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Alberta-based virtual square dances go viral

Dancers exercise their minds too, incorporating phantom couples into the routine as they dosado or swing their partner round and round
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Southern Alberta-based virtual square dance classes have gone viral, attracting dancers from across Canada, the U.S. and as far away as Japan and Australia. DAWN GILCHRIST/Photo

You can't keep square dancers sitting on the sidelines, pandemic or not. Just ask caller Lorne Smith, who – after the province locked down social gatherings in mid-March – is now as busy as ever calling virtual 'Zoom' square dances online. And it's not just to locals. The sessions have gone viral, attracting dancers from Australia, Japan and across Canada and the U.S.

The idea came from square dancer Dawn Gilchrist, who missed her 'date nights' dancing with her husband and noticed more virtual square dances popping up on Facebook. Gilchrist brought the idea of doing Alberta-based sessions to her local dance community, and was soon creating online invitations to virtual dances on Facebook, hosted by Calgary-area callers. Lorne Smith, who has been calling for close to 40 years, was quick to come on board.

"I jumped at the chance – I had been on the treadmill, thinking, 'I've got to keep myself moving and occupied,'" said Smith, known to dancers from all over Western Canada for his easy-going manner and relaxed patter.

"We thought a door was closed because of COVID, but now we're dancing and socializing with others from all over the world, and challenging dancers to relearn their skills."

In the one-hour Zoom sessions, which range from entry-level mainstream dances to plus and expert (and for all ages – young and old), dancers (solo or in couples) make space in their homes and follow directions walking to the music. Working alone or with a partner opposite a 'phantom' couple, dancers execute several basic moves, including dosado, swing, promenade or circle left and right – in whatever combination the caller dictates.

Smith said the sessions are very like an in-person square dance. Attendees can hit the 'unmute' button and chat across Zoom, visit during the dance breaks and ask questions about tough-to-master steps.

"We talk about the weather in Alberta, Texas or San Diego – wherever dancers join us from – and our families. We socialize just like always. We even had a fall festival with 11 callers from across Canada and over 170 Zoom dancers from different parts of the world. There's excitement and pride, seeing what started out as local dances with a small number of people from in and around southern Alberta now with participants from everywhere. We're getting a lot of dancers from Japan and Australia because our evening sessions happen in the morning for them. This has made the world a lot smaller," Smith said.

"I do the advanced sessions, and I can dance the male and female role so I never have to sit down if I don't want to. But I love every level," said 58-year-old Gilchrist.

"Virtual square dancing offers a whole new learning curve, dancing with 'phantom' or imaginary people – it's a good way to keep up dance skills, but it keeps your mind moving too, awaiting and following the calls. But the best part is socializing with old and new friends and keeping alive that love of square dancing."

Besides offering tutorials on how to use Zoom, Smith's dances open with a patter (and review of steps). He often includes guest callers and ends with a short round dance (like a choreographed ballroom dance – usually waltz and two-step).

"Each caller has their own style and use of music – old country, new country, ballads, classical – I like to mix it up as long as the tempo is right. I've been doing the virtual classes for over six months now, 25 weeks in a row," he said.

Smith said square dancers tend to be older, so virtual dances may be here to stay.

"It will likely be awhile before we can meet in-person at the dance hall again," said Smith of the 20 to 50 dancers that regularly attend his early evening dances (offered three times a week).

"Virtual square dancing shows how important community and connection is. We have people dancing in their apartment living rooms, but also those in their 70s and 80s doing the steps in care home hallways and common areas. And with the loneliness that COVID has brought with it, people can even just come in and watch."

"We're doing this to help our dance community stay connected," said Gilchrist. "We hope to reach local dancers who aren't on Zoom yet, but also attract new people to square dancing too. Anyone from eight to 80 can come give it a try."

See and which highlights classes and schedules.