When grad student Jen Hammock tells people that she square dances, they look at her and say, ‘You what?’
“I don’t try to explain myself,” she says. “There’s no point trying to sell it to somebody unless you think they might join in.”
American square dancing is thriving at MIT, where dozens of young people are swinging their partners, do-si-do-ing, and circling left and right. The American folk dance is in decline among young people across the world, but the dance shows no signs of dying out on campus. In fact, in the past five years, membership of the Tech Squares – MIT’s 35-year-old square dancing club is on the rise.
Students love the dance, they say, because it’s not just dancing it’s thinking on your feet. And, they say, it’s aerobic exercise, a great way to socialize, teaches teamwork and how to listen, and is good wholesome fun.
Recently, students worked it out with the athletics department to offer square dancers physical education credit, so for the past three years, the group has grown a lot.
“MIT students don’t care if it’s square,” Hammock says. “In fact, in most cases MIT students would prefer that other people think they’re unusual.”
“There’s a lot of zany, brainy people at MIT,” says senior Lindsay Price. “They think for themselves. They don’t care if somebody thinks what they do is dorky. They just aren’t concerned about what other people think.”
Ron Hoffmann, a network engineer at MIT, began square dancing 25 years ago as an undergrad. “I was all work and no play, and my friends encouraged me to find a social outlet. I resisted at first but then I went, and I’ve been coming back almost every week since. It gave me a social group to belong to.”
James Kretchmar, who also works at MIT, says that as an MIT undergrad “my friends square danced and were always trying to convince me to try it. Finally, I thought, maybe I’ll give it a shot, and once I tried it, I was hooked.”
They square danced in taverns, town halls, and barns, at husking bees, roof-raisings, and sheep-shearings. They square danced in the Appalachian Mountains, in the mining camps during the California gold rush, and every Tuesday and Saturday night, MIT students, alumni, and staff meet in Lobdell dining hall to arrange themselves into squares of eight. Caller Ted Lizotte then calls out, “Cut the Diamond, Spin the Top, Load the Boat,” as about 100 dancers assemble themselves into formations to match the caller’s calls.
There are several levels of square dancing skill and the more complicated the dance, the more MIT students like it.
“At the higher levels, square dancing becomes like puzzle solving – solving spatial puzzles and timing puzzles,” says junior Jen Krishnan. “That’s why MIT students love it.”
“It’s the ultimate in teamwork,” says sophomore Ben Wagner. “All eight people must work together or the square breaks down and you’re not able to dance.”
Kretchmar agrees. “The best moments in square dancing,” he says, “can be when you’re in the middle of a dance and you get confused. The whole square works together to figure it out – and then boom – you all make it together and you’re just thrilled.”
Krishnan says that school is competitive, but what she loves about square dancing is that it’s teamwork, not competition. “I’ve done so many competitive things in my life that I really wanted to just dance – not compete. All I wanted was just to have fun. And it’s a great way to socially interact.”
Gingham and Petticoats
Most often MIT dancers wear street clothes, but sometimes for fun they dress up in gingham and petticoats, string ties and cowboy shirts. And while they more often dance to popular, disco, and rock music, they also dance to country music, much of which is played on 45-rpm vinyl records. Increasingly, though, Hoffmann says, square dance callers are using more modern technology like digital mini-discs, and you also can download square dance music from some Websites.
“It’s a bit of an anachronism and it’s kind of a hokey thing, but I find it encouraging that MIT students are interested in square dancing every year,” Hoffmann says.
“People are extremely busy, and there are a lot of things they don’t have time to do anymore. But I think folks are missing out.”