Square dancing isn’t just all fiddles, frilly skirts and hay.
Sometimes it’s not even men and women. Sometimes it’s men and men or women and women.
During the 1970s, square-dance clubs were at their peak and not long after queer communities joined in on the fun, forming their own groups.
Enter The Wilde Bunch, Albuquerque’s own LGBQT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender) square-dancing group that recently celebrated 35 years of spins around the dance floor. The group takes its name from playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, and feminist Charlotte Bunch.
The Wilde Bunch doesn’t require dancers to wear the traditional costumes, including frilly skirts, doesn’t always use music with fiddles and does not have a haystack in sight on its dance floor. The group has about 60 members and meets twice a week on Monday and Tuesday at the Albuquerque Square Dance Center. Their meeting space consists of a kitchen, wooden lockers, a carpeted area with tables and a hardwood dance floor that has a bench against one wall and a stage at the front.
“People think we do a bunch of songs with fiddles and have hay,” said member Scott Amspoker. “But that’s not true. We use any music with a nice rhythm and we don’t wear costumes.”
Kris Jensen joined the Wilde Bunch 25 years ago when she started dating a woman who was an avid square dancer. She stuck with it and the woman, too. The pair married and still attend weekly dance sessions. Jensen is now a caller for the group, which means she stands at the front of the room with a microphone and calls out the moves for each dance. Amspoker is the group’s other caller.
“Before I did square dancing, I thought it was really hokey,” she said. “But now I really like the puzzle of square dancing.”
Each dance starts with four couples standing in a square. Traditionally the square consists of four male and female couples. In Jensen’s group, dancers are permitted to take on either role and can dance with either a man or woman regardless of their gender. The goal of each routine is to start and finish with the same partner. That, Jensen said, is the puzzle-solving element.
The Wilde Bunch formed in 1983, a time Jensen said many gay square-dancing groups were forming nationally. She said the AIDS epidemic had scared many in the community away from the more raucous party scene.
Square dancing is a fairly wholesome activity. It’s usually not done in bars, alcohol is almost never a part of the event and etiquette is central to the activity. On the group’s website, they have an entire page dedicated to etiquette tips, such as don’t hold a dancer’s hand too tight, say thank you to the square at the completion of each dance, avoid dirty jokes and never show up intoxicated.
“They (LGBQT people) were looking for social activities that didn’t involve going to the bars,” she said. “They formed their own (square-dancing) groups because they were not welcome in the other groups, quite frankly.”
Times have changed though, she said. While people are still looking for a wholesome activity, straight and queer people now dance together.
The Wilde Bunch has made a concerted effort to bring in new members in the past few years, including those from straight community, said 25-year member Rick Webber. Some square-dance clubs require members to have a dance partner and limit dancers to learning only one position, either male or female. Webber said members of his group are actually better dancers because they get the opportunity to learn both positions.
“We are reaching out and trying to be a lot more diverse,” Webber said. “And people come because we are a fun group and with us you can dance with anybody.”
Jensen said square dancing has thousands of calls but most people are content learning the 68 calls from the beginners level, which is called mainstream. Plus offers dancers an additional 30 moves but there are several levels after that most people don’t ever learn.
Jensen said through the years interest in square dancing has come and gone. She thinks it might be making somewhat of a comeback with younger generations.
Courtney Sewell, 18, is one of the group’s youngest members. She started square dancing with her mom and dad five years ago and is also a caller now. She jokes that her father went from not really wanting to do it to teaching himself new moves at home. Hanging around with people decades older than her doesn’t seem that unusual for Sewell. For her, she said, it’s another form of fun.
“I’ve danced my entire life – swing, ballet, ballroom,” she said. “This is just another type of dance of for me. I know people everywhere who square dance. I even know people in Japan who do it.”
The Wilde Bunch just started a new round of classes that will go through the summer when new members can join. The club also holds open houses anyone can attend. The classes are open to everyone for $10 to $18 a month and a $20 annual fee. Visit wildebunch.org for information.