||Steve Minkin: Called to be a square dance caller
by Ann Carranza
PressDemocrat.com - 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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They joined the "Calico Cutters" and my sisters and
I became "Calico Kittens."
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.
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'
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.
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.
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
In the hierarchy of pop culture, the square-dancer is
lumped with fellow Luddites like the celtic harpist, the
wandering minstrel and the bookbinder.
"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
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
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
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
"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,"
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
"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."