Sunday, August 1, 2004
Kevin Oneslager is taking the square out of square dancing.
Not in the geometric sense, of course.
The dancers in the Tons of Fun square dancing club, which Oneslager launched in 2001, still start with four couples in a square formation.
But the mood is decidedly more hip at Tons of Fun dances than it might have been during the square-dancing unit in your elementary school gym class.
"We're changing our music. We're no longer doing hokey stuff," says Oneslager, the club's professional caller. "Also, what used to be considered the normal square dance attire -- we've thrown that out. Instead we've gone with a casual attire attitude."
The idea is to shake square dancing's reputation as an activity reserved for Sunday afternoons at senior centers. Oneslager's everyone's-welcome approach has grown club membership to 50 dancers who range in age from teens to septuagenarians. Members gather the fourth Saturday of each month for a dance, which usually attracts at least 30 dancers from out of town.
Rosalee Rainbolt loves the alcohol- and smoke-free environment, where there's plenty of friendly people and no foul language.
"We have just really enjoyed it," says Rainbolt, 65. She and her husband, Bob, have been Tons of Fun members since the club began. "You get to meet so many different people from different lifestyles, from lawyers to farmers.
"It's a family-type thing that seniors all the way down to children that know their left from their right can learn."'
Easy as walking
Oneslager and his wife, Sherry, started Tons of Fun because a scene that once supported seven clubs in Lawrence had dwindled to nothing. Every several months, the club welcomes a new flock of dancers by offering free lessons at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. A new session begins Aug. 9.
Although square dancing requires mastering 68 calls -- which sounds like a lot -- picking up the moves couldn't be simpler, Oneslager says.
"As one caller puts it: As long as you can walk, talk and smile, you've got it made," he says.
And if you're a little rusty at first, there's no need to worry. Experienced dancers, dubbed Angels, are waiting in the wings to help.
Among them is Betsy Hoke, 45.
- Lawrence's Tons of Fun square dancing club will offer free square dancing lessons beginning Aug. 9 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. Beginner's lessons are 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m., with advanced lessons from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
- Caller is Kevin Oneslager. Donations to help pay for hall rental will be accepted.
- New members can join the club after taking lessons and then paying $15 annual dues, which gets them into club dances the fourth Saturday of every month at Dance City, 5150 Clinton Parkway.
- Admission to club dances for nonmembers is $3.
- For more information, call Oneslager at 843-4449 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allemandes and promenades are second nature to this veteran, who's been square dancing for 22 years. After getting a taste of the dance form during college at Kansas University (she belonged to the Hilltop Twirlers), she started a club of her own called the Square De-Lites. But dwindling numbers forced the club to fold in 2001.
Now she enjoys her favorite pastime with her new husband, Jerry. He was skeptical at first, but Betsy talked him into taking lessons last fall.
"I told him, 'Just give it three lessons, and if you don't like it I won't bug you anymore,'" she says. "Well, after the first one, he was hooked."
The couple even had Oneslager call dances at their wedding reception in May.
Given the club's name, it's no surprise that Tons of Fun members cite gaiety as square dancing's No. 1 asset. But they're quick to follow with its boost to physical and mental health.
"If you were to dance every tip in a night, it would be the equivalent of walking five miles," Betsy Hoke says.
Indeed, all that twisting, twirling and sashaying provides the same health benefits as low-impact aerobics. And dancing -- square included -- has proven effective in slowing Alzheimer's progression.
"There have been studies that prove that it is the best aerobics there is because you walk, you use your arms and legs, and also your mind because you have to be able to remember the cueing to be able to do it," Rainbolt says.
Plus, it's cheap.
Club dues are $15 a year, which gets members into all dances and gives them the benefits of a network. Club members often travel together to other club dances in the area.
"If you wanted to dance every night of the week, you could because there are clubs in Topeka and Kansas City and Ottawa, Gardner," Hoke says. "They're all over."
Dosado.com, an national online clearinghouse for all things square dancing, lists more than 30 square dancing clubs in Kansas. About two-thirds of those are in northeast Kansas.
The Rainbolts have crashed dances in Osawatomie, Salina, Emporia and Atchison, among other towns.
"We just travel all over and dance with other people," Rainbolt says. "And everyone greets you just like you're a long lost friend."
'Heart and soul'
But no matter how many clubs they visit, Tons of Fun dancers say Oneslager remains their favorite caller.
After 19 years of calling (he started as a 15-year-old at a Baldwin dance), he's perfected his technique.
"I'm what they call a sight caller," he explains. "What I do is make it up on the fly. ... I can mix the square completely up and move people all over the floor and bring them right back where they started from."
Oneslager has an amplifier, a set of speakers, a microphone and a variable-speed turntable that can play records anywhere from 15 to 80 rpms. He uses it to play the 4,000 records he has packed into his basement through the years.
In keeping with the contemporary vibe of his club, Oneslager also uses a laptop computer with an external hard drive to play mp3s.
Among his bag of tricks are traditional favorites like "Rocky Top" and "Summer Sounds." But he tosses in everything from Santana to the Baja Men, rock to hip-hop, for flavor.
And his dancers appreciate the variety.
"He's a great caller, and we're really lucky to have him here in Lawrence," Hoke says. "He really puts his heart and soul into square dancing."