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Why forcing us to square dance backfired

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Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 12:00 am

“Well, NOW do you like square dancing better than ‘sit-ups’”?

My sadistic physical education teacher had just asked a class of 30 eighth-grade boys if they preferred a scheduled co-ed dance activity to 45 minutes of painful exercises.

Although our bodies were aching, and the smell of week-worn gym clothes permeated the air, the boys replied in unison with a firm, “NO!” Some of the students, including myself, stood in defiance, proclaiming we would fight this unjust torture to the end (well, at least until the end of the class period).

So, what was this big protest all about? It was 1958, and the PE department at North Bethesda Junior High School wanted us to participate in a four-week unit on “square dancing.” That’s right: square dancing!

This might have played well in Independence, Mo. or Stillwater, Okla., but we lived in Bethesda, Md. — a sophisticated suburb of Washington, D.C. We had never seen a square dance, let alone participated in one!

Besides, I was part of the new ‘50s generation. Any social activity from another era was simply “square.” Big bands, Patsy Cline and folk dancing were not part of our acceptable entertainment categories. We were rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. At school dances, we moved to the tunes of Elvis, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly — not Durango Dave and his Do-Si-Do (pronounced “doe-see-doe”) Dogie Callers.

For those who may not know, square dancing is a folk art that has its origins in 17th century England. In the United States, it is most often associated with country and western pop culture.

The dance involves eight people (four couples) who face off in a square. A “caller” orders various movements from the participants, while a “fiddler” band plays a snappy tune. Some of the standard movements are “promenade” (take your partner from a different location in the square to your original starting point) and “do-si-do” (a move where partners circle each other back-to-back and return to their original positions).

The eighth-grade guys at North Bethesda didn’t want any part of this. First of all, we couldn’t get close to our partners, as we could in slow dancing. How could we be “cool” under these circumstances? Secondly, we couldn’t choose who our partners were. Sometimes, we’d get girls who didn’t want to be with us, and visa versa. The former was pretty humiliating in junior high, where egos are built on eggshells.

Also, we all had given up the cowboy thing by the end of the fourth grade. Now, letterman jackets, saddle shoes and crew cuts were “in.” Plastic Western boots, string ties and midnight-colored fake Stetsons with pictures of Hopalong Cassidy were “out.”

But somewhere in a school curriculum department — in a place far, far away — people knew better. Teachers were ordered to carry out their overseers’ wishes. Kids would be forced to appreciate a form of American folk dancing — whether they liked it or not.

Now it’s true that children don’t always know what’s best for them. But one thing is for certain: Punishment for not liking something is an ineffective way to get people to “appreciate” anything.

Since those days, I haven’t looked at or participated in any square dancing. Not that there is anything wrong with this activity, mind you. As a matter of fact, I’ll bet if those teachers had been more in-touch with the dynamics of how human preferences work, we might have actually liked it.

But unfortunately, I’m sure that a number of former students from North Bethesda have put square dancing in the same category as canned spinach, collard greens and Brussels sprouts.

Somehow, the scholastic goal of culturally diverse appreciation simply got lost in the process.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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