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Renowned caller uses pop music to attract younger participants to square-dancing

By Corene Brisendine

Square dancers came from as far away as Hutchison to take cues from a nationally renowned caller Tuesday night at the Riley County Seniors Center.

Randy Dougherty has traveled the United States and the globe calling square dances for the past 46 years. He started his career as a school teacher, but gave it up after only a few years to call dances full-time. He said that like most square-dance callers, he started as a teenager.

Dougherty said the great thing about traveling overseas is that all square dancing is called in English. In foreign countries, he said children like dancing because it is one way they can practice their English outside the classroom.

“It’s the best-kept secret in America,” Dougherty said. “Japan, Sweden, and Germany love square dancing.”

Dougherty said that in Japan, holding a conversation in English is impossible, but the dancers know the calls. He said he has traveled to Japan three times, and plans to return in a few weeks.

Unlike traditional callers, Dougherty wants to attract a younger crowd to square dancing. He said that many enthusiasts understand that if square dancing is going to continue beyond the 70- and 80-year-olds who currently make up the majority of the dancers, new music needs to be incorporated.

Along with the traditional “fiddle and banjo” songs, Dougherty called to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” Tuesday at the seniors center.

“We do everything from pop to rock ‘n’ roll, even rap,” Dougherty said. “The most recent one we picked up is ‘Call Me Maybe.’”

Most of the dancers sported salt-and-pepper hair, but not all. Felicity Schultz, 26, said she has been square dancing since she was 5 years old.

“It’s a family thing,” Schultz said. “I grew up dancing.”

Schultz, who drove from Topeka to dance, said it was her first time hearing Dougherty’s calls. She said she liked his calling, not only because of the modern music, but also because his calls were fast and upbeat. She also said that even though she has brought her friends to dances in the past, none of them seemed interested in sticking around.

Maye Wegner, president of Heart of America Single Square Dance Association, has one theory.

“I think square dancing has gotten a bad rap,” Wegner said. “People think it’s just hokey; it’s old and been around awhile.”

Wegner, who drove from Seneca to be at the dance on Tuesday, said the younger crowd probably doesn’t like the music normally associated with square dancing because it is from a different generation. She likes what Dougherty is doing by incorporating more modern music because it is a way to reach out to the younger group.

Wegner also said that the costumes might be keeping younger dancers away. She said the association used to forbid dancers from attending dances unless they wore the bright skirts and layers of petticoats, but now the rules just recommend that dancers dress comfortably.

Larry Erikson, a professor at Kansas State University, said he likes to come to the dances because it enables him to not only get exercise, but also enjoy the company of others who square dance and the potluck dinner everyone brings.

On Tuesday evening, faces and laughter filled the room in the center as men in bright clothes twirled women in bright skirts around the dance floor.

Erikson said he learned how to square dance in 1949 when he was in a one-room schoolhouse.

“There were eight of us,” Erikson said. “So the teacher got us to square dance.”

He has been square dancing for about 60 years.

Tuesday night’s dance was hosted by The Lone Wranglers, one of two Manhattan clubs that meet every Tuesday at the seniors center. Tom Hollinberger, president of the Lone Wranglers, said square dancing is a cinch once a dancer learns the calls.

“It’s great for a guy like me, who can’t remember all the steps to an entire song,” he said. “You just listen to the caller for what to do next.”

The club offers classes each fall at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays at Green Valley Community Center.

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