Steve Minkin: Called to be a square dance caller
by Ann Carranza - June 23, 2013

On New Year’s Eve 1980, Rita and Steve Minkin didn’t have plans for the evening but they were looking to have a good time. Rita had grown up in Michigan and square dancing was part of her social upbringing, so that fateful New Year’s Eve, she wheedled and Steve surrendered, ...

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Hip to be square
How gays rescued the west county's
square dance tradition from near extinction

by John Beck
The Press Democrat - January 20, 2013

The yellow light of a dance hall glows at the end of a dead-end road. Patti Page's “Tennessee Waltz” serenades over the hand claps, ...

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The art of square dancing
by Carol Noack
The Healdsburg Tribune - May 25, 2006

When I grew up in Stockton, my dad had his own business. People who've never owned their own business often think that means they can choose their own hours. More often it means you never get time off. That was certainly the case for my family, and as a result, vacations usually consisted of last minute overnight camping trips, and evening entertainment for my parents was all but non-existent. But every now and then, they made time for an evening of square dancing.
They joined the "Calico Cutters" and my sisters and I became "Calico Kittens."
So in my nostalgic middle years, I started to wonder if square dancing was dying out. For a couple of years now I've been trying to unearth square dancing in our county. I was beginning to think that the dancing I grew up on had become extinct. I called feed stores, tack stores, and dance studios, but no one knew where I could find any square dancers. Then last Christmas I went to a holiday party located in a dedicated square-dance hall in Sebastopol. And the bulletin board was loaded with flyers about square-dance events and classes. I'd hit the jackpot!
The art is apparently still alive across the country, and here in Sonoma County, Sebastopol seems to be Square Dance Central, boasting several dance groups and at least one option for every age and skill level.
Every square needs a caller to announce each step, and most of those weekly dance clubs around here use the same professional caller - Steve Minkin. Steve is a bit unusual as a caller in that he covers a wide range of the activity; from traditional to modern squares, round, and line dancing. He works at all levels from kindergarten through Challenge level, which he likens to playing chess to music.
Steve averages 370 dances a year, and is one of the world's busiest callers. He grew up in Brooklyn, where square dancing was most certainly uncool, but was dragged to a dance at age 36. According to Steve, "The activity literally claimed me. It had its hooks in me from beginning, since I've always loved to dance, rock'n'roll, folk dances, etcetera. But when I realized what the modern western square dance was like - the elegant geometry of its choreography and the unique mental demands it makes on the dancer - the activity forced me to throw myself into it. When I started calling, I got nothing but raves from the dancers and had my first club before I was out of beginners' class."
Steve has been calling for 25 years now (now you can calculate his age!) and boasts his ranking as a perennial NorCal Top Ten Callers honoree. He has called at hoe-downs from Eureka to Chico to Monterey, and at festivals as close as Geyserville and as far away as Hawaii. He especially loves working with kids. "I call for dozens of camps and youth groups, and almost certainly have the world's most extensive program of calling in the schools. I try to keep dancing fun for the kids by using a wide variety of dances, including traditional and modern squares, line dances, circle mixers, contras, and novelty dances."
But what makes square dancing so different from other forms of dance? He has a ready answer for that question too. Steve told me, "In all other forms of dance, the steps are practiced and then danced. In modern square dancing, the dancer does not know what is going to be called next. The dancer needs to be focused and entirely present mentally, like a bridge player or a chess player." And, while anyone can dance the simple steps, you need years of lessons to master the tricky maneuvers. The result is an art that remains challenging through a lifetime.
Steve thinks it's a great social ice-breaker, and can cite a roster of couples who met and married through square dancing. Those connections are among his favorite memories. But he experiences memorable moments constantly, as he watches beginners discover that they can indeed master the movements. And high on his list of special memories is a moment from many years ago. He relayed, "Our first club, The Prime-Timers of Forestville, was filled with people so old they were thrilled just be doing a do-sa-do! My wife and I were in our mid-thirties then and it was a revelation to be around sweet people with nothing to prove."
Square dancing isn't really a "performance" art; to enjoy it you've got to participate. And if you want to try it out, continuing beginners classes meet weekly at the Wischemann Hall in Sebastopol, next to the community center. Whether old or young, single or partnered, you're welcome to join in. Just call Steve Minkin for information.

Carol Noack is a writer & (very) amateur singer, and is involved with a number of performing arts groups.

Man with a Calling
by John Beck
The Press Democrat - August 18, 2002

Healdsburg's Steve Minkin, one of the top square-dance callers in Northern California, is a student of the form.

One of the oldest forms of entertainment, square-dancing has acquired an unfortunate stigma over the years: It's square.
In the hierarchy of pop culture, the square-dancer is lumped with fellow Luddites like the celtic harpist, the wandering minstrel and the bookbinder.
But set in motion by roving square-dance caller Steve Minkin and his legions of students, it's a vibrant art form that evolves on the dance floor with all the mathematical precision of chess and the free-wheeling organic symmetry of a kaleidoscope.
"There was a movement afoot 15 years ago to change the name because 'square' is such an undesirable term," Minkin said. "Of course, there was square-dancing long before jazz and long before square became the opposite of something hip."

Calling about 370 dances a year, he once led Mayor Jerry Brown through a round of promenades at Oakland's 150th birthday party. He has barked out do-si-dos for former Secretary of State George Shultz. He even called a Lake County square dance for the Billy Club, a gay male organization that dressed up (or down) in mostly lingerie.
Over the past two decades, he's had loyal couples stay the duration. Others come and go and come back again with new partners. As often as someone dies, another arrives for the first time rearing to go. The other day, the mere presence of three Corvettes parked out-side the dance hall was a promising sign - hope that maybe the aging baby boomers will save the day after a steady decline in square-dancing.

From the Bronx
It's an unlikely calling for a Jewish kid from the Bronx who didn't start square-dancing until he was in his early 30s.
"South of me was Frankie Lymon and the Teen-agers," Minkin remembered. "And west of me was Dion and the Belmonts. They both became very popular around the same time, so it was all rock'n'roll dancing."
He won a few cha-cha contests as a kid, but it wasn't until his wife dragged him to a hoedown in Michigan that he fell for square-dancing.
"I'm a natural-born ham," he said. "But I don't think I ever had the right outlet for it."

On a recent sweltering summer afternoon, Minkin, 58, demonstrated how he choreographs routines with a set of wooden checkers. At the dinner table in his Healdsburg house, his hands darted across the table in shell-game flashes as he shuffled the dancers, calling out an "ocean wave" routine: "swing through… half by the right… girls turn three quarters…"
"I'm much more obsessive than most callers," he said. "I do a lot of preparation because it's easy to dumb down a dance. But I hate to be in the position of having dancers bored with me, so I try to see that that's never the case."

A student of the form, he knows his history and how the professional square-dance caller emerged after World War II, bringing in the modem era of square-dancing, a rebirth of the form that sprung from Scottish country dancing centuries ago. Sparked by the advent of the PA system, it was a time when the one-man band emulated what it once took an entire band to play. Taking control, callers began to improvise with side calls, manipulating traditional songs and devising new routines.
"My calling teacher Bill Peters used to say that modem square-dancing is unique among activities because it satisfies the three recreational needs: physical, social and mental," Minkin said.

Chess, writing, bridge
Year after year, he is chosen as one of the top 10 callers in Northern California. But Minkin also enjoys other forms of dancing like cutting a rug at a weekend Poyntless Sisters gig. A former tournament chess player and bridge player, he's also an avid writer who regularly contributes to "American Square Dance" and founded the literary magazine "Paper Pudding," which has featured such writers as Andre Codrescu and David Bromige. He is even shopping around a young-adult novel centered around a 19th century square dance.
Over the years, he's worked as a teen counselor, a caretaker for a Monte Rio resort, a temporary office worker in San Francisco and a weekly newspaper editor in Maryland.
But no job has been as gratifying his work as a square-dance caller.
One of his biggest fears is that square-dancing will endure only as a historical artifact.
"Callers over the last 20 years have been beating themselves up because of the decline in square-dancing, most of them thinking we made the act too complicated and it should have remained very simple."
Bent on spreading the gospel of the do-si-do to all walks of life, his calling spans from elementary school children to the upper levels of challenge dancing, which one student on a recent night called "square-dancing for nerds" because of its mental gymnastics.

On a recent Friday night, Minkin donned a portable headset to lead a jubilant San Francisco Girls Chorus summer camp at Rio Lindo Academy near Healdsburg. Working up a sweat, he ran around all four sides of the square - an area about size of half a soccer field - to demonstrate a new routine to the gaggle of 100 girls.
A dancing anachronism, camper Nadia Papaloukas wore a Green Day "Pop Disaster" tour T-shirt while belting the traditional 1880s song "Oh Solomon Levi."
"It's so much fun because you don't have to worry about what people think about you. You just have fun," Papaloukas said before running out to dance to the next song.
By dusk, when the Village People's "YMCA" took over, it was no longer your father's square-dancing.

Top-level dancers
A few nights later, Minkin is back at it again, this time leading a roomful of diehard top-level "challenge" square-dancers at Wischemann Hall in Sebastopol. Against dimly lit wood paneling, crinoline skirts flash in vibrant promenades. Square-dancing for nerds might be too harsh a label, but thinking on your feet is clearly required and you can see the wheels spinning.
Elevated in a corner booth like a DJ, Minkin keeps everyone on their toes with a verbal barrage that blends auctioneering with country singing for a round of tally hos, jaywalks, sashays, slides, slips and phantom moves.
"He gets you doing all sorts of different things and then he surprises you," said longtime student Louise Kerr, catching her breath between routines. "He'll do some kind of unusual move and suddenly you realize you're back home again."

Returning for another carefree Sunday night, regular heel-kickers and hand-clappers include an Agilent engineer, a barber, a tax assessor, a retired school teacher, a retired pressman and a web consultant.
"It's kind of a living symbol of community interaction," Minkin said. "At its best, when a dance is really working well, I know I'm in the right place and there's a magic that's happening and I'm a catalyst for it."
"Early on in the game, there was this feeling of being an impostor - you're driving to an unknown town and you're supposed to provide a party for these people, and you think, 'I can't do this.'
"Now, I know if they're in any way responsive, I can help these people have a great time. After several thousand of those, it's a good feeling."


DJ Capabilities

My Mentor, Bill Peters

Some highlights,
memorable dances

Four newspaper
stories about me