Park Rapids Friendly Squares celebrates 65th anniversary
The caller croons to circle to the left, swing your partner, look ‘em in the eye and promenade. Gleeful “whoohoos” erupt from square dancers, the floor aswirl with smiles, Western-style shirts and flouncy, ruffled skirts.
The Park Rapids Friendly Squares celebrated its 65th anniversary this fall.
Dancers from Bemidji, Nimrod, Wadena, International Falls – and even Canada – amassed at the Century School cafetorium in October for the event.
Karen Van De Venter’s parents – Gerald and Ruth Van De Venter – founded the club with Gerald and Carolyn Tschudi.
“They started the club in ‘57, and they never quit. My dad was a farmer. He’d come in and they’d go to a night out dance. He’d get home at 3, 4 o’clock in the morning, get up and go milk cows,” she recalled.
Her parents lived in Park Rapids their whole lives.
“They traveled to Grand Rapids. They traveled all over,” Karen recalled of their square dancing heydays. “There were a lot more clubs than there are nowadays.”
There used to be “night owl stands, where you’d dance all night til 3,4 o’clock in the morning,” she continued. “People nowadays can’t stand to stay up that late.”
Karen remembers square dancing at a Sebeka couple’s barn. “We’d go there and dance once in a while.”
Gerald passed away in 2014, Ruth in 2017. Carolyn died in 2005.
But Karen carries on the family tradition. Her brother, Gordy, was also on hand in October to celebrate the club’s longevity. They took square dancing lessons together in 1968.
“I have a sister that square dances, but she hasn’t for the last three, four years. And I have another brother that never square danced,” Karen said.
Dwindling clubs, members
According to United Square Dancers of America (USDA), “Our square dance dresses of today can trace their history back to the elegant ballrooms of France and the grand manors of England. In those countries, the minuet, polka, waltz and quadrille were danced. As people immigrated to America, they brought their customs, dress and dance with them.”
The popularity of square dancing surged in the U.S. after WWII.
Park Rapids Friendly Squares meets the second Friday of the month at Century School, except during the summer.
They currently have 12 members.
“We used to have 60-70,” Karen said. “All the clubs are hurting. Square dancing is going down. I don’t know if we can build it back up, but we’re trying to.”
A few nearby towns have square dance clubs: Bemidji First City Squares, Wadena Whirlaways and Lake Park Country Twirlers.
Country Twirlers hold their dances in Staples, while the Whirlaways meet in Motley.
Grand Rapids and Brainerd used to have clubs, but they folded, according to Karen.
The Square Dance Federation of Minnesota, Inc. lists 23 clubs throughout the state at squaredanceminnesota.com.
An evolving hobby
Donna Stone is club president. She dances with her husband, Mike. They joined Park Rapids Friendly Squares in 2000.
Mike worked at Thielen Motors for 23 years and sold the Van De Venters a car. They invited him to square dance. He promised to attend a lesson and try it.
“We went in and we liked it,” Mike recalled.
When they returned to the second class, Donna said everybody “remembered everything about us” and asked them questions.
“From that point, we were all friends,” she said.
“The people is what I like,” Mike said.
With about 80 “calls” to learn, Donna said it’s a lot to remember. “But most of them are pretty basic,” she added.
Karen agrees there are more “calls,” or dance steps, than ever before.
“Years ago, there weren't so many things to learn. When I took lessons, we started in September and were done in December. But now, they start in September and keep going until February before they graduate because there’s so much more to learn,” Karen said.
A “tip” consists of everyone squaring up, dancing for 10 minutes or so, concluding with thanking everyone in your square, clapping for the caller, then taking a break.
Born and raised in Park Rapids, Margarite Rinde joined the Friendly Squares in 1977.
“I started dancing when my first husband died. My cousin was dancing. He got me dancing,” she said.
The complexity of the tip depends upon the caller, she said.
Park Rapids Friendly Squares lost its longtime club caller (1994-2020), Roger Lueth, when he retired.
Karen said they recruit guest callers, but it can be difficult. Tom Allen makes the trek from St. Cloud. Another travels from the Cities. Larry Johanson drove 90 miles from Underwood, Minn. to call for the anniversary party.
The attire has evolved over the years, too.
Karen’s mother used to sew all of her outfits. “Some people dance in pants. Anything goes, nowadays,” she said.
Karen bought her colorful skirt at a national convention. “Otherwise I keep wearing the same ol’ stuff,” she said, laughing.
Jan and Stan Tyrell are members of the Wadena Whirlaways. They’ve been square dancing for 43 years.
“We enjoy the people. They’re so wholesome. The activity is physically and mentally stimulating,” Jan said. “It’s fun.”
The Tyrells don’t get to Park Rapids often, but they always attend the club’s New Year dance.
A dance partner isn’t required, Jan added. Not only do dancers mingle, but some alternate roles. Jan wears a flippable nameplate that can read either “woman” or “man” because she often plays the male’s part.
“There’s always a shortage of men,” she explained.
The Whirlaways start weekly lessons in September, concluding in February. Sign up by contacting the club (www.facebook.com/WadenaWhirlaways).
“Otherwise, we meet twice a month, but the summer months are once a month,” Jan said. “The only soreness you’ll have is probably your face muscles from smiling.”
Nancy and Charles Deutchmann of Nevis graduated from the Whirlaways dance lessons in spring 2022.
“We’re newbies,” she said. “What I like about it is you’re getting exercise without ‘exercising.’ And I hate exercise. It keeps your mind thinking about what the caller is saying and converting it to what your feet have to do. And it doesn’t always work. That’s why it’s fun because it makes me laugh.”
Square dancing, waltz and line dancing were also a part of the evening’s activities. Spectators are welcome, along with former members. A potluck typically completes the night.
Park Rapids Friendly Squares appears to live up to its moniker. They truly are neighborly.
Karen said, “You meet nice people. Everybody’s friendly. It’s a team environment.”
For more information about Friendly Squares, contact Karen at 218-252-3853.