A reel good time


A reel good time for all in dance club

Richard Knight, Jr., Chicago Tribune, February 20, 2005

It certainly sounded like a traditional square dance, with the caller rapidly chanting out the intricate commands to the energetic group of sashayers (eight to a square) to bow, circle, swing, do-si-do, slide thru, and promenade with their partners.

But there were very few crinoline skirts or cowboy shirts to be seen. Not many women either, for that matter.

Say "how-do" to the Chi-Town Squares, Chicago's only gay square dance club and one of about 50 in the U.S. Formed in 1987, it's also the largest of the  city's five clubs with around 175 members. Though most of the 60 or so participants gathered on the cavernous second floor of the far North Side's Ebenezer Lutheran Church Community Center on a recent Sunday night were gay men, Jim Maxwell, the club's president, asserted, "Our charge is to offer dancing for everybody, not just gays. We're all about fun."

That's one of the reasons Kathy Zottmann, who grew up with square dancing, joined the Chi-Town group four years ago. "I don't need to have a set partner. I just grab somebody and go," she explained at the end of a "tip," or dance segment.

"I travel a lot for work, and if I'm someplace that I've never been, I still have something to do," Zottmann explained. "There are clubs across the country. Instead of sitting in a hotel room alone, I'll go to a dance and meet new people."

Dessert included

"There are a couple of geeks like me who do it mostly for the dancing, but most people do it for the social aspects," Michael Maltenfort echoed as he moseyed by the dessert table filled with homemade and store bought baked goods brought by members. Maltenfort met his partner, John Glover, at a Chi-Town event in 2001.

"My first night here was 9/11," said Glover. "You'd think it wouldn't be a happy dance, but it was. I think people wanted to be together. We met a couple of weeks later."

Both were wearing comfortable street clothes. "Many of the more rigid clubs still love the crinolines and the men's shirts with the yokes. That never flew with the gay community--not that much polyester!" Maltenfort laughed.

The club outfits of black slacks and white shirts do allow the members to express themselves with their "design your own" vests, which are worn to special-occasion dances and yearly conventions.

Arlene Kaspik joined the club three years ago to please her partner, Kate Reed, a Chi-Town member of eight years. The couple, Carpentersville residents, breathless after another tip, were still excited after visiting a large straight club in Arlington Heights a few nights earlier.

"We were the darlings there," Kaspik said. "They wanted to watch us do a demo tip of our styling." Reed cut in, "There's been such a change in the last few years in the clubs. It used to be more conservative. When we first started dancing at the annual Sweetheart dance [sponsored by the Metropolitan Chicago Association of Square Dance], no one wanted to be in our square, and now people run to join us."

Breaking barriers

That didn't surprise Saundra Bryant, who has been an instructor and caller for the club since its first year.

"We've broken a lot of barriers through a recreation that's a lot of fun," she said.

Bryant chuckled when she recalled being contacted by the group for the first time. "They said, `We're a gay club,' and I said, `I'm a black woman caller, so what else is new?'"

A square dancer since her Girl Scout days in the late '50s on the South Side, Bryant realized that her joint love of math and dance made her a natural for calling, and she's been at it since 1976. Now she travels internationally for her profession and teaches the multiple levels of modern western square dancing.

A lot to remember

A head for figures and a good memory may be just as important as avoiding your partner's toes when it comes to modern square dancing.

There are upward of 10 levels to learn. For the first, called Mainstream, one must memorize 70-some "calls" that represent precise choreographed steps and movements. Each level adds more commands (there are hundreds) and increased levels of difficulty.

Bryant is quick to point out, however, that "break downs" (mistakes) by both the caller and the dancers can add to the fun.

"I went up through C-1 [one of the highest levels] and then it was too much for me," said Michael Blizzard, who edits the group's monthly newsletter.

Blizzard, the son of hippies, never saw himself involved with square dancing ("My parents would have been horrified") but 16 years ago joined on a dare from an ex-roommate. "At the time one of my best friends was very ill and when he passed, the group kept me centered and grounded. They got me through," he said.

The Squares have proven to be a support system for three-year member Brian Mardis as well.

Mardis, who has suffered from diabetes for 27 years, had his left leg amputated below the knee in December but was getting around on crutches, clapping to the music and socializing.

"I love these people," Mardis said. "Even if I can't dance with them, I can still be here."

Mardis was scheduled to be fitted for an artificial limb a few days later. Looking over the dancers as they returned to the floor after a break, he said, "If people can run marathons and play basketball with artificial limbs, I ought to be able to square dance. I'm certainly going to try."


Chi-Town Squares offers weekly lessons, and the dances feature calls of every level. An event for novices is planned for March 12. For more information, go to www.iagsdc.org/chi-townsquares/index.html.