Photography by: Terry Mayer
By Lisa Schmelz
Contributor to the Weekender
ELKHORN — Alannah Dennis of Elkhorn is only six-months old, but that doesn’t mean she’s too young for square dancing. Tucked cozily into an infant carrier on her father Dale’s back, she is the perfect symbol of what square dancing needs most: young blood.
“She’s been coming for a couple of months. She actually fell asleep at the last dance with the rhythm and the movement,” said her mother, Tanya Dennis, during a break in dances on a recent Wednesday evening with the Limber Timbers, an Elkhorn square dance club that meets at Elkhorn Area Middle School. “She never fusses. She likes it. Babies love music.”
But can little Alannah save square dancing? Though once a proud fixture on the prairie social scene, square dancing is — like many folk arts — slowly fading into history.
On this night, Alannah joined about 70 other square dancers in the middle school’s cafeteria. While gray was the predominant hair color of the crowd, Alannah wasn’t the only youngster here.
Front and center was proof-positive that square dancing isn’t just for the Geritol crowd.
The evening’s square dance caller was Noah Siegmann, who is just 22 years old. That’s right, 22.
A dairy farmer from Rubicon, Wis., he has not yet met the perfect partner and is still, as they say in square dancing lingo, circulating. He didn’t think twice, though, about making a solo 100-mile round-trek across dark icy roads to lead two hours of square dancing. A third-generation caller, he learned the art, and science, of square dancing from his father.
“It kind of runs in the family,” he said between dances, and putting a vinyl record, yes, a vinyl record, on a turntable for the next round. “It’s a fun thing to do on the side. People think it’s only for older people and that it’s kind of hokey. It has a bad rap. Unfortunately, it gets misplaced as something that only grandma and grandpa do.”
Siegmann was wearing a navy blue Western suit jacket that, long before he was born, was worn by his father at square dances throughout the Midwest. His burgundy dress shirt has pearlized snaps and his bola sports an eagle. His Levis, size 12-and-a-half Ariat boots and thick blonde mane have him looking like a country idol wannabe.
But Siegmann’s goals don’t stretch from coast to coast, and his aspirations are, in this era of young adult reality stars, refreshingly humble. In his own way, he is simply trying to keep square dancing alive in his neck of the woods.
His play list isn’t entirely banjos and fiddles, and is sprinkled with a few pop hits that have a square-danceable four-by-four beat. But it’s the calls, not the tunes, dancers must follow and Seigmann hopes that every call he makes will inspire those new to the pastime to keep coming back for more.
“I believe there’s not enough local callers that really want to continue being local,” he said. “I don’t want to call across the country. I just want to be a good local caller and help the movement grow because square dancing is dying.”
One of the ways organizers recruit new dancers is through free performances or lessons. Tanya Dennis, Alanna’s mother, said she and her husband were hooked after they watched a group from the Limber Timbers perform at the Walworth County Fair. (And, no, they did not have Alanna just to add another square dancer to the country.)
“From a family perspective, it’s something we can all do. You don’t have to worry about your kids with it. It’s good clean fun. It’s also great exercise. You don’t even realize you’re exercising,” she said.
Though Allanah was the youngest person on the floor, the title for youngest actual square dancer went to her big sister, Savannah Hernandez, 8.
“This is the first time she’s danced with anyone but her club caller,” said Tanya Dennis, looking on proudly as Savannah do-si-dos her way through the partners in her square. “She looks a little lost but she really does like it.”
Savannah did look a little lost as she tried to execute the caller’s calls, but she also looked like she was having the time of her life. Watching her circle to the left and pass to the right, you realize that hokey or not, it really is hip to be square.