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Swing Your Partner

Square dancing: It's not just for hillbillies anymore.


Brian Keating was leery of the town's gay nightclubs. "Too many of us on the queer side of the fence go to those dark gay bars," he explains. He wanted -- needed -- something different.

And he found it in the Cleveland City Country Dancers, a gay and lesbian square dance club that's put a modern spin on the traditional Appalachian pastime since the late '80s.

Evolving beyond boy-girl barn dances, the group -- which holds weekly classes and dances at Archwood United Church of Christ -- whimsically refers to its participants as "bi-dansual." In other words, they allemande in both men's and women's roles.

Unlike two-stepping and line dancing, square dancing is much more cerebral, Keating says. The other two involve predetermined steps, but "square dancing is a very intellectual activity. It's like solving a puzzle." Western square dancing can be traced to England and France, but it's not an adaptation, Keating explains; rather, it's an "American perversion" of its forebears.

Keating is the Cleveland City Country Dancers' caller, the guy yelling out dance steps -- from simple moves, like "trades" and "folds," to more complicated maneuvers, like "relay the deucey" and "cast a shadow."

But you don't have to croon along to Waylon, Willie, and the boys to bust a move. Keating, in fact, doesn't even listen to country music. He says that even Billy Joel -- Billy Joel! -- is compatible with square dancing. And he plans to incorporate more non-country music in the club's curriculum.

Because stereotypes are being shattered, Keating advises leaving the 10-gallon hat and cowboy strut at the door. Dress is casual, he says. Although, he adds, some of the straight folks who join in the fun wear "red polyester Lawrence Welk stuff."

Yep, you read that right. Even though the group (the first Ohio member of the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs, incidentally) is primarily a gay gathering, it's open to all sexual orientations. "A lot of straights like dancing with gay club groups," Keating says. "It tends to be faster and much livelier."

Because square dancing often involves four couples promenading simultaneously, it requires a little coordination and an amiable disposition. "You have to play well with others," Keating notes. "It appeals to me because I'm a very social person." And even though he is involved with someone, the social significance of the dance form isn't lost on him. "I've been with my partner for 10 years, but I hardly ever square up with him," he laughs.

Square dancing exists, Keating says, for squarely one reason: an opportunity for boys and girls to meet each other. "But in this case," he says, "it's boy meets boy and girl meets girl."

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