BIDDEFORD — Twenty years ago, the New England Square and Round Dance Convention would routinely draw up to 8,000 dancers to promenade, sashay and allemande (left or right) through a weekend.

Organizers of this year’s event – the 52nd annual – were keeping their fingers crossed Saturday, hoping to meet their goal of 1,200 attendees.

Bud Clifford, the Vermonter running this year’s convention, has an easy explanation for the declining popularity of square dancing.

“People keep dying,” he said, “and we don’t have new people coming in.”

To hear Clifford and others tell it, square dancing and its cousin, round dancing, are the latest casualties of the iPod, the iPad, the Internet, youth sports run amok and a pace of life that no longer allows a few hours a week to put on bolo ties or dresses pouffed up with lots of petticoats and form up squares with some friends.

“There’s so many other things for kids to do now,” said Judy Clifford, Bud’s wife.

“And there was a sociability that we don’t have now,” Bud Clifford added.

The event, the Cliffords said, has become more of a reunion now, with the dwindling number of New England square dancers using the occasion to meet up with old friends and mourn those who have passed on during the previous 12 months. However, there’s still plenty of dancing, from the Trail-in Dance Thursday night, to nearly 14 hours of scheduled dancing Friday and Saturday, post-midnight after-party dances during the early mornings Saturday and Sunday and then the Trail-out Dance at 9 a.m. today.

“There’s the sunrise dance,” Judy Clifford added. “We have one of those, too,” around 6 a.m.

Those who attend all the events, she said, earn a special badge.

Judy Clifford gently blames schools for the declining popularity of square dancing. She noted that when she was an elementary student, square dancing was a regular fixture in the phys ed lesson plans.

Most schools have dropped it from the schedule, she said, and phys ed classes today tend to focus on the same kinds of sports that are eating up kids’ after-school time, such as soccer, football and baseball.

There’s nothing wrong with those sports, Clifford said, but she’d like to see square dancing come back, since it’s part physical activity and part of America’s heritage.

Johnny Wedge, a square dance caller and official with the New England Square Dance Cooperative Committee, said square dancers themselves, along with a time-pressed culture, are to blame.

Wedge said many square dancers have been at it so long that they’re up to more complicated dances – there were dances for six levels of dancers at the convention this weekend. Square dancers don’t show enough tolerance for those who are new, he said, and are reluctant to teach newcomers or put up with simpler steps for those with less experience.

“We go faster and faster, and people can’t keep up,” said Wedge, who’s from Dracut, Mass. “It’s just not a thing that you can come in off the street and do.”

Running counter to the trend of declining participation is the Sage Swingers, a Brunswick-based club that has managed to maintain enrollment. John Heign, a teacher with the club, said it’s because the Swingers do round dancing, which features conventional ballroom dances like the foxtrot and waltz.

Unlike square dancers, round dancers stay in pairs and dance in a broad circle. A “cuer,” like the caller in square dancing, will call out different moves, like a twirl or a particular step, that’s incorporated into the dance.

Heign said round dancing may benefit from “Dancing with the Stars,” a popular television show that features celebrities of varying skill levels being judged on ballroom dances performed with professional dancers.

Even though interest is high, Heign said, those who join the Sage Swingers soon learn that ballroom dance is a lot tougher to perform than it may seem on television.

“People today want instant gratification but it takes nine months to learn this,” he said. “You’ve got to work your butt off.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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