The head two ladies cross over,
And take the opposite stand;
The side two ladies cross over,
Now all join hands!
The mere utterance of such a phrase can transport adults back to the school gyms of their childhoods and the annual square-dance unit, a ritual often undertaken with equal parts dread and anticipation.
Fiddle music played from scratchy records and students nervously laughed. Without fail, partners danced with sweaty hands.
Calling for dancers
Square dancing isn't just for gym class. The public is welcome to do-si-do at the Harmony Community Center’s Barn Dance in Ballston.
* WHEN: 7 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13.
* WHERE: Harmony Community Center at Harmony Hall, 1401 Peaceable St.
* ADMISSION: $5; $1 for kids 6 to 12.
Fern Bradley will be calling and music will be provided by TuneFolk and Ed Lowman.
The event will include square and circle dances, contradances and folk dances.
Square dancing in gym class has been a rite of passage for Capital Region pupils for decades. Despite the fact that today’s kids are much more inclined to jump around and fist pump to hip-hop music on their own time, many still bow to their partners and do the allemande left during gym class.
Students have been kicking up their heels to songs like “Duck for the Oyster” and “Do-Si-Do and Swing” since Charlton Heights Elementary School in Ballston Lake opened in 1958. There are no plans to break that 50-plus-year streak, said physical education instructor Steve Jones.
Jones has memories of square dancing as a kid at Pashley Elementary School in Glenville.
“At the time, I probably did not like it or appreciate it,” he conceded.
But now that he’s teaching square dancing to classes of, at times, equally reluctant students, he said he can see its benefits.
“It teaches you a lot about manners and how to socially get through those situations so that, in the future, when you go to a wedding or a social event, you’re not feeling awkward or just standing in a corner of the room not wanting to get out there,” he explained.
Learning to dance in a group is also a great team-building exercise, he noted.
“There’s a lot of team stuff to it, and coordination, and listening to a command, and trying to do it in rhythm. A lot of athletics are involved,” he said.
Principal Tim Sinnenberg said he doesn’t think square dancing is an outdated activity. When the three-week dance unit is in full swing at Charlton Heights, he often takes a spot in one of the squares.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said, of square dancing. “I think that it definitely promotes socialization, it promotes listening skills, following directions, movement, and it’s all done in an activity that’s really a lifelong activity.”
While in the thick of their mandated square dancing years, many students find it hard to imagine that they’ll ever have need for their do-si-doing skills in the future.
When they ask Saratoga High School physical education teacher Brenda Adams, “When are we ever going to use this?” she has been known to quip, “Well, when you’re at your grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.”
But she’s quick to tout the benefits of the dance instruction.
In addition to various line dances like the chicken dance and the bunny hop, Saratoga Springs High School students are learning the Virginia reel, a folk dance performed in pairs that was popular in America in the 1800s.
“We do it more or less just because of the social aspect, the following of directions. And honestly, the teachers enjoy it — swing your partner and do-si-do — and we kind of get into it when we call it and give instructions,” Adams said.
Learning the steps
Armed with a microphone and a recording of “Turkey in the Straw,” she and other teachers lead up to 130 kids at a time through the steps.
“You know — forward and back, bow, curtsey, right elbow, left elbow, two-hand swing,” she illustrated.
Some kids don’t want any part of the dancing, she noted.
“They want to sit out and take a zero, but I would say for the most part, our kids enjoy it. They complain, but they enjoy it,” she said.
The grumbling that inevitably started before the square-dance unit at Shenendehowa’s middle schools sparked teachers to rethink their curriculum. Now, instead of dancing in squares, the students dance in more-with-the-times circles and lines.
“We wanted to try and reach out to them and do some dances that would capture their interest and that they might be able to relate to a little bit more,” said seventh- and eighth-grade physical education teacher Lori Kessler.
The updated dance unit now includes a circle partner folk dance and line dances like the cha cha slide and the cotton-eyed Joe. A professional dance instructor also makes a special appearance during the two-week dance unit.
No matter what dance they’re doing, the kids get a good aerobic workout, Kessler said.
“They’re like, ‘Whoa, I’m sweating, Coach!’ They’re getting fitness and you don’t even realize that you’re working hard.”
Skills beyond class
It turns out some students do use their square dancing skills after the school bell rings.
Sue Mead, who organizes barn dances at Harmony Hall in Ballston, said the dances there can draw 70 to 80 people, many of them kids from local schools.
“We’ll have people bring their Girl Scout troop. They bring the kids and we really encourage young and old alike. The dances are easy enough for everybody to do. Whether you know what you’re doing or not, everybody helps you through it,” she said. “It’s a great way for you to meet friends and neighbors and connect — without electronics.”