Their grandparents did it. Their parents did it. And the 580 people who attended the 63rd annual Minnesota Square and Round Dance Convention in Rochester during the weekend are keeping the dancing tradition alive.
Many people said they hope to pass the multigeneration tradition on to their kids.
While the convention’s attendance has dwindled, organizers said the core group who turned out Friday through Sunday at Mayo Civic Center are going strong.
“A lot of people here are third or fourth generation,” said Jeanine Maiden, convention co-chairwoman. “We often see people keeping (square and round dancing) in their families.”
Maiden, of Roseville, said her own family has several generations of square dancers.
The convention featured dancers from seven states and two Canadian provinces in ages from 7 to 91. The event had 31 callers and 14 cuers, who are the people who give the calls for round dancing.
Younger dancers performed publicly in various downtown locations Saturday afternoon.
“It brings people together in fellowship and fun. It’s good exercise because it works your mind and your body,” Maiden said. “It’s also a good couple’s activity.”
Bob Weaver, a third generation caller from San Diego, was a featured guest for the convention. He has been a semi-professional caller for 37 years.
“What makes it stick is the core values of square dancing,” Weaver said. “(Square dancers) support each other very similar to a church.”
He said square dancing appeals to families because crude behavior, such as drinking or fighting, is prohibited, and people of any age can join.
He said square dancing has an unique appeal because it is such a social experience. He said people can meet a new group of people, dance with them and then switch to another group frequently during a song. He said the activity creates lasting friendships. Dancing communities also support each other.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Minnesota Square and Round Dance Convention attracted about 4,000 people per year. But attendance began to drift downward in the 1990s and by 2009 had fallen to 900. This year’s event drew 580.
Maiden attributed the trend to the increasing number of options young people have for spending their time. She said fewer young people are willing to invest the time to learn the moves.
“It’s because (square dancing) is not as visible as it used to be,” Weaver said. “It’s harder to find an actual (square dancing) club in your town or your area. There are fewer people out there to teach it.”
Weaver said attendance concerns are premature. He said every activity has its peaks and valleys. He said square dancing is coming down from its unusual high in the 1940s, but it is ready to start increasing again.
He said the number of square dancers is growing in San Diego and parts of the U.S. due to popular shows like Dancing With The Stars. He said square dancing has been exploding in Japan, especially among women.
“Folks are more worried than they need to be,” Weaver said. “It’s a fun activity. People will still be interested in it.”
Maiden and Weaver said square and round dancing has become more relaxed over the years. Weaver said people shifted from requiring large dresses or outfits to more comfortable clothing. He also noted the rules about who could perform the “man” or “woman” parts of the dance had become less rigid because of the group nature of the dance.
The convention tours a new location each year. Next year, the convention will be held at St. Louis Park. It will return to Rochester in 2017.