Squires’ love of the square dance

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Square dances in Squires draw participants from nearby communities, and help preserve a longtime Ozarks tradition. Attendees also dance waltzes, two-steps and line-style during the evenings.

SQUIRES – Tip-tapping heels, pounding circle style, show it’s square dance time in Squires. The monthly event draws many in the tight-knit town: But the dance, on the community calendar for years, is much more than a monthly tradition.

It’s a generational gift, one manifested through grandmothers jigging with their kids. It’s an act of Ozarks preservation. And according to its participants, it’s a whole lot of fun.

One of those dancers is Lexie Gastineau, who pounds and taps her 11-year-old feet to the music alongside her cousin, 9-year-old Emma Smith. The two girls learned to jig by the feet of their grandmother, “Granny” Phyllis Dodie, who was also taught the tradition as a child — and still gets up during the dance to toe-tap away next to her granddaughters.

“My dad was a jigger,” Dodie says. “It’s in my blood.”

And evidently, it’s in the girls’ as well. “It’s just fun,” says Gastineau. Will the girls continue to dance as they get older? One word answers the question: “Yes.”

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Breaking up the evening with a variety of dances gives participants time to rest between the several-minutes-long square dance sequences.

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Lexi Gastineau (right) jigs during Squires’ square dance. The 11-year-old learned the art from her grandmother.

Neighbors, more friends than family, line the walls and fill the floor. Boot and ball-cap clad men sit alongside mothers with lap-sitting children, too young to dance but waiting their turn. The music draws them all to dance.

That music is played by 70-year-old Rolla Swofford, a longtime local resident who controls the sound system. The monthly dances were originally serenaded by a band, but that got too expensive: After all, the admission — $2.50 per person — goes to support the local fire department. So several years ago, Swofford stepped up as disc jockey.

“I’m not a dancer, but I sure like to watch them do it,” he says from his perch on the stage. “I have just as much fun watching them as they do dancing.”

He takes requests from the audience, and virtually anything they bring he’ll play — “and if nobody dances, I won’t play it anymore.” Classic country often provides the soundtrack, but square dances aren’t the only dance that calls people to the floor. They also come for the two-steps, line and waltzes.

Maybe it’s because the local sheriff is a frequent attendee, but the dances are “the best clean fun I know of,” says Swofford.

Of course, that statement is a matter of opinion — and Swofford’s take wouldn’t probably be shared by his mother. “My mom didn’t allow us to dance,” says Swofford, one of 16 kids. She hadn’t always disliked dancing — she even grew up playing the guitar with her dad — but “he died and mom got married and got religion,” says Swofford.

Dancing in the Ozarks

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 “I usually sing along throughout the whole thing,” says Swofford, who also talks to the crowd between tunes.

Although they’re scarce today, square dances used to be a common occurrence throughout the Ozarks. However, Swofford’s mother wasn’t the only one who viewed the practice with disdain. According to “Ozark Baptizings, Hangings and Other Diversions” by Robert Gilmore, in many sections of the region, “dancing was viewed with a disfavor ranging from disapproval to vehement condemnation.”

In those places, play parties — gatherings filled with singing games — were more common. But looking back, some say there really wasn’t much difference between the two.

“In both there was the fascination of rhythmic movement and acting,” wrote Jewell Kirby Fitzhugh in The Ozarks Mountaineer in June 1974. “Players and dancers alike not only kept time to the music with their feet, but also with their arms, head and body. They swung, they walked, they skipped, they promenaded, the play-party goers keeping time to the singing and the dancers to the music of the fiddle.”

Years ago, that music was often supplied locally by fiddler Bob Holt. Originally from Ava, Holt was well-known for his string-skilled fingers and was a familiar face at square dances. He was so treasured, in fact, that he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1999.

“I think if it hadn’t been for just the hard-core group right around here, that it would already have been gone,” said Holt of square dancing in the Springfield News-Leader in recognition of his award. “We’ve worked real hard to keep it going, and I think that’s what this award is all about. It’s certainly not about my fiddling ability, because there’s 10,000 fiddlers out there who’s 10,000 times better than me. It just takes a different lick to be a square dance fiddler.”

Holt passed away in 2004. However, he is remembered; some of those recollections are held by Evelyn (Schuler) Pruitt. A longtime square dancer, she was in a group who performed with Holt in Washington D.C. when he received his award. “He said, ‘Well, my music isn’t the same without the dancers,'” recalls Pruitt of Holt. “We all went to Washington D.C. and danced together.”

But today she’s in Squires, dancing in the same community where she also grew up. “I’ve been dancing since I could walk,” the 81-year-old says, recalling when different families held gatherings every Saturday. “(They’d) move everything out of the living room and have a dance,” she says.

And while it may not be in a living room, dance she continues to do. “My doctor says to keep doing it as long as I can,” she says.

Keeping the dance alive

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Mabel Everett, a longtime dance instructor, jigs alongside Katie Hodges and Camryn Lee. Everett was the girls’ first instructor when they began dancing, both around age 4. “We don’t need to lose the old-fashioned things,” says Everett of square dancing.

Between munching — a potluck dinner kicked off the evening — and mingling, someone requests a dancing demonstration from Katie Hodges and Camryn Lee. Both local, the girls have been dancing since they were around four years old.

As “Cotton Eye Joe” comes through the speakers, the girls begin to clog. Patterns, sung through taps on their shoes, go full speed ahead; feet and legs swinging fast in circles called “windmills.” As they go, smiling onlookers admire their technique. And then another dancer comes to the floor: Mabel Everett, the girls’ first dance teacher, lets her feet loose.

“I grew up in a dancing family,” says Everett, who notes that her dad was a fan of Buster Fellows, a fiddler who played through local radio station KWTO. “Every time he came on, my dad hit the floor and jigged.”

And Everett says that such affection was born into her as well. “I tell everybody that square dancing is my first love,” she says. For years, she helped other discover that joy through the Sassafras Sprouts Hoedowners, a group she and fellow jigger, Tracy Nelson, facilitated so local kids could learn to dance.

Their hard work ultimately won the group first place at Silver Dollar City — and resulted in Everett being awarded the Ozarks Heritage Award for the Preservation of Traditional Dance in 1993. But that’s not the only award that she claims: Everett also notes the time, at 75 years old, when she won the jigging contest at the Christian County Fair.

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It’s not uncommon to see kids on the dance floor: “These young ones will dance every dance,” says Swofford.

With that lifetime of experience, Everett has developed an opinion on who can square dance. “If you can walk, you can square dance,” she says, noting that’s especially true in the kind of dancing that’s done around Southwest Missouri. “You don’t have to be in step with your partner,” she says. “As long as you stay in time with the music, you’re fine.”

While Everett still gives help when asked, she doesn’t really teach on a regular basis these days. “I’ll be 84 next week, so I kinda need to slow down a little bit,” she says. But this summer, she does hope to teach Swofford to “call,” a term for someone who announces what formations dancers should take. Right now, each set has its own caller — Pruitt is one of those people — but once Swofford learns how, he can do it from the stage.

“He sings so well that it’ll be beautiful,” she says. It’s not the first time she’s taught Swofford, providing proof of just how tight-knit the locals Ozarkers are. “Fifty-two years ago, he was in my Sunday School class,” she says.

That fact is only one example of why Everett hopes the square dancing tradition continues. “For me, the whole thing just seems like a big family,” she says. “I don’t think that’s anything we need to lose.”

Want to dance?

Square dances are held in the Squires Community Center at 6 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month. Please note that dances have stopped for summer and will resume again in September. Admission is $2.50 per person.

To learn more about square dancing in the Ozarks, check out the Missouri Traditional Fiddle & Dance Network. Another resource is the Gordon McCann Ozarks Folk Music Collection at Missouri State University, from which many recordings are available on YouTube.