square dancing has been the country’s “official national folk dance” since President Ronald Reagan signed an act of Congress in 1982.

And the U.S. has a National Square Dance Day: Nov. 29

“At bottom, it remains a solid and enduring piece of American folk tradition. As dancers themselves are fond of saying, ‘Square dancing is friendship set to music,’” according to the “History of Square Dance.”

Square dancer caller Al Hipkins calls out the steps to a square dance Set. 15 during an open session at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

‘A NEW TREND’

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The Sept. 15 dance at Sherwood Heights was an introduction to a 12-week course Hipkins is offering. He said “social square dancing” is a “new trend in the U.S.”

Social Square Dance was developed in 2016 by Callerlab, an international organization of square dance callers, as a way to “ring in” new dancers by offering a simpler, easier-to-learn system of calls.

The system is designed to create a 50-call entry program that can be quickly taught in 12 to 14 weeks, “and yet serve as a realistic destination for long-term square dancers,” according to callerlab.org.

“Dancers are encouraged to dance that program, and to recruit their friends, with no pressure to move up to higher programs.”

Hipkins said the difference between traditional and modern square dancing is that traditional dance is done in contradances and can be taught and danced in one night.

“Each song in traditional dance has a prescribed choreography, which does not change,” he said. “Modern square dancing changes with each dance as the caller makes up the sequence to dance every time.”

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Square dance traditionally includes seven call list programs, beginning with mainstream (69 calls), according to Wikipedia. Level 7, the third of three “challenge” tiers, includes 429 calls and concepts.

Learning all this can take years.

But you don’t have to do that in social square dancing.

“It’s time to erase the old image of square dancing from school days and television,” Hipkins said in a news release announcing the new course.

The music is one of the biggest surprises for new dancers, he noted

“Today’s dancing is done to great music from the best of rock, disco, jazz and hip-hop, as well as country and bluegrass,” he said.

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Hipkins started square dancing in 1972 with the Susquehanna Swingers in Havre de Grace, Maryland. He was hooked. After moving to Maine, he was recruited as a caller in 2006 by Sage Swingers Square and Round Dance Club in Brunswick.

“Once they found out I could sing, they asked me if I wanted to learn calling,” he said. “Being able to sing meant people enjoyed hearing me.”

In September 2011, he started Twin City Spinners Square and Round Dance Club in Lewiston-Auburn.

In addition to singing out calls at the Sherwood Heights dance, he sang a song called “Good to Be Alive” by American singer-songwriter Andy Grammer while calling steps.

The dancers kept pace, and some sang along.

If you’ve seen square dancing on television or at your local town hall, you’d be expecting to see women in frilly dresses with crinoline petticoats and men in embroidered shirts and cowboy boots.

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But not here. These dancers wore jeans or khakis and comfortable shoes.

“Newer dancers are not as interested in fancy dresses,” Hipkins said.

One reason is because unless you make your own outfits, one dress and a man’s suit can cost as much as $2,000, he said.

So, come as you are.

Twin City Spinners will hold an open house at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, at Sherwood Heights. New classes will begin Oct. 20 and run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The cost is $5 per person each night, or you can prepay and get 10 classes for the price of 12. Hipkins can be reached at (207)-841-7959 or [email protected]

He will be there with folksy flair. Expect fun.

“The teamwork necessary to be successful at square dancing transcends all other concerns and helps people forget their troubles and enjoy an evening in the company of other people who also come to have fun,” he said.

Edy Churchill and Roy Blier complete their spin on the right during a square dance session Sept. 15 at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Auburn. Lorraine Boilard and Rick Fortier turn toward them on the left. In square dancing, partners change several times during the course of a single dance, eventually finding their way back to their main partners. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

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