By Will Broaddus
---- — Square dancers have a lot to remember.
To dance at the “mainstream” or basic level, they must know how to Box the Gnat, Slip the Clutch and perform 63 other maneuvers the caller asks for.
To dance at the next level, known as “plus,” there are another 35 calls to learn, and the “advanced” level requires an additional 50.
“It is actually a good mental exercise and physical exercise,” said Joyce Kutz of Hamilton of the Riverside Squares, a square dance club in Danvers. “My doctor said the best things to do to help people not have memory loss are controlling blood pressure and weight, and doing aerobic exercises and mental exercises.”
The Riverside Squares get plenty of both, practicing every Wednesday night at All Saints Episcopal Church in Danvers, where they also hold dances the first Saturday of each month.
They were named for Danvers’ Riverside School, where their first class of six couples were graduates, Ed and Phyllis Sullivan wrote in 1994 in a 30th anniversary program.
The group will celebrate 50 years of square dancing this Saturday at the North Shore Community Baptist Church in Beverly, where the public is invited to watch them perform.
After recruiting 14 new members this January, at one of two open sessions they hold each year, they are also looking toward the future.
“Part of what I’m trying to do to get young people involved is to get rid of that stereotype of Western square dancing — its boots and cowboy hats and bandanas,” Kutz said.
To help change that image, she consults on music with the club’s youngest member, who is 17 and just got her permit to drive at night.
“She was excited last night at class review,” Kutz said. “I was doing ‘Just Dance’ by Lady Gaga and ‘Broken Hearted’ by Karmin. It’s rock, but it’s got the beat, and people were fine with it.”
A square dance begins with four couples arranged in a square, whom the caller sets in motion, eventually returning them to their original positions.
Kutz started square dancing when she was in college in the late 1960s and came back to it in 1999. She trained as a caller at a four-day course in Sturbridge and does the calling when the Riverside Squares put on demonstrations.
“You start in a certain place,” Kutz said. “The caller throws a couple pieces of jigsaw puzzle up in the air, and ultimately, he has to get them back in place.
“The dancers don’t know what they’re going to be asked to do. They know the calls, and the caller will just tell them what to do.”
This style is called modern Western, as opposed to traditional square dance, said Ingrid Barry of Danvers.
“It’s more structured than contra dance,” she said. “It is a listening skill, after you have learned the calls. And many things we do in Irish set dancing are things we’re doing from square dancing.
“Which came first? I don’t know.”
Each set of calls directing a square dance, from start to finish, is called a tip, said Peter Schwind of Andover, the club president. After two tips, there is a break, during which some members do round dances, which he describes as “choreographed ballroom dancing.”
“They’re called ‘round’ because you progress in a circle around the floor. The cuer will tell you what the figure is, and these things get quite complex,” he said.
“Some people prefer the round dancing, and that’s all they do. There are other people that only do the square dancing.”
Barry, a past president of Riverside Squares, started dancing with her husband after he retired in 1992.
“We probably have 40 active dancers,” she said. “Our oldest dancer is 91, and she’s quite active — Phyllis Manoogian from Peabody. Most dancers, I would say, are in their 50s and 60s, but we’ve got a number of new dancers in their 30s and 40s.
“They do come for the gently aerobic ability that’s needed. For others, once you get there, it’s the social interaction.”
There is little competition in square dancing, Barry said, because everyone works together as a group.
“There’s a lot of holding hands with a partner and people in a circle,” she said. “The friendly interaction that is required to square dance is great for a person’s emotions.”
RIVERSIDE SQUARES 50TH ANNIVERSARY SQUARE DANCE
When: Saturday, March 15, 7:30 p.m.
Where: North Shore Community Baptist Church, 9 Hart St., Beverly
Information: Anyone can stop by to watch for free. The club normally dances at All Saints Episcopal Church of the North Shore, 46 Cherry St. in Danvers, and offers 15-week classes twice a year, in September and January, on Wednesday nights. Anyone who would like to join the September class can leave contact information during their visit or call 978-774-8159.