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1/19/2019
Square dancing a long-standing Ketchikan tradition
The head couple, John and Loni Hill, promenades back to home position on Jan. 11 during a square dance group event at Creek Street Cabaret. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek


By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer

Ketchikan’s square dancers warmed up a chilly Friday night in the Creekside Cabaret Dec. 14 with laughter and enthusiastic allemandes timed to the lively music of the Free Radicals band.

Barbara Morgan, who has teamed up with Hilary Koch for the past nine or 10 years to hold the Alaska Square Dance events, said that square dance groups have been active in town for decades.

Morgan recalled talking to a resident in the Pioneer Home when the group held a dance there. The resident shared photos of herself and her husband in full formal square dance costume at a long-ago local event.

Morgan and Koch take turns calling the dances, Morgan said. She said Halli Kenoyer taught her to call dances, and that Kenoyer, who no longer is involved with the group, learned to call at Juneau’s Alaska Folk Festival events. Morgan and Koch also have attended the folk festival many times, Morgan said.

Juneau’s folk festival has been an important part of the band’s development as well, Morgan said, as many of them also attend. Terry O’Hara plays the mandolin; Peggy Hovik, the guitar; Dale Miller and Brian Curtis, the fiddle; and Andy Pankow, the stand-up bass, to comprise the Free Radicals.

When a friend of Morgan’s first invited her to a square dance event, Morgan said she was less than enthusiastic, as she had only memories of less-than-pleasant experiences with square dancing in elementary school P.E. class.

“In fourth grade — and you had to touch the kid next to you” types of memories, Morgan said, laughing.

Her friend assured her that Morgan could just sit and listen to the music, so Morgan gave in and went to the dance.

“I walked in the door and they needed another person to dance,” Morgan said. “I couldn’t say no, and it was fun.”

Kenoyer noticed her interest right away and asked if Morgan wanted to start calling. Morgan couldn’t resist that invitation either, and jumped in. Koch started calling soon after.

The skills of a caller are more complex that it would seem on the surface.

Morgan explained that to be a good caller, one has to have some understanding of music, especially measures, so that calls are timed correctly.

“That’s a bit tricky,” Morgan said, “because it depends not only on the music and the caller’s ability, but also on the dancers’ ability.”

She said that her years of experience as a University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus instructor has helped to hone her approach to calling as well. Morgan has degrees both in biology and teaching.

“Adjusting my instruction based on where they’re at, rather than just trying to hammer them with what you want them to do, is the delicate balance,” she said.

In square dancing, each “square” is a group of eight people — one couple for each side of a square. Morgan said that when there are three squares dancing simultaneously, they’re guaranteed to all be at slightly different points in the dance, so the caller must adapt and time calls to the middle.

“As the caller, I kind of feel like I’m the bridge between the music and the dancers,” Morgan said. “They could dance to the beat of the music, but I am telling them different forms to do and different moves to make in time to the music.”

Common moves in square dancing require couples to exchange places, walk around each other in prescribed patterns or link arms or hands to perform a move. Common calls include “allemonde,” circle left or right, do-si-do and promenade.

At December’s dance event, colored and white spotlights highlighted the band on the slightly raised stage, and two floor heaters with mock flames struggled to heat the room. Pankow blew into his hands to warm them.

Plates of cookies awaited hungry dancers on nearby tables, and Christmas decorations sparkled around the room.

Koch sparked off the first dance by demonstrating the moves. Then the music started up and the wooden floor vibrated with the crowd’s footsteps.

“Join hands again, we’re going to make a clover,” Koch called.

The clover-shaped groups of dancers gently spun in their squares.

Swingy, old-style tunes like “Shove that Pig’s Foot Closer to the Fire,” “John Brown’s March” and “Virginia Reel” rang off of the high ceiling as the dancers wove patterns, sometimes confidently stepping through moves and sometimes bumbling and back-pedaling, while laughing.

“You are spokes on a wheel,” Koch called out, as she led them through a new dance. “Swing your own. Swing your opposite. Chain, chain, chain,” she instructed.

Koch, who was working the afternoon that Morgan sat down to talk with the Daily News, wrote a text message that she asked Morgan to share, regarding her feelings about the importance of dance.

“Maybe I can think of some inspiring words to share about the joys of dancing, about how good it is for your brain and body,” Koch wrote.

She emphasized the effectiveness of dance and rhythm in helping to reduce the damaging effects of Alzheimer’s disease and strokes. She punctuated her enthusiasm by adding that dancing is just plain fun.

“Socializing, music, dance = a life of joy,” Koch summarized.

Morgan agreed with Koch’s sentiments.

“Hearing and music and balance and planning ahead — you have to figure out what you’re doing ahead — as well as the actual body movements,” all positively affect a dancer’s mind and body, Morgan explained.

Morgan said that square dances are held starting at 7 p.m. the second Friday of each month, at Creekside Cabaret. All events are free, and people can check the Alaska Square Dance Facebook page for more information, to ask questions and to see posters for upcoming events. Morgan and Koch takes turns hand-crafting event posters that are shared on the page as well as hung in locations around Ketchikan.

“This is not P.E.-style dancing,” Morgan emphasized. “This is the good version of square dancing,” with live music and a relaxed atmosphere.

“People are going to have fun,” Morgan said.