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Square dancing was once popular in Vermont. Some people never stopped.

A black-and-white image shows men and women dancing together
Square Dance History Project
Square dancers in Vermont in the 1950s at a dance, likely in Northfield or Montpelier.

On a recent Tuesday evening, about a dozen people gather in the halls of Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington.

They’re here with the Lake Champlain Squares — a local square dancing group that has been stepping and twirling since 1986.

In sets of four, the dancers move to the music under the guidance of the caller, Ray Moskewich, who sets the pace and direction of the dance.

“All ladies chain across their right. Roll away and circle left I say. Four ladies roll away you circle left, go around I say … with your left hand and we are in the swing.”

Moskewich has been calling square dances since 1998. He calls square dancing the "world's greatest contact sport."

"It's one of those things where you meet people, there's contact, there's hands, there’s shakes, there’s laughs," he says. "You learn to laugh at them, laugh at yourself. So it's very social and I think we need more social now.”

The Lake Champlain Squares meet for a few reasons. Square dancing is a great form of exercise. It’s also highly social. Dancers spend time with old and new friends on the floor.

Day Surles is a member of the club. He says the community keeps him coming back.

"I use it as an excuse a lot to travel around to places, to festivals. I've gone as far as Vancouver and I’ll be going up to Ottawa in July and I just got back from a wonderful dance in near Troy, New Hampshire at East Hill Farm, which is done every year by two world-class callers," he says. "And all we do is dance and eat. Dance and eat. Dance and eat. Get up, repeat.”

As a rural state, Vermont has a deep history of square dancing. David Millstone has been a square dance caller since the 1970s. He also helps run the Square Dance History Project, a website dedicated to documenting the history of the dance in the digital age.

“[I]n Vermont and in New Hampshire back in the day, which is to say the '30s, '40s, '50s, every town would have a dance hall," he says. "It might be the grange hall where people would dance. It might be a church hall. Or it would be a building built specifically as a dance hall.”

Millstone says while we often think of square dancing as an American pastime, its roots are in many different cultures — from the French quadrille that made its way to Mexico and then the southwestern U.S. to Scottish and Irish influences in southern Appalachia.

"And of course, in the South there's also a tremendous African American influence from enslaved Africans who had been brought to work in the U.S.," he says. "So you have all these different roots coming together to form a style of dance that has become associated with the United States, although there are dances in square formation in many cultures.”

Millstone says square dancing hit its peak in the 1970s and '80s and has been on the decline since. But the dance’s popularity has waned and waxed throughout history.

"If they disappear, as they did for a while back in the late 1800s, you know, people will find other ways to amuse themselves on the dance floor," he says. "It's all about getting together, moving to live music and having a great time, and people will continue to find ways to do that."

Ray Moskewich, who calls for the Lake Champlain Squares, says their attendance is holding, but they do want to entice a new generation to come out and dance.

Interested in square dance? Vermont is home to other dancing groups like the Green Mountain Steppers and the Montpelier Contra Dance, among others.

This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.

Mary Kueser is a senior at the University of Vermont majoring in public communication.
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