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COVER STORY

Happy to Be Square : Dancers Corner the Market on Good Times

July 12, 1990|SUSAN P. GEMBROWSKI

One night in Iran, Marion Wetter received a telephone call asking him to join the Tehran Tangle Feet. That was in 1966, and the Vista resident has been square-dancing ever since.

"I guess I wasn't surprised at most anything over there," Wetter, 64, said about finding a little bit of Americana in the stronghold of the shah.

Wetter and his wife, Betty, publish Palostar, the official magazine of the Palomar Square Dance Assn., which has about 1,500 members in 22 affiliated North County clubs.

Every night of the week, square dancers in costumes of orange, green, violet and magenta weave the complicated dance steps with military precision. The official California state folk dance is touted by participants for the friendship and camaraderie they find at the events, which are often held in space rented from public schools and women's clubs.

"An English cousin was visiting, so I took him to observe the square dancers," Betty Wetter said. "He told me, 'I've never seen so many people so pleased with themselves.' "

Kittie Rountree, president of the Ramona Hi Country Ho Downers, is among them. "It's the cleanest, friendliest activity I've ever been a part of," she said.

People refrain from drinking before or during an event so as not to injure a partner during the precise dancing, Rountree said. "Of course, what they do after is up to them," she said.

Square dancing can be a family affair, and the ages of participants in the North County clubs range from those in their 30s to those in their 80s, although the majority of dancers are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Although most of the clubs are couples-oriented, some welcome dancers without partners.

Keith Spears, 32, began square-dancing at age 18. His wife, Linda, started when she was about 16. The couple, who met at a square dance, serve as Palomar Square Dance Assn. presidents this year.

The couples out on the dance floor are quickly identified by the coordinated outfits they wear. The costumes are either sewn at home or purchased at one of a few stores in the area that cater to the square dancer.

Betty Wetter, who calls herself a "clothes horse," has more than 50 outfits, most of which she made herself. She dons a red costume with white fur for the December holiday season, an orange and black outfit during Halloween. Other times, a gray skirt with hand-painted butterflies is just right.

She stores the outfits on wooden rods she operates with a pulley system her husband designed in the garage of their home. Showing off a sequined costume from Mexico and one with a Latin touch that she made herself, she explained that her outfits are matched to shirts and ties she sews for her spouse.

"I dream up all this crazy stuff," Wetter said, displaying a skirt sewn from gold upholstery fabric. "Most women can't have this many outfits. Where would they put them?"

Jim Randall is a square dancer, caller and owner of a clothing shop specializing in outfits for aficionados.

The racks of his store, Petticoat Junction in Escondido, overflow with ruffled undergarments (necessary to maintain decorum when twirling), skirts with matching blouses, dresses and flat or high-heeled shoes.

Women, usually attired in skirts with ruffled petticoats and pettipants, can purchase a dance outfit for about $130, including all-leather shoes made especially for square dancing, Randall said.

Most men wear Western pants, with wide loops for decorative belts and scalloped pockets; long-sleeved shirts; dancing shoes, and a scarf tie, Randall said. Some men wear cowboy hats and carry a towel that clips to their belts, because the dancing can be strenuous exercise.

"I don't know of any other group that dresses (for the activity) except golfers," Randall said.

Wearing their distinctive attire, the dancers step onto the floor and wait for the music and the showmanship of the caller.

Callers step up to the microphone and direct the dancers with "patter" and calls while records play. About a dozen callers cater to the North County crowd.

"You're a showman, an entertainer. As a caller, if I walk in and am calling a dance, I like to feel I'm in the square with them. The look on their faces when they're having fun melts your heart," said Randall, a former airline pilot.

Most callers begin as square dancers, but seminars and classes are offered so they can perfect their techniques. Callers sound the "patter," a series of rhythmic beats set to music, or sing the call to the hit parades of country, Western, pop and standard songs.

"There are 16 to 20 record companies that produce square dance records exclusively," Randall said.

Callers record under the Eureka, Shakedown or BRS labels in California, and on other labels in Tennessee, North Carolina and Missouri, states where square dancing is especially popular.

The square dance itself has roots in the French quadrilles and in English country dances. Couples gather in squares of eight and proceed to dance a "tip," a series of two dances called or sung.

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