DeKALB – Debbie Richmond was dressed to do-si-do Friday at Northern Illinois University’s Student Holmes Center.
Her blue and white dress – including “the petty coat and bloomers” – were the traditional garb for square dancing, where participants listen to cues shouted by a caller and follow their direction.
“It’s a lot of fun and a lot of laughs,” said Richmond, a Belvidere resident who picked up square dancing again about seven years ago after taking a hiatus.
Richmond is just one of about 500 people expected to attend the 32nd Illinois Square & Round Dance Convention this weekend on the NIU campus.
Registration is required to attend, but not to show up and watch the dancers.
The event, hosted by the Metropolitan Chicago Association of Square Dancers, proves the dance is still a popular and ever-changing way to stay active.
The convention kicked off Thursday evening with a trail-in benefit dance for Fairdale and Rochelle. On Friday evening, featured caller Darryl Lipscomb from Mission, Texas, led the dancers through songs such as the 1960 tune “Rockin’ Robin” by Bobby Day and even newer songs such as “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. The songs’ beats stayed, but Lipscomb’s calls replaced the lyrics while a dizzying array of dancers, mostly older, spun around the dance floor in circles of eight.
Lipscomb said it takes three skills to be a good caller: entertainer, educator and puzzle-solving.
“You’ve got to really enjoy puzzle-solving, creating the puzzle for dancers and helping them solve it,” he said.
The last time the convention came through DeKalb was 2007, but this year’s attendance is supposed to round up major bucks, according to the latest report from the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
DeKalb was an ideal place to host the convention again, according to Richard Sehnert, chairman of the Illinois Square Dance Convention.
“We got a good deal on pricing, and the welcome we [received] when we first came out and attended the meetings here was just wonderful,” Sehnert said. “They welcomed us back. They actually gave us prices from 2007.”
Square dancing and round dancing – similar to square dancing, except it’s “more of a waltz and you dance in a big round circle,” Sehnert said – has its reputation: Ladies in puffy dresses and crinolines being twirled by gentlemen in button-down shirts while country tunes play, but that’s not always the case with modern square dancing.
Lipscomb said square dancing is more than the images it’s mostly associated with such as dancing to “Turkey in the Straw” and hollering “Yee-haw!”
“That’s as far from the truth as you can possibly be,” he said. “That’s the one thing we’ve been fighting for years is trying to change our image. People have come up with a whole lot of different ideas and we haven’t hit a home run yet.”
The attire, at least for Friday’s event, was mostly the usual button-down shirts for the men and frilly dresses for the women.
Darleene and Dom Shah, both of Arlington Heights, have been square dancing for about 19 years. He wore slacks and a button-down shirt; she wore a blue cotton dress with ruffles, but there’s hardly a square dance dress code anymore, Darleene Shah said.
“We’re trying to draw more people in, and some people don’t like anything fluffy or wearing long dresses,” she said. “Some ladies just want to wear slacks. As long as you come and dance, we’re happy.”
Keeping the activity going into future generations is key, because “it’s in a downward cycle,” according to Bob Carpenter, historian with the State Council of Illinois Square Dance Association.
“The music has changed so much,” he said. “It used to be just country. I was at the national convention in Springfield, Massachusetts, a couple of weeks ago, and I danced to a lady singing opera. I’ve danced to rap. Anything you can think of, I’ve danced to.”
Bobby Poyner, who was in charge of programming this event, said the camaraderie of it all keeps people coming back.
“It’s all about fun,” he said. “A lot of us only see each other two or three times a year. We’ve had a lot of people join since 2007, so a lot of people haven’t even been to DeKalb.”
And the best benefit of square and round dancing, Carpenter said, is the health benefit.
“It tends to make you healthier,” he said. “It increases your heart rate. You’re not in front of a computer or a television.”