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Health & Fitness

Square Dancing: Give it a whirl!

Rina Rapuano


If you think square dancing is just for energetic young folks who work on farms in Oklahoma, think again. Western square dancing is becoming more and more mainstream, and many seniors are learning how to swing their pardners and do-si-do.

And with the Alzheimer’s Association listing square dancing among the activities that helps ward off the disease by engaging both the mind and the body, it’s no wonder that seniors are lining up to square off. It’s the combination of physical and mental exercise, plus social activity can’t be beat. (See the cover story on page 6 for more on brain health.)

According to Jewel Biggs (pictured left) of Atlanta, a 71-year-old retired NEA member who taught English and writing in Georgia for 32 years, square dancing keeps her fit, allows her to have fun, and fulfills a dream she’s had for years.

“I always wanted to learn to square dance because when I went to the NEA conventions, they would play the country music and I would get up there and do it, but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she says.

Biggs says she finally decided to get serious about it five years ago when some friends started taking classes at a local senior center.

Jean Gruntals (pictured above) of Mendham, New Jersey, who taught third grade during most of her 32 years as a teacher, is another big believer in the mental workout the hobby provides. “When you dance, you never know what movement the caller will call next,” says the 68-year-old retired NEA member who has been square dancing for 20 years. “You have to be ready to respond instantly. So square dancing is good exercise for both the body and mind.”

In addition, dancers need to remember complicated calls that are rattled off all at once. If a dancer can’t keep things straight, the square breaks down. Still, that’s no reason for beginners to be intimidated. Both Biggs and Gruntals stress that no experience is necessary if someone decides to take up square dancing.

“Those of us who know how to dance, we become a big sister or big brother for those who would like to,” Biggs says. “We go with them to the classes to get them started and to encourage them. The classes assume that you know nothing about square dancing and start you just from the basics.”

While square dancing is undoubtedly a great way to get the blood pumping and to tone the muscles, Biggs points out that it’s only as strenuous as you want it to be. “You can move at your own pace,” she says. “It gets fast at times, but you can just sit that one out. There’s no snatching, it’s just a smooth movement. You’re sailing around like a ballerina or something.”

Gruntals says she also appreciates the social aspect of the clubs. “When you square dance, you have the opportunity to meet new acquaintances and to develop friendships,” she says. “If seniors are looking for a way to meet new people, square dancing should be top on their list. What a great combination—lively music, dancing, and friends!”

In addition, Biggs marvels at how many retired teachers are interested in the hobby. She says that in her group, about two-thirds of them are retired educators. “And that’s just coincidence, I guess,” she says. “It’s really good for camaraderie and networking.”

Quick Tips

Getting Started:
Jean Gruntals, who has been square dancing for 20 years, has these words of wisdom for seniors who are ready to give it a try:

  • “Run a Google search on ‘square dancing in (your state).’ Call a club in your area to see when lessons will be offered, or if they’ll be having any ‘barn dances’ or ‘friendship dances.’ These are dances to get people interested in dancing, and no experience is needed. If you don’t Google, keep an eye out for information about lessons in your local papers. Many clubs start lessons in the fall and do advertise in local papers.
  • There are videos sold by callers to reinforce the moves of square dancing, but I recommend starting with lessons.
  • Clothing can be casual, with long-sleeved shirts for men and skirts for women. If people really get into it, there are stores that sell square-dance outfits.

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