Square Dancing Alive and Well in Clay County

The following article appeared in Clay Today on Oct. 7, 2010

By Christina Leach Phillips


ORANGEPARK– Robert Padgett loves square dancing.

He loves it so much that he has made it his mission to keep it alive for future generations.

Padgett, a square dance caller, said he is concerned the dance will be lost in the United  States because of declining interest.

“It is a part of Americana.  Most people don’t realize it is the only dance form that’s actually native to the United States of America.  It is also our official state folk dance – as a matter of fact – Governor Crist declared September ‘Square Dance Month,'” Padgett said. 

Modern square dancing traces its routes to the country dances of Englandand the French Court dances of the late 1600s and the early 1700s.  When the colonists came over to theUnited States, they brought with them the knowledge of the dances.

“It was passed from generation to generation and by word of month, and, of course, some things got forgotten, some things got added, and some things got changed, and before long, it became something entirely different than what the colonists brought over, and it became a dance form all of our own,” he said.

Padgett is offering square dance classes every Monday at the Doctors Lake Estates Civic Association building.

“It’s a wonderful healthy activity. It is a low impact, high aerobic form of exercise,” he said.

At a recent class, Padgett, dressed in a bright red western shirt with a thin black tie and black pants, sang a country western song as he called out to a group of dancers, “Circle to the left. . . Circle to the right . . . Promenade. . .”

Several couples danced to his instruction, sometimes bursting into laughter as they learned the steps.

He paused the dance and asked Milli Whipple to assist him in showing the class new dance moves, which included a “bow to your partner” and saying “Thank you.”  He then told them to “hoop and holler!”

“We call square dancing friendship set to music,” he said.

Padgett, who has studied the history of the dance, said, “We actually had a period at the beginning of the last century where square dancing almost died off, and Henry Ford and his wife helped save it.”

The Fords and Benjamin Lovett, a square dance teacher, opened Lovett Hall in the Detroit area to promote the dance, and they co-wrote a square dance book that helped revive interest in the dance.

“Once again, here at the start of this century, we are at an all time low,” he said. “People are not that much interested in these things, and we want to reignite that interest and let them know this is a fun thing to do.”

Padgett, who has been square dancing for about 20 years, said he didn’t always like square dancing.

“I’m an electrician by trade, and I was one of those guys that my (ex)wife drug me ‘kicking and screaming’ because I thought for sure I had two left feet and would never be able to learn how to dance,” he said.

“I kinda grumbled about it, like we guys tend to do, and it was probably about a year and a half or two years before I would admit to her that I really liked it,” Padgett said. “We had children, and all the kids were square dancers – children absolutely love it, and they pick it up usually quicker than the adults do.”

Padgett decided to become a square dance caller in 2006 and began an apprenticeship program. “Quite frankly, most of the western square dance callers were either retiring due to old age or passing away,” he said.

Padgett teaches the square dance class every Monday from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Doctors Lake Estates Civic Association at 4055 Cedar Road in OrangePark.  Each class costs $4 per person, and the classes are for ages 9 and up.

“That makes it a wonderful family type of activity,” Padgett said.

It takes about 24 weeks to learn what he calls “mainstream,” which is the entry level of square dancing.  “There are other levels beyond that, but that usually gets you going,” he said.

Padgett said it is not necessary to bring a partner. “One of the nice things about square dancing is that experienced dancers do what we call ‘angeling,'” he said.

Angels are dancers of at least the mainstream level who help other people learn square dancing.  “They give their time freely. We are fortunate that we have people in this area that love to angel,” he said.

Padgett also teaches round dances and mixers, which includes two-step and polkas. In between calling and singing, he talks about the history of square dancing.

He is also forming a square dance group that will be called the Clay Allemanders.

The Monday night class includes multi-generations from children to senior citizens.

Cara Gapinski and her husband, Ski, from Lake Asbury attended the dance to “angel.” She said, “It’s good fellowship. . . It makes us feel young.”

Pat Herscha from Middleburg who attended with her husband, Tom, said, “I like the fact that it’s so friendly.”

Newlywed Bob Walker said he likes the “camaraderie,” and teenager, Dalton Weeks, said, “I thought it was really cool, and it was easy to catch on to – anyone could do it.”

Padgett said, “I absolutely love square dancing, and we want to make sure this activity remains alive and well for the next generation, so that was why I stepped up.”

For more information, contact Robert Padgett at 904-264-4751 or email at padgettelectric@att.net