Square dancers learn new steps at a workshop for new dancers Tuesday evening. SAGE Square and Round Dance in Topsham is the largest square dancing club in the state. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

TOPSHAM — The traditional ruffled, crinoline dresses may have fallen by the wayside, but square dancing is still alive and well in Maine — just ask the dozens of people who gather every week at Woodside Elementary School in Topsham to swing, do-si-do, promenade and more. 

SAGE Square and Round Dance Club, formerly known as the SAGE Swingers, was started 50 years ago by the USAF Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (a radar air defense system also known as SAGE) in Topsham. It is the largest of about a dozen square dance clubs in Maine, with about 100 members. 

“It’s good exercise,” said Martha Beckman, who has been square dancing for more than 50 years. 

Debbie Dixon agreed. 

“It helps your physical health and her brain health,” she said. “The input from the music, the physical motion. It’s better than a crossword puzzle.”

According to The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that of 11 different forms of physical activity, only dance lowered the participants’ risk of dementia; a fact attributed partly to the mental effort and social interaction. 

Other studies, according to the institute, show that dance can help reduce stress, increase serotonin and help develop new neural connections “especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory and spatial recognition.” 

In Maine, the oldest state in the nation, more than 28,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a recent study by the Alzheimer’s Association. Those numbers, already thought to be underreported, are expected to increase by 25% by 2025 and more than double by 2050. 

Though there is a dance somewhere in the state most weekends ,and despite the current interest and the brain-boosting effect of the dance style, some square dancers are worried that before long, their beloved activity may die out. 

“Look around. What’s the age range here, 50s to 80s? It’s a dying art,” said Walt Bull, a recently retired square dance caller (the person who calls out the moves to the dancers).

The social aspect of dancing both limits and drives the group, agreed Dixon. They all like to socialize, but it can be hard to mix generations. 

But Beckman, Dixon and Bull all think square dancing can and should transcend age barriers, just as music does. Recently, the group has experimented with different music. It doesn’t matter what the song is, said Mike Mangion, group president, as long as it has the right beat for dancing. They have even tried rap, though it did not go over as well as some other choices. 

No matter what they dance to, how old the dancers are or where they come from, “The community aspect has never changed.”

The group meets on Tuesday evenings at Woodside Elementary School, as long as the school is open. All levels are welcome and another new dancer workshop is expected to open soon.  

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