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Old Time Ozarks Square Dancing Could Face Extinction

Most of us have seen, heard about, or even taken part in a square dance. But engrained in Ozarks tradition, there’s a unique form of square dancing, one that may not be around much longer. KSMU’s Benjamin Fry went to a local gathering of square dancers and has more on this fading art.

When the fiddle starts playing, the feet get to moving around the dance floor at the Taney Center.

Today, this recreation hall east of Forsyth is one of the few places in Missouri where you’ll still find authentic, old-time square dances.

For those like Shellia Braden, square dancing has been a lifelong pastime.

“I can’t remember not square dancing, I started square dancing when I was about ten years old, it was part of my life,” Braden said.

Braden says old-time square dancing dates back to when pioneers first settled in the Ozarks.

But this centuries-old flavor of square dancing could be a dying art.

This seems evident to Braden and Andy Elder as they glance at the rows of empty tables and chairs surrounding the dance floor.

“Most of the old-time regulars here are gone, we used to have, all of these tables were full, there were people sitting, just in chairs, all of these tables were full. Most of those people are gone, they’re dead”

And as the old-timers leave the scene, there appears to be too few in the younger generation who are even interested.

Braden says today’s youth are more inclined to give their attention to sports or video games.

Elders says when most people think of square dancing theyre probably thinking of the western swing form of the dance.

But he says that’s very different from old-time square dancing.

While western swing usually features canned music, Elder says old-time square dancing requires live music.

“You have to have a fiddle, and you need a guitar”

Elder says old-time square dances also have unique choreography which can vary from place to place.

“Each set has a caller and each caller has his unique calls and calls them his way, where western swing is codified nationwide. You can go anywhere in the nation and they call it the same,” Elders said.

Another thing that makes old-time square dancing trickier to learn is that it’s much faster.

During a typical old-time song, the fiddler plays about 140 beats per minute, while the western swing usually has around 110 beats per minute.

For Braden, this means a lot more moving around.

“Keeping time with this music, it’s a challenge to keep up with the beats”

But to her, a bigger challenge will be keeping this form of art alive.

When it comes to the younger generation, Braden says the key is to get kids interested usually when they’re between the ages of five and seven years old.

That way they have a chance to prevent this blend of music and movement from being a thing of the past.

And if you’re interested in learning to old-time square dance, dances are also held in Ava, Elk Creek, and at West Plains.

For KSMU News, I’m Benjamin Fry.