One recent Wednesday evening, Kurt Gollhardt and Darren Gallina were preparing to live call a square dance. “Find a spot on the floor in your living room, in your RV; maybe you’re on your back porch,” Gallina said, guiding participants into formation. Despite being physically distanced, the dancers were still in squares—on Zoom, that is. “Allemande left, then do-si-do walking back to back with your partner,” Gallina instructed as more than a dozen dancers began to twirl in their separate spaces.
Virtual square dancing is one way Sunnyvale-based Gollhardt has maintained connection this past year with fellow members of the LGBTQ+ square dancing club the El Camino Reelers. While adhering to public health guidelines over the past year has lead Bay Area residents to more obvious adaptations—distanced activities like paddling clubs and outdoor performances—the delightful pursuit of square dancing stands out as an activity that pairs Bay Area values of gentle, geeky fun with LGBTQ+ pride.
Some of the region’s largest and most active LGBTQ+ square dancing clubs also have rootsin another devastating health crisis, dating back to the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when nationwide, these recreational clubs served as a low-contact social outlet, often flirty but dependably non-sexual. Today, these havens of safe, unselfconscious socializing are hoping a pandemic-fueled interest in trying new things will draw open-minded newcomers to this storied pastime.
A square dance at Skyline Farms, Alabama, photographed by Ben Shahn for the US Resettlement Administration in 1937. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives)
If you’ve never seen it, square dancing is exactly what it sounds like: four couples dancing in patterns across an invisible square grid. Beyond that basic premise, there’s plenty of room for improvisation by callers who direct the dance moves in real time, as well as varied music genres and tempo.
Though many will now associate it with elementary school gym class, the eight-person dance style dates back centuries, with roots in European folk dancing, as well as often-overlooked origins in Native American and African practices.
In a dark chapter of square dancing’s history, industrialist Henry Ford had deplorably flawed motives when he promoted the activity (along with American folk music) in the early 20th century. A virulent antisemite, Ford believed jazz was created by Jewish people and sought to undermine their cultural influence. To Ford, square dancing was a way of reintroducing Americans to elements of their agrarian, less multicultural past.
While square dancing has remained popular in countries including India, Japan and Vietnam, the 1980 film Urban Cowboy is often cited as fueling resurgent (adult) interest in Country and Western dancing in the U.S. And there are several reasons why square dancing appealed to some members of the LGBTQ+ community, who pushed the tradition into more funky than folksy territory.
Ads in the June 18, 1981 edition of 'Bay Area Reporter.' (BAR Media, Inc.)
According to Sunnyvale-based gay square dance historian Allan Hurst, its history traces back to the late 1970s or early 1980s. By 1981, three gay square dance clubs had formed in the United States, including San Francisco’s Foggy City Squares (which later became the Foggy City Dancers). Today, the Bay Area is still home to some of the longest-running clubs, including the Reelers, one of the nation’s largest gay square dance clubs.
In the formation of the early square dance clubs, which met and danced in bars, pride was as much a factor as practicality. “We used to have contact dancing in the bars, but the cops forced the bar owners to speed up the music, which forced the patrons away from contact dancing,” a Foggy City Squares member told the Bay Area Reporter in 1985. As interest in the activity grew, gay callers formed an association to raise their visibility and highlight their availability.
For longtime dancer and caller Gollhardt, who started dancing in 1991 with Manhattan’s Times Squares, square dancing was about sidestepping the bar and club scene, which he found too smoky and too noisy for conversation. After attending an annual square dance convention in Santa Clara in 2005, existing friendships from more than a decade in the community made his relocation to the Bay Area a natural progression.
A headline in the Jan. 31, 1985 issue of 'Bay Area Reporter.' (BAR Media, Inc.)
In addition to the obvious necessity and joy of creating and maintaining LGBTQ+ spaces for LGBTQ+ people, an inclusive atmosphere also draws allied individuals of all gender identities, sexual orientation and marital status. Gay square dances tend to feature more upbeat music from a wider variety of genres—think less country western, more disco and show tunes—and faster tempo tracks than straight clubs. Because everyone learns to dance from any position instead of following conservative gender roles, the choreography can also be more complex.
In fact, it’s common for LGBTQ+ clubs to end up taking in straight singles from other clubs, including widows and widowers. Hurst notes that clubs not explicitly for gay dancers have a “peculiar, toxic culture” of not welcoming solo dancers, whose possible motives are viewed with suspicion. At LGBTQ+ clubs, he says, no one thinks a single person is after someone else’s partner. Everyone’s just there to dance.
Gollhardt notes that introverts gravitate toward square dancing for a simple reason: “It’s an intellectual activity that doesn’t require you to be social all the time.” He adds that flexibility about dance partners and eagerness to collaborate are the necessary elements for anyone to enjoy the pastime. “If you don’t like cooperating, you don’t stay very long,” he says.
Ed Wilson, a longtime square dancer and the Reelers’ current treasurer, emphasizes that square dancing lures in geeky folks with a penchant for what is first and foremost a geometric and mathematical progression activity. Silicon Valley has so many clubs because as a form of recreation, “Square dancing appeals to people who like to solve puzzles,” Wilson explains. Perhaps no surprise, two university square dancing clubs with similar cultural values—singles welcome, no costumes needed—are found at Stanford and MIT.
Another badge of inclusivity: no drugs or alcohol are allowed. It’s pretty much physically impossible to square dance while intoxicated, and most dances are held in sober spaces like community centers and churches.
Flyers promoting dances organized by the El Camino Reelers in 1999. (Courtesy the El Camino Reelers)
There’s also the obvious network effect, as Hurst notes: attending annual gatherings quickly creates what can feel like an extended family of a thousand fellow dancers. “I can walk into a club in any major city in North America, and I am instantly welcome because I know everyone from conventions,” he enthuses. By contrast, if he dropped in on a gay chorus in another town, he might be able to watch rehearsal but not join the harmonizing.
Stewart Kramer even met his husband through square dancing—and while he was still living with a boyfriend he also knew from the scene. “Square dancing is a very practical way of meeting a life partner,” he says with a grin. He’s been active in Northern California clubs ever since earning physical education credits for square dancing while at San Jose State in the early 1980s.
Despite the domestic and global connections the activity fosters, some square dancers are anxiously mindful about how to promote their pastime to others and attract new members. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic caused many social events to either cease or transition to virtual meetings, some longtime Reelers note that club membership was declining.
‘We’re hoping that post-COVID, people are going to want to reconnect at a physical level in the same room and experience something they haven’t tried before.’Allan Hurst
“A lot of our folks are getting to an age where they can retire and get the hell out,” explains Wilson. “No one can afford to live here.” As a result, club membership is only increasing in (relatively) more affordable areas of California that attract gay retirees—namely, high desert cities such as Palm Springs and communities along the Russian River.
Like other organizations, regional Bay Area square dance clubs suspended in-person events last year due to the coronavirus. In addition to spinning up virtual dancing, the pause in live gatherings gave Gollhardt the opportunity to begin experimenting with virtual reality square dancing using Oculus headsets. (Elsewhere, some clubs may have been early points of transmission in the U.S. Tragically, the square dancing community has lost several longtime leaders to COVID-19.)
Hurst notes that the club continues to reach out to like-minded groups, such as members of the sobriety community who are seeking welcoming, substance-free spaces and activities. “We’re hoping that post-COVID, people are going to want to reconnect at a physical level in the same room and experience something they haven’t tried before,” he says.
Wilson is equally optimistic that as the pandemic eases, membership might rebound. “When people are able to physically hold hands, hug and twirl each other around, and whoop and holler in a small space, we might get some new dancers!"