(Not So) Dirty Dancing

When Shirley Hazlett’s children moved out of her home, she and her husband, George, found themselves at a loss for activity. Shirley felt restless and urged George to take dancing lessons with her, but he hated to exercise. After reading about the many health benefits of square dancing, he reluctantly agreed to taking classes. And what started out on a whim for the couple became a passion.

“I love the dancing and the fellowship,” Shirley says. “You meet so many neat people. And it’s good exercise.”

The Hazletts are the past presidents and current insurance chairmen of the Oklahoma Square Dance Federation, a conglomerate of nine districts and some 75 individual square dancing clubs from across the state. Since 1947, members of the federation dosado’d their way across the dance floors of Oklahoma, and have picked up some serious devotees along the way.

No one can quite agree where square dancing originated. Many credit English and French dances of centuries past, while the Scots, Scandinavians and Spanish are also said to have made contributions. The term dos-a-dos is French in origin, meaning “back-to-back.” Regardless of the roots, it has indisputably become a fixed part of American – and Oklahoman – heritage.

“They call a square dance in English, no matter what country you dance in,” jokes Ray Mills, co-president of the Oklahoma federation.

Jim Reese credits the family atmosphere of the gatherings and the friendliness of Oklahomans for square dancing’s popularity in the state.
“Oklahomans are naturally a social people and this is a very sociable activity,” he says.

“They call a square dance in English, no matter what country you dance in.”

Reese and his wife, Julia, are the immediate past presidents of the Oklahoma Square Dance Federation. They have attended three out of the past four national square dancing conventions that the Oklahoma federation has hosted, and have been active in the group for more than 30 years.

“We started dancing in 1976,” he says, “and plan on many more years of fun and fellowship.”

Mills agrees with Reese that the family-friendly nature of square-dancing gatherings – no drinking or misbehaving – is part of the attraction for so many Oklahomans.

“They’re good, wholesome activities,” he says. “You can even bring your children and teach them to dance.”

Many, like the Hazletts, join their local square dancing clubs for the numerous health benefits, such as reduced risk of heart disease, bone-loss, depression, diabetes and even memory loss. The physical dancing itself keeps the body active and in shape, while the intricate calls of the dance – 32 in just the most basic set – helps keep the mind sharp. In addition, the camaraderie of the groups keeps participants happy and socially fulfilled.

“Many doctors recommend square dancing as a form of exercise and a way to deter the aging process,” Reese says. “It’s one of the healthiest activities a person can participate in.”

While everyone seems to have his or her own reason to join, this fall, the lure will be all about the car. During the first week of November, the Oklahoma Square Dance Federation will host its annual shindig at the Biltmore Hotel in Oklahoma City. Citizens are invited to dance, take one of the many classes offered, or just to watch. And one lucky attendee will drive away with the prize from this year’s classic car giveaway – a 1978 white Corvette – an annual tradition at the event. This year’s theme is as down-to-earth and heartfelt as many of the federation’s members seem to be: “From Our Hearts to Yours, We Hope You Dance.”

In the summer of 2013, the Oklahoma square-dancing scene will heat up even more as the federation hosts the 62nd annual National Square Dance Convention. Dancers and callers from around the nation will converge on Oklahoma City for four days of clogging, sashays and allemandes. Mills says that during the last convention, most of the hotels in Oklahoma City were booked; he anticipates a similarly large gathering in 2013.

“It’s a whole lot of work to get everything put together on the national level,” he says, citing the help of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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