Temperatures are hovering around freezing and rain is obscuring the roads on this winter night. Even so, more than 50 cars coming from around the metro area fill the Gashland United Methodist Church parking lot in Kansas City, North.
Inside, dozens of couples are ready to square dance for hours, with breaks for a nonalcoholic drink or a piece of red velvet cake.
It’s a waning pastime, but those in the Pistols & Petticoats Club — or any of the other 24 or so clubs in the area — are all in. Their calendars are crowded with dances two to three nights every week. Some of the women spend hours sewing — or hunting down — elaborate costumes. And they make lifelong friends they even vacation with.
The excitement is renewed at every dance. Jay Krebs, 65, of Raytown, knows that the success of this night’s dance can hinge on his performance. As the caller for the Pistols & Petticoats Club, it’s up to him to choreograph — or call — each and every move.
The squares consist of four couples, each couple forming one side and facing the center. Krebs leads the dancers through a sequence of steps. Some cue the dancers in a rhythmic, recitation style, but Krebs actually sings his calls.
The Marine veteran has a smooth, Neil Diamond-esque baritone. A college music professor once told his wife, Linda, that Krebs had the best baritone of anyone she’d ever heard who was not a professional singer.
The dance’s caller is a combination drum major, coach, drill sergeant and guide dog. Go with the directions, and you’ll be just fine.
The format somehow appears easy-breezy and complexly regimented at the same time. The dancers’ feet pace through a soft march. Arms weave as confidently as those of Maypole dancers who know the pattern and don’t get tangled. In fact, it’s more about the hands than the feet. There are 46 or more different maneuvers, depending on the skill level.
A dance races at 126 to 128 beats per minute — too fast to check your iPhone, that is — while Krebs takes the dancers through a “double pass-through track-two promenade” and a “linear cycle that finishes like a Ferris wheel all the way to the middle.”
The music is not just old-time country and western. At any given time, the tune playing could be “Amarillo by Morning,” “Under the Boardwalk” or classic rock. It might even be “Neutron Dance” or “Winnie the Pooh.”
The dancers are colorful as they twirl around the room. Some women wear the brilliant hues of jungle birds. They fluttered about a little like jungle birds, too. Their full skirts of blue and gold, red and black or other vivid color combinations rest atop bouncing crinolines, or petticoats, to keep them belled out. Other women wear longer “prairie skirts.”
Krebs’ wife, Linda Krebs, also 65, wears elaborately bejeweled and embroidered jeans this night, but she owns at least 30 dresses. She sews them herself — all but the petticoats, which can contain as much as 120 yards of netting to make them stand out. A ready-made or custom-made dress can cost as much as $150, plus $100 for the petticoat, she said.
Frances Tiller of Olathe, a member of the Swingin’ Singles club held at the Old Shawnee Town Hall in Shawnee, bought many of her dresses at “clothesline sales” held by female dancers. “I didn’t get to go to a prom,” she said, “so I tell my husband, ‘I got a new dress for the prom.’”
At the Northland dance, some men wear boots and boleros, with a cowboy hat here and there. The other half of the crowd dons jeans and comfortable shoes.
With a mix of concentration and exhilaration, the Pistols & Petticoats dancers swirl and twirl to the rhythm of the music and Krebs’ baritone.
The cares of the day are far away.
“In our regular lives, we have a lot of dramas, a lot of worries,” Krebs said. “But if you’re listening, you can’t be thinking about the bad day at work.”
If there are formulas for fun — free-floating, loose-limbed, pure enjoyment of the moment — square dancing is certainly one of them.
Kansas City is home to about 25 square dancing clubs — but at its height, the area had as many as 125 clubs, four of them youth clubs.
In 1975, when Kansas City hosted the national square dancing convention at Municipal Auditorium, 22,000 people attended, according to Heart of America Federation of Square Dance Clubs historian Shirley Stock. Jim Tiller of Olathe estimated there were only 8,000 two years ago at the national convention in Louisville, Ky. Organizers are hoping for 4,000 dancers at the 2018 national convention to be held in Kansas City.
Tiller and others are working to spread the word of square dancing’s appeal and health benefits to a larger crowd, and hopefully, a younger one.
It’s a lot more fun than spending time at a gym, Tiller said, and a lot less expensive.
Lessons to learn the moves — usually a series of around 22 — cost only a few dollars each, and dances are only a $5 donation.
He also stressed the health factors documented by no less than the Mayo Clinic, whose study showed that square dancing can burn as many calories (200 to 400 per 30 minutes) as walking, swimming or biking. In one study, researchers attached pedometers to square dancers and found that each person covered 5 miles in a single evening.
Jerry Belgum of Independence also is working to convince others to join by creating a new, faster-paced club for ages 14 to 40.
The Flying Squares will hold its first dance March 10 at the First Baptist Church on Red Bridge Road in Kansas City. He acknowledges that although the music is set to around 125 beats per minute, the tempo can fluctuate a bit with the caller in the existing clubs. “Some callers are way too slow. You could go to sleep waiting for the next call,” Belgum said.
Now president of the Swingin’ Singles and treasurer of the Heart of America Federation of Square Dance Clubs, Belgum attends dances about twice a week but could happily go to five if he had the time.
Belgum wants to give young people a way to “kick up their heels and have a lot of fun and not be slowed down by old people like myself.”
Maybe some of those young people will fall in love the way Bonnie Milligan did. The Independence Santa Fe Trailers club member was 25, and her date took her to the 1975 national square dance convention here.
They climbed up to get a view from the balcony at Municipal Auditorium. “All I saw were the square dancers’ skirts twirling around the floor, and I thought it was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen, and it convinced me I needed to dance,” said Milligan of Independence.
Another caller at the dance at Gashland United Methodist Church in the Northland was Bill Reynolds, 74, of Grain Valley, a former Independence police officer and a former cynic.
“My wife told me we had to find another hobby because my attitude was so bad,” he said. “‘You think everybody’s a crook but you,’” she told him. “About the third lesson in, I was hooked,” he said.
Dancing morphed into calling several years later, and he’s been at it 33 years, calling monthly for both the B-Tweens on Noland Road and the Swangers on Vivion Road in Kansas City, North.
He talked about the value of close friendships that he and his wife, Liz, have formed. “They’d do anything for you,” he said.
Many club members have spent holidays and vacations, even cruises, together.
Whether you’re a police officer, a teacher or a sprinkler system salesman, no one cares what you do for a living, said Becky Admire of Excelsior Springs, a Pistols & Petticoats member.
“You can be blue collar or hotsy-totsy rich,” she said, “They don’t care if you have an education, whether you’re overweight or underweight. All they want to know is, ‘Can you dance?’”
“It’s more fun than sitting home on the weekend and watching TV,” said Sue Grube, who joined Grandview’s Jacks ’N’ Queens with her husband, Tom, 35 to 40 years ago. “And now we’ve got this family of friends forever.”
It’s friendship, fun and fitness in one inexpensive activity, Tiller said. The Tillers go to two or three dances each week, sometimes more.
“This is the most fun thing I’ve done in my entire life. When the music starts, my heart revs up and I’m ready to go,” he said.
Milligan, who owns Patchwork Pals Quilt Shop in Blue Springs, joins 60 to 100 others for the Santa Fe Trailers’ dances at Sycamore Hills Elementary School in Independence. The more people who are there, the better it gets, she said, because their caller, Stan Brooke, cranks up in relation to that.
“The more people we have, the more excited he gets,” she said.
A caller for 33 years, Krebs has gotten good at fitting his calling gigs around his day job as a senior trainer for Bayer Corp., where he has worked for 42 years.
But back in 1982, he was not at all interested in square dancing when he took lessons as a wedding present to his first wife. “Lo and behold, I realized I liked it,” he said.
Later, when he started calling, Krebs spent lunch breaks on the floor of the employee locker room at Bayer moving small, doll-like figures around like chess pieces to develop interesting dance formations.
But those stick figures are ancient history.
“I’m what they call a site caller,” he said. “I don’t memorize stuff. I just call the stuff that comes into my head. It’s like putting a jigsaw back together — taking it apart and putting it back together.”
Krebs will travel as far as 150 miles to call a dance. “On one trip to Hutchinson, Kansas, he barely made enough to cover his gas,” said his wife. “He just loves it.”
Krebs also calls all of the Swingin’ Singles dances held at Old Shawnee Town Hall. On Feb. 3, that club honored him with a plaque marking his 30 years calling for them.
“Dancers will travel from many miles out just to spend the evening dancing with Jay,” said Tiller.
After a three-hour workout filled with loud laughter and genteel woohooing, the Pistols & Petticoats group at the Northland dance was ready to call it a night.
The majority of couples who took the floor first-off that evening had remained to the end, which is not always the case. It can be a measure of how well the caller did, he said. “The whole thing is to make it fun. That is my responsibility.”
They must have had fun that night at Pistols & Petticoats, because right after they quit, they queued up as if for a rite of religious communion. Two by two, they thanked Krebs for calling and delivered their “yellow rocks,” which is gracious square dance lingo for hugs.
It was a long line.
For more information about square dancing opportunities in the Kansas City area, contact Jim Tiller at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Heart of America Federation at www.squaredancemissouri.com.