I joined the Rosetown Ramblers for their regular Wednesday club night in the basement of a Southeast Portland church. There was a healthy mix of 13 men and women, between the ages 30-75, dressed in oh, my god khakis, T-shirts, and blue jeans! As I circulated, shaking hands and making friends, I began to enjoy this uneven mix of formal club, social event, and dance party.
Rick Hawes, the current newsletter editor for the Ramblers, cued up tapes as he told me the history of gay square dancing in America. According to legend, there were two different tribes of do-si-doing gays and dykes who were experimenting with different styles of square dancing on opposite ends of the country. When they finally met up in 1982 at a gay rodeo in Denver, the National Gay Square Dancing Association was, in essence, born. This organization then went to work linking all the gay square dancing clubs sprouting up around the country. When clubs were formed in Canada, Australia, and Japan, the organization became international. Wait, there are gay people in Japan?
After the tapes were cued and the music began to play, a square of mismatched dancers started to spin and twirl. I got confused when the calls asked for "boys to spin their girls," because most of the couples were same-sex. I learned from Rick it doesn't matter what sex you are in a gay square--gender is determined by what position you're dancing in. Lead or follow dictates boy or girl, respectively. Now to me that still seems a little sexist, but is it so if the boy is a girl and the girl is a boy? I wondered if Rick, a masculine, moustached, 40-something, ever danced the girl part. Later, my question was answered when I saw him being twirled like a drunken prom date.
When asked why they chose square dancing as their social activity of choice, many members gave overlapping answers. Most had had their fill of the bar scene and were looking for a new way to meet people. The fact that square dancing encourages the inclusion of both sexes and proactively attempts to bridge the differences between gay men and lesbians, was also a huge plus. And of course, dancing is great way to keep a trim tum-tum.
Risa Krive, the Ramblers First Lady, offered some insight on why people pursue this old-timey style of dance. "Square dancing is friendship set to music," she says. "As adults, we're expected to know everything this is a place where it's safe to come in and learn something brand new... to be childlike in a way to be open."
My second meeting with the Ramblers was at their First Saturday Dance held at the rustic Portland Metro Police Club (PPAA) on SE Alder. It was nearly 9 pm, and the setting sun streamed through the big second story windows.
This event seemed a bit more formal. A real, hard-wood dance floor took the place of the tiled church basement. A live caller was directing traffic with his labyrinth maze of you-go-heres and you-do-thats. The dancers followed his words, weaving in and out, making huge Busby Berkeley patterns, choreographing sense out of what sounded like a jumble of words.
Now there was a drag queen here. The only one I saw. But the word from my tablemates was that she was straight. I guess this had led to a mini-scandal over whether she should be allowed to use the ladies' room, since, in essence, she was really a straight guy. But man or woman--she loved to twirl. She twirled so fast, her denim skirt lifted graciously to allow all a view of her fitted white lacey bloomers, many times over.
Spending time with the Ramblers gave me insight into the complexity of a dance I used to see as both silly and hillbilly. I was sure there would be plenty of fodder for sarcasm, slight and scandal; but my experience opened my eyes to a community that exists to champion inclusion, dancing, friendship, and the occasional cross-dresser's bloomers how gay is that?
If you have any interest in becoming a Rambler, or just want to learn how to square dance, check out their website,