WILLMAR — It’s Monday night and Myron Hollatz stands in the gym at Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar with a microphone in his hand and music cued up on his sound system.
Hollatz gives a quiet look across the room and then begins to sing out directions — allemande left, circle right, roll away to a half sashay. Instantly, the eight people in front of him twirl and swirl as they follow his verbal square dance choreography.
It’s not all perfect.
Sometimes the dancers collide and laugh and Hollatz stops the action and explains how a particular move is supposed to work, and he walks the dancers through the process, step-by-step.
It’s all part of the regular lessons of the Jolly Twirlers Square Dance Club, which meets every Monday night at the school gym to practice and teach newcomers the proper way to "do-si-do."
With an age range of kids in the single-digits and seniors in their 80s, experienced Jolly Twirlers dancers — called angels — serve as mentors to the newbies as they learn the different square dance “calls.”
During the Monday night lessons, the dancers usually wear blue jeans and T-shirts.
On the third Saturday of most months the club holds a square dance at the school, where members of the Jolly Twirlers — as well as folks from other square dance clubs in the area, like the Koronis Night Owls from Paynesville — put their dancing techniques and fancy square dance outfits on display.
“It’s a good social activity. You can do it as long as your body holds out,” said Ginny Wille, who has been square dancing with her husband, Ron, for about 20 years.
The weekly square dance lessons cost $3 a night and the monthly dance is $5.
The annual membership fee for the Jolly Twirlers is a whopping $11.
All around, it’s an inexpensive activity that provides a social network, exercise and fun, said Caitlin Wheeler, 29, of Atwater.
“Since I started square dancing I lost a lot of weight. And with this one you don’t even need a gym membership, just a club membership and that’s it," Wheeler said.
“You can even get up to two miles of exercise if you dance every time,” said Myrtiss Riediger, 81, of Willmar. Her dance partner is her husband, Norm, who at 86 is currently the oldest member. Their smooth moves defy their age.
“What else can you do for $3 where you get exercise, see your friends and have treats?” asked Riediger.
People square dance for all sorts of reasons.
“I took up square dancing for the love of a woman,” said Rick Kidrowski of Kerkhoven, who admits that woman is no longer in his life. “I loved square dancing more than I loved her,” he said.
Square dancing is “good clean fun” and a “good way to meet people,” Kidrowski said.
Dancing for decades
The Jolly Twirlers members have been dancing in Willmar for more than 30 years.
The club began in 1986 and in 1989 held its first “graduation” of new square dancers who had mastered the 66 “mainstream” calls that are used in most square dances.
A club’s square dance graduation is crucial because it means there are new members who are learning the steps and coming to the dances to fill out the eight-person squares.
In the past, there would often be 50 to 60 people at the Jolly Twirlers square dances — enough for six or seven squares.
Those numbers have dwindled. Sometimes there are just enough people for two or three squares of dancers.
Jolly Twirlers club president Jerry Kozubik of Renville, confesses he’s concerned that square dancing could fade away, like ballroom dancing has.
Kozubik said if people would come to the square dance lessons and learn the steps they’d be hooked. “If they came, I think they’d enjoy it,” he said. “Dancing is my favorite thing to do. I’d rather dance than do anything.”
Wheeler said she’s tried to encourage her young friends to give square dancing a try, but so far they’ve turned her down. She’s hoping for a revival in the art.
“Personally, I think square dancing is an old-time thing that should not be dying. I think they should teach it in schools,” she said. “There’s not a set generation for this. You can start square dancing at any age.”
Home-school families have been frequent dancers with the club.
Brian Orsten of Benson brings several of his 12 children to lessons most weeks.
On this particular lesson night, one of the three children Orsten and his wife adopted from Ukraine a year ago was following the calls and swinging his partner despite still learning English. He was clearly enjoying himself.
The Orstens started coming four years ago. “It’s something fun to do as a family,” he said. “There’s a great group of people to visit with and dance with.”
Responding to the call
Hollatz, of Morris, said he was 13 when he started square dancing and was 20 when he started working as a caller. He’s been a professional caller for 33 years and is the regular caller for the Jolly Twirlers, which includes teaching new steps during lessons and creating the routines for the songs.
“It’s a mental challenge. You have to keep in front of the dancers,” he said.
“You can’t just call something and let the dancers do it to completion and let them stand there while you’re thinking of the next call,” Hollatz said. “You have to watch them dance one call, you have to be delivering the next call, you have to be thinking about the call that’s going to come after that.”
He said he enjoys the “constant mental motion” of being a square dance caller.
He calls for about 10 other clubs once a year and will do one-time lessons for a variety of groups and organizations who want to learn the basics of square dancing.
Hollatz said he loves square dancing and wishes his hobby of being a caller was a full-time job. “But there’s just not enough demand for square dance callers,” he said, noting that the number of square dance clubs in Minnesota — which typically hold dances once a month — has steadily decreased..
Wille said she and her husband used to drive to numerous nearby towns to attend regular square dances. The decline in the number of clubs means they have to drive further to find a weekend dance to go to.
“It’s gotten a lot smaller,” Wille said of the square dance scene. “We’re trying to get some young people.”
If you go
Square dance lessons are held Monday nights, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Jefferson Learning Center, 1234 Kandiyohi Ave SW, Willmar. Lessons are held from November through mid-March. The cost is $3.
The Jolly Twirlers club hosts dances 7-9:30 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month, September-May, at the Jefferson Learning Center. The cost is $5.