Happy Twirlers Square Dance Club in Des Plaines celebrates its 50th year
Box the gnat. Roll away to a half sashay. Weave the ring.
Any of these sound familiar? No? How about Allemande left, promenade or do si do?
For Cliff Benson of Morton Grove, these are everyday phrases in his everyday life. He has been a square dance caller for 50 years, and spent the past five as a member of the Happy Twirlers Square Dance Club in Des Plaines, which celebrated its own 50th anniversary in September.
"I have been a caller since I was 14," said Benson, who is co-president of the Happy Twirlers along with Leslie Williams of Schiller Park. "My parents were dancers, so I grew up around it."
Now he spends time dancing and occasionally calling for the Des Plaines club, which was founded by Charles and Lee Weiler in September 1969 with 16 members. Its highest membership was 135 dancers in 1989-1990. It now boasts close to 30 members and is open to welcoming more.
The club meets from 7 to 10 p.m. the second Saturday of the month, September to May, at Trinity Lutheran Church, 675 E. Algonquin Road in Des Plaines. The cost to attend is $8.
The evening is divided into three parts. It begins with a workshop from 7 to 7:30, which is like a refresher course, offering tips for some of the calls and going over dance moves. From 7:30 to 8 is round dancing, which is more like ballroom dancing and uses a cuer, who tells the dancers the steps they should be taking.
Finally, it's time for the main event -- square dancing -- which is in a formation of a square with eight people and uses a caller, who "calls" out the moves dancers are expected to do.
"We mainly use country western music," said Williams, "but some callers are changing to use more modern music. We are seeing more and more of that."
Williams said the group uses a variety of callers because there aren't too many in the area any more. Benson has taken over some of the calling duties, doing a few dances during the season, while some come from as far away as Iowa to lead the festivities.
Benson said the constant change is good for the dancers.
"Every caller puts sequences together differently," he said. "This way there is always a variety for the dancers, it's never the same dance twice."
Another club tradition that helps mix things up for members is called stealing and retrieving. This is where at least six club members attend another group's dance and "steal their banner." In order to get it back, six of their dancers must attend the "thieving" club's event.
"This allows the different clubs to interact with each other," Benson said.
Williams said this used to make for a busy week.
"There were dances almost every night. There for a while I was going out four or five times a week," she said.
Benson said the Happy Twirlers attend events hosted by Yellowrockers in Roselle and Arlington Squares in Arlington Heights. He said it is a good way for people to get out to different areas and socialize with each other.
"It's nice being out with people," he said.
Attending other dances also helps boost the number of people in attendance. Benson said it would be nice to get younger people involved.
"It's not so easy these days for younger people. Times have changed. It's not like it used to be where just one parent worked and you were done by 5 p.m. Now, people go home and they have their computers and cellphones and it seems like they never leave the office. There's just no time," he said. "Seems like if it doesn't happen on a Saturday, it's not going to happen."
Williams said the average age of members is 50, with their oldest member at 94, but there are a few younger people trickling in.
While they would like to see more people join, Benson emphasizes that it is important people sign up to take lessons first.
"Square dancing is done in English no matter where you go," he said. "You can walk into any club in the world and participate, but they will assume you know how to dance."
Williams said square dance lessons are offered at the District 214 Forest View Educational Center. Visit ce.d214.org or call (847) 718-7700 to find when the next lessons take place.
Both say that it depends on the person how long it takes them to get the moves down. And once they have learned, workshops are offered Monday evenings at Oakton Arms, 1665 Oakton Place, Des Plaines.
"Lessons start from scratch," Benson said, "while workshops serve as a refresher course of sorts, working on the calls and moves."
Benson, who leads many of the workshops, said that different callers also come in to lead so that the dancers get used to how a variety of sequences come together. This way they will be able walk in anywhere and dance with no trouble.
"Anyone can learn how to do it," Benson said."
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rest of the season, which ends in May, has been canceled. Benson said the group had planned to hold an anniversary celebration at the last dance, but has high hopes they will be able to do something special when the group starts up in September.
But remember to take those lessons, and don't be intimidated.
"I would tell people come out and try it, and stick with it," Williams said. "You get to meet a lot of people, and it is great exercise."