Some take square dancing for a spin

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Jim Brown of Brookline and his wife, Agnes, decided more than 20 years ago to stop “being couch potatoes” and do something active.

They started square dancing with another couple. Agnes Brown and the husband of the other couple since have passed away, but Brown, 78, and the other remaining spouse, Phyllis Murray, also of Brookline, continue to square dance.

They travel to North Hills Community Baptist Church in Ross, where members of the Y-Knot Dance Club meet every first and third Thursday of the month. Brown is president of the club, which features square and round dancing and takes its name from its original incarnation as a YMCA club at the Y in Pine.

Jeanne Maier, 65, of McCandless and Russ Stewart, 71, of Shaler have been dancing together for 35 years, 18 with the Y-Knot club. They participate in the do-si-dos, aleman lefts and rights, promenades and more complicated moves.

“Once you learn square dancing, then you learn round dancing,” he said.

Square dancing has evolved over centuries in Europe and North America, with a “square” comprising four couples. Early settlers brought the four-couples dancing to America.

A unique form developed in the western United States, with a caller who prompts the dancers into performing the next routine. Round dancing, which has a cuer to call out steps, involves couples dancing in a circle and steps related to ballroom dances such as the waltz, cha-cha, rhumba and tango.

Y-Knot is one of 15 square and round dance clubs in the Pittsburgh area, all members of the Western Pennsylvania Square and Round Dancing Federation. Its members say the square and round dances provide an excellent physical workout. Stewart reports occasionally sweating during routines.

“My heart doctor says, ‘Go,' ” Stewart said of the dancing.

But square and round dancing make a difference in dancers' mental acuity, too, Brown said.

“It keeps your mind very, very active; it's a great Alz­heimer's test,” Brown said. “You have to be able to execute the moves.”

Maier, Stewart's dance partner for 35 years, said some square dancers go to different clubs because they like the caller.

“The caller makes a big difference,” she said.

“We encourage members to go to other dances,” Stewart said. Most square and round dance clubs have banners captured in “banner raids.” The dance club that owns a banner from another club then hosts a return visit from the club from which it raided the banner.

“It's a way to get people to interact,” Stewart said.

Y-Knot offers lessons the first Monday of the month. A new set of classes will begin on Feb. 3 in Kane Regional Center in Ross.

“If you like it, you like it and continue,” Stewart said.

Some members have found other kinds of commitments at Y-Knot.

“We've had several weddings” of members who met through Y-Knot, Brown said. But Y-Knot is not a couples dance club. Singles can attend, as can folks who are friends, such as Maier and Stewart.

After dancers take lessons, “you can go anywhere,” Brown said. Worldwide, square dance callers give the calls in English. It's the only dance called in English all over the world, Stewart said. It's also the official Pennsylvania state dance.

Members said Y-Knot has had visitors from Germany, France, China, Japan and England.

Y-Knot members allow casual dress during the summer and ask for “traditional dress” the rest of the year. That means trousers for men and either ruffled or prairie skirts for women.

Men often wear long-sleeved shirts with a Western cut, string ties and cowboy boots or regular shoes and decorative belt buckles. Couples often coordinate clothing for holidays, such as red, white and blue outfits to commemorate Veterans Day.

“It's a very fun, festive evening,” Stewart said.

“It's better than walking on a treadmill,” Brown said.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer.

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