Dancing outside the box
Gays embrace an American tradition: square dancing
By Joanna Smiley | firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Neiheisel stood in the Anaheim Marriott lobby clad in khaki shorts and a black polo shirt embroidered with a rainbow-sail logo. A mix of coffee, nicotine and adrenaline pumped through his veins.
Neiheisel, 51, had left his home in Escondido at 6 a.m. that day with one thing on his mind: square dancing.
He wasn’t alone.
Neiheisel was one of nearly 1,000 people who gathered July 1 at the hotel for the 23rd annual International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs (IAGSDC) convention.
Some of the dancers flew in from as far away as Japan and Grand Rapids, Mich., to do-si-do.
Coincidentally, hundreds of teenagers disguised as action heroes were also in town for the Anime (AX) Expo 2006. A boy with a purple mohawk winced as he brushed shoulders with a gay square dancer in a pink tutu. The third group to book the hotel that weekend, a Christian televangelist group, had yet to arrive.
“It’s wonderful here,” Neiheisel said. “The air is cranked way up, we’re dancing, I’m seeing people I get to see once a year and once a year only.” He floated into the main ballroom with his head held high and his smile utterly contagious.
The gay square dancing boom
It’s a scene that has grown significantly since its Florida debut in 1977. IAGSDC, which formed in 1983, includes 60 clubs, 2,400 members and international affiliates in Canada and Japan. For the past 15 years, the community has been growing steadily, according to Karl Jaeckel, archivist with IAGSDC and one of 10 people who has been to all 23 of the group’s conventions.
“If I had to pick three reasons why we’re growing, I would say it’s because we operate as singles’ clubs, so it’s a great social activity,” Jaeckel said. “We don’t require uniformed clothing, and there is an added element of excitement with gay square dancing. We kick up our heels knowing we are dancing in a welcoming place.”
For Neiheisel, it’s all about the people.
“It’s such a diverse group from all ages and backgrounds that comes together for this one common interest,” he said. “There’s also the benefits of socialization and physical activity. We have a guy in Finest City Squares (the San Diego group Neiheisel is a member of) who is 80 years old and square dancing, so it’s got to be good for you.”
Barbara Klein is a straight square dancer who attended the convention with her friend Melinda, a member of Tucson Squares.
“What I love about it is that it’s high-energy and much more stylized than straight square dancing,” she said. “Gay square dancing is not what you think of when you think of the high school honky-tonk.”
Roots of the dance
New England settlers and immigrant groups who brought folk music to America in the early 1900s probably had no idea how popular square dancing would become.
To unwind from a hard day’s work, pioneers would gather in front of a fiddle player and twist and twirl their neighbors. It became a grand old American pastime.
Square dancing is the official state dance of 22 states, including California. However, in recent years the straight square dancing community has seen a decline. At this year’s 55th National Square Dance Convention in San Antonio, approximately 7,000 people attended, a two-thirds drop from 1994.
Vivian McCannon, 88, of San Antonio, has been on the National Square Dance Convention Executive Committee for 32 years. The San Antonio convention was her last before retiring.
McCannon said she isn’t keen on gays appropriating the square dancing tradition.
“I’m not in favor of (gays), and I’m not exactly sure why they’ve come into square dancing,” she said. “Gays are a touchy subject wherever you go. I’ve seen some at straight clubs. As long as they stay to themselves and aren’t bothering anyone, it’s OK.”
Gay acceptance: a work in progress
Brian Smith, treasurer of IAGSDC and a member of the Vancouver group Squares Across the Border, said about 20 percent of Saturday’s attendees were reluctant to wear their passion for gay square dancing on their sleeves.
“There is less reason to hide in Canada,” he said. “With everything going on in America, the trend is to hide. Where I’m from, gays can get married, gays can get divorced, gays can even file income taxes as a couple.”
David Eppelheimer, a 52-year-old gay square dancer and kindergarten teacher from Grand Rapids, Mich., said July 1 was his 10th convention.
“I’ve always treated myself as a second-class citizen,” he said, smiling at a friend he recognized from last year’s dance. “Now I realize I don’t want to believe that anymore. It feels good to be accepted here, to be who I am in this room full of a thousand people who have dealt with it or understand and are straight.”
In a room down the hall — the designated lesbian square dancer suite — a discussion ensued about why there are more gay men than lesbian square dancers.
“Men need this outlet,” said Olivia Pickette, a square dancer with DC Lambda Squares. “They can hang here and be themselves. It seems more culturally accepted to be a gay woman right now.”
Suddenly, a woman who resides in Oceanside surfaced from behind a soda machine. She said that she had to step out of a photo earlier in the day because she works in the military. (She declined to be named in this story.)
She has three more months until she is discharged, she said. She explained to the group that her sexuality is not accepted in her line of work. If she discloses to her commander that she is a gay woman and sexually active, it is grounds for dismissal.
Square dancing: the common denominator
The clock ticked and Neiheisel emerged from a room packed with dancers. He rounded up his Finest City Squares crew. It was almost time for the Honky Tonk Queen and Fairy Tale Ball.
“The North County group is struggling,” Neiheisel said with a sigh as he handed out collared shirts. “. . . Finest City Squares is doing really well. We meet every week in San Diego.”
Jim Dillon and his wife, Nancy, square dance with Neiheisel’s group. This was their second gay square dancing convention.
“We go to both straight and gay conventions,” Jim said. “They’re perfectly open to straight couples here. (Square dancing) is good exercise, a mental challenge and great fun. (Gay dancing) is very different than straight square dancing, which requires traditional attire, for one.”
Veronica Ramirez, a 16-year-old from Santa Ana, draped in black and clutching a sword, hurried by Neiheisel and his pals.
“Man, I think this is really cool,” she shouted. “The fact that you’re here and out in the open is a great thing.”
Reach reporter Joanna Smiley at 760.752.6735.