Getting Squared Away for Farm Show

12/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Sara Miller Reporter

Bill Blough started square dancing 60 years ago as a Somerset County, Pa., 4-H member. He remembers the good times he had on Saturday nights at local dances.

“I collected records as a kid ... (my friends and I would) form our own little group, look for a fire hall, and when it came time for Farm Show, we were in tune again,” Blough said of practicing for the Pennsylvania Farm Show back then.

Dan Prosser’s interest in square dancing started after a note on the church bulletin board caught his eye. It was a notice about an upcoming square dance.

“I thought I’d better learn how (to square dance),” he said of his reaction to that notice. It was the late 1970s then.

The following year, he learned how to call. His teacher had been calling at the Farm Show since the mid 1950s.

In the 1980s, Prosser started calling alongside of his teacher at Farm Show. Sometime during the ’90s, Prosser’s mentor retired, and the calling gig became mainly his.

“It was a smooth transition,” he said.

Also no stranger to the square, Paul Andrews, Lancaster County, Pa., developed a passion for the dance in 1959, when his company would host family banquets that featured square dancing as an activity.

Shortly after Prosser took over as caller, Andrews joined Prosser at Farm Show in the late ’90s, judging the dances for eight years.

Blough, Prosser and Andrews share their life-long passion with people of all ages and generations at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show competitions. Square dancing at Farm Show has been a tradition in Somerset County 4-H, according to Joanne Stoltzfus, event coordinator. In addition to senior citizens, adult dancing clubs and participating families, she said that FFA members, 4-H clubs and a number of home-schooled kids throughout the state swing their partners in square dances.

Two of the youth participants through the Somerset County 4-H are brother and sister, Jonathan Reese, 16, and Elizabeth Reese, 14.

After her brother had completed his first year, Elizabeth said it seemed like a lot of fun, so she thought she’d try it. The 2013 Farm Show will be her fourth year.

“They are fun people to be around,” she said of her dancing peers.

Jonathan’s interest in trying out square dancing inspired him to join the Somerset 4-H. He said he especially enjoys “going to Farm Show, spending time with the people and meeting new people.”

Jonathan will be going off to college in a few years, but said he hopes to be able to come back and help out with the Farm Show square dance program after he graduates.

Prosser travels to various schools and home-school programs to teach kids square dancing. Often doubling as a physical education credit, the discipline also improves the kids’ listening and social skills, he said.

The older generations have danced to different music through the years — songs from old classics to modern popular country music, even Winnie the Pooh, according to Blough. Some seasoned dancers have seen the evolution from records to tapes to CDs, improving the control of tempo, Prosser added.

But, said Blough, the competition itself has stayed the same, and everybody still has fun.

Ability varies, like age, said Prosser, and for the Farm Show competition, dancers are divided into three groups: ages 16 and under; 17-25; and open, which encompasses all ages. Participants learn five of seven specially choreographed dances, he said. There are four couples to a square, plus two alternate couples.

By the end of the night, all 60 sets — about 600 dancers — frolic on the floor at once.

“As long as they can walk, we can get them through,” Prosser said.

He stressed the importance of the team effort. Contrary to traditional team sports, there is no star player — everybody has an equally important individual role, and if one dancer is off, the entire square breaks down.

And, nobody walks away without a ribbon. Prosser described the Danish award system that the Farm Show judges use: those who dance the right way win a blue ribbon; if they are a little off-beat, they get a red ribbon; and, if the square breaks down, they earn a white ribbon.

Andrews added that he judged the dancers on the creativity of their uniforms and whether they looked like they were having a great time, in addition to timing to the beat.

The dance style is western. Traditionally, each song had its own dance that any dancer familiar with the song already knew, Prosser explained. Western square dancing, he said, is a spin-off of the traditional style, but more extemporaneous.

Before World War II, square dancing was a family event, Prosser pointed out, but after the war, square dancing was turning into a popular drinking social event.

“This broke one of the 10 commandments of square dancing — no drinking before or during a dance,” he said.

To re-focus the event to require the concentration that drinking distorts, they started hash sessions, where the dancers knew roughly 100 calls, which the caller could choose at random, Prosser said. The callers, conjointly, learned a series of new calls, he said.

Prosser took a crash calling course at James Madison University. The class teaches mental imaging, where the caller sees the geometric patterns of the square in his or her mind’s eye. It also focuses on sight, so the caller can watch the action and identify each couple.

Callers also learn some tricks of the entertainment trade, using wit and jokes to keep dancers on their toes.

“(Callers) give a lot of people pleasure,” Prosser said of the entertainment and social value of the activity.

“It’s not uncommon to meet your spouse (at a square dancing event),” he said, pointing out the amount of time spent practicing a dance.

In fact, said Prosser, that’s how he met his wife.

And, it’s never too late to learn square dancing. Andrews teaches retirement community residents how to “do-si-do” in wheelchairs.

“I push (the people) around to square dance music,” he said.

Blough is still passionate about square dancing today, but his bum knees have limited him from mastering the moves like he used to. So, he combined his passion for the sport with his love of tractors and started the square-dancing tractor competition in Somerset County. More his speed now, Blough brought this relatively new dance to the Farm Show six years ago.

“If you got me two new knees, I could start (dancing) again,” he said.

Now, with bum knees, he can do on tractors what he could once do on the dance floor, he said.

Square-dancing events take place at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday, Jan. 7. The square dancing parade is at 6:45 p.m.; the contest and exhibition is from 7-9 p.m.

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