Square Dancing's Gay Infusion
Leisure: Anaheim hosts a convention for members of all stripes, but this demographic stands out because it's on the upswing.
June 26, 2001|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER
Whenever Debbie Dexter tells someone she's the lesbian president of a gay square dance club, she gets the look. A little smirk, a raised eyebrow--the facial giveaways of disbelief and a barely suppressed chuckle.
"They kind of look at us and go, 'Huh?' " said a laughing Dexter, 40, president of the Golden State Squares in Santa Ana. "It is a bit of an oxymoron, isn't it?"
As the straight square dancing world convenes in Anaheim on Wednesday for its 50th annual convention, Dexter and other gays and lesbians will be dancing to their own tune, doing do-si-dos, promenades and other traditional steps during set-aside times at the four-day gathering.
And while some might consider homosexuality out of place at a square dance, gay dancers could well lead to a reinvigoration of the traditional American form.
Over the past 20 years, membership in the United Square Dancers of America--which shares its acronym with the U.S. Department of Agriculture--has slipped to 75,000.
But in the 25 years since a group of Miami men held a tongue-in-cheek square dance to promote a local gay bar, gay square dancing has caught fire, with some 60 clubs forming nationally, 20 of them in California. And there are now clubs in Australia, Japan and Denmark.
"All in all, square dancing is falling off all over the country," said Chris Phillips, one of the organizers of that inaugural gay square dance, and a founder of the first gay club, the South Florida Mustangs. "The only demographic that's rising is gay and lesbian square dancing."
William Shepard of Nashville, who with his wife is co-president of the mainstream USDA, blames the drop in popularity of traditional square dancing on the same competition for time that has led to a broad erosion of community activities.
"People just have so much going on," said Shepard, noting such distractions as surfing the Internet. "Parents have kids in sports and that sort of stuff, and it doesn't leave much time for other activities."
But some see the roots of the decline in the straight groups' tradition-shrouded approach, which includes a dress code: frilly, layered dresses with petticoats for women and long-sleeved shirts or dark suits for men.
Given that conformity, many young would-be dancers opt for a different forms, such as line dancing, enthusiasts say.
The gay clubs follow a "dance as you are" dress code. Dexter, for example, plans to wear shorts and a T-shirt to dance at the convention, then slip on a layered skirt for the mainstream dances.
Shepard, though, says the code isn't that rigid.
"We've relaxed the dress code and now you can wear a prairie skirt and regular blouse if you want, and you don't have to get all these fancy outfits and that stuff," said Shepard, who drove with his wife from Nashville to the Anaheim convention. "That may be the reason people give, but I don't think it's the reason. A lot of people just drop out and they won't tell you why, and I don't know if it's whether they don't want to hurt your feelings."
Gay square dancing got its start in Florida in January 1977, when Phillips and some friends organized the dance to promote the local gay bar.
"It took place in the Levi Leather bar. The theme [of the bar] was country-western, so they figured you can't get any more country-western than square dancing," Phillips said. "It was supposed to go over like a novelty or a joke. But it was a lot of fun, so it continued and, before you knew it, we had, like, three squares of eight people."
Over the next several years, dozens of gay square dancing clubs formed across the country, part of what dance caller Paul Waters of L.A.'s Valley Village neighborhood sees as a broader movement among gay men and lesbians to create social structures outside the sometimes infamous gay bar and bathhouse circles.
"This is very typical of gay society in general, in that in the early '80s there was an absolute explosion in the number of social groups," said Waters, 46, who first became involved in square dancing in 1972 as a Thousand Oaks high schooler. "Prior to then, almost the only social outlet that existed were the bars."
In that era, which came on the eve of the AIDS epidemic, gays formed running clubs, community choruses and other groups to pursue their interests without worrying about ostracism from mainstream groups.
But in recent years, as public acceptance of homosexuality has increased, many gay groups have moved closer to the mainstream groups. Waters says gay square dancing, whose members early on attended mainstream dances as well as gay dances, "was at the leading edge of the interaction of these clubs with their straight counterparts."
Waters, who is a caller for both straight and gay groups, said he has witnessed little dance-floor tension or rejection. Occasionally there is initial reluctance--particularly from some of the straight dancers--but once the music starts and calls begin rolling, the uneasiness dissolves.