In the basement of the Archwood United Church of Christ on Cleveland's southwest side, about thirty people have gathered for their weekly square dance lesson. But they're a lot younger and less crinolined than the typical county fair set.
You'd also be hard-pressed to rustle up a gal here, as most of the dancers are men. An activity popularly associated with gray hair and greased pigs, square dancing also has a more cosmopolitan reputation as a social activity in the gay community. The International Association of Gay Square Dance hosts yearly conventions--last year's in Portland, Oregon, drew 1,200 people--and publishes a quarterly magazine, Square Up. And, for the past eleven years, Cleveland has had its own gay (and, occasionally, lesbian) square dancing club, the City Country Dancers.
"We have a librarian, a teacher, a doctor, retired military, and a carpenter," says Bob Downing, the group's four-cornered coordinator, nodding at the plaid-and-denim blur on the dance floor. Downing, a personnel director for a gift box manufacturing company, took up square dancing in 1992 because he was "tired of the bar scene," although at the time the City Country Dancers hosted their gathering at a nightclub. He met his life partner, Chris Aubanel, at the 1996 national convention in San Francisco.
The Cleveland group was born in 1987, when a guy named Ed Schellhous persuaded a few friends and a few drunks to form a square of eight people at the Ohio City Oasis, a gay bar at West 29th Street and Detroit Avenue. Schellhous had returned to Cleveland after several years in Denver, where he had been a member of a gay square dance group called the Rainbeaus.
According to the City Country Dancers' membership literature, the early years had a Wild West feel: "The club has survived a broken nose, several noses out of joint, a four-month hiatus while one of our original members got taken to court for harassing one of our other members." Downing doesn't want to talk about that last incident: "Let's just say you have a tendency with a new person to push them where they're supposed to go. Since '92, we've realized that you can't be pushy."
The City Country Dancers now have about forty dues-paying members and a more dependable location. The members pay $200 in rent to the Church of Christ, which welcomed the dancers there in 1993 after hiring a gay pastor, David Barr. Last month, the City Country Dancers hosted a fly-in, a social dance with invitations extended to clubs in other cities. The Czech Sokol Hall on Broadway Avenue was rented out, the theme "Titanic" was adopted, and a signature caller from Sweden was shipped in. He hollered along to a mix of country-western and pop tunes, including the obligatory "YMCA." More than 125 people showed up--mostly men decked out in turn-of-the-century fur stoles and granny boots, or top hats and tuxedos. "It was great fun," says Downing, who at age sixty is one of the club elders. "At the end of the night, we square-danced to 'Nearer My God to Thee.'"
Last summer, the City Country Dancers performed at the Ohio State Fair alongside about fifty straight groups. They generally kept to themselves, forming their own square rather than engaging in the customary intergroup mingling. "We do more what is called styling," notes Downing. "We jump and yell and give it a little more life. Straight square dancing is generally for senior citizens. Ours is probably double time, because the average age is late thirties."
Brian Keating, a computer programmer and classically trained violinist, has been with the group about six years. For the past three, he's been training to be a caller: "If I'm lucky, sometimes I can get eight people to stop by the house and square-dance for me," he says.
Of course, calling for gay square dancers can be challenging, since the traditional moves are often gender-based. "The confusing thing is, he's saying girls, but they're all guys," says Downing, adding that one caller had the dancers wear pink and blue vests to tell them apart. "He doesn't have a skirt to look for, at least most of the time, anyway."
The City Country Dancers host beginning and advanced lessons, open to the public, every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. The first three lessons at the church, 2800 Archwood Ave., are free. Call 216-221-6385.