Chicago's LGBTQ square dancing club, Chi-Town Squares, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a party and pot-luck dinner, "Take Pride," May 12 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville.
The club began when Jerry Cohen and Ron Goodman joined forces in 1987 and put ads in the local LGBTQ newspapers to seek out more members. When the first class met in Sept. 1987 at Wellington Avenue Church on Wellington and Broadway there were about 30 people in attendance. Now the club calls Ebenezer Lutheran Church its home.
To solidify the club within the wider LGBTQ square dancing community, a delegation attended the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs 1988 convention, "Cross Trails." The association officially accepted Chi-Town Squares as members at that convention.
Longtime member Rick Simkin ( since 1991 ) noted that many people think square dancing clubs are for performance and competition, however, that is not the case with Chi-Town Squares.
"The group participates for the fun of dancing and the pleasure of each other's company," said Simkin. "A lot of enduring friendships have started on the dance floor and even some romantic relationships. I was looking for a community activity and Chi-Town Squares seemed just right because it was social and did not involve alcohol."
"It is a fun group of folks that enjoy socializing while dancing and laughing," said longtime member Rob Sierzega. "It is a casual setting and welcoming to everyone. I joined in the fall of 1993 with my ( now deceased ) partner, Larry Burke. We knew some people in the group, and were encouraged to try it out. We had a lot of fun right away and made a lot of new friends."
One of the features of square dancing is the live caller who tells the dancers what moves to make. Simkin explained that square dancing started as a folk activity with each caller using their own calls ( moves ) so it was not standardized. Chi-Town Squares hired a live caller its first year to teach the Basic through Plus calls. Since then Advance and Challenge levels have been added to the roster. These CALLERLAB-based classes have continued to this day.
"CALLERLAB is an international organization of square dance callers that was formed to standardize the calls and group them into standard 'levels' of learning," said Simkin. "Now a square dancer who knows, say, the 'Mainstream' level, can dance at any Mainstream dance anywhere in the world."
The club hosts a "No Experience Needed Dance Party" on the first Thursday of each month and weekly dances for people who have attended the intensive weekends ( blasts ) in March and September to learn the Mainstream level. In addition to these weekly dances focusing on specific levels of achievement, the club holds seven dances so the entire group can mix and mingle with each other. During the Columbus Day weekend in October, the club holds "The Great Chicago Crossfire" for members and former members who come in from all parts of the country to reconnect with their friends.
Each year Chi-Town Squares recognizes long-time members and gives out the Eric B. Calimag Yellow Rock Award ( since 1995 ) to one or more members who have shown outstanding service to the club. The genesis for this award began when Lin Jarvis gave the club a big rock painted yellow and mounted on a plaque to use as a way to honor someone.
"Eric Calimag was one recipient of the award," said Simkin. "He died during the year that he was the Yellow Rock's awardee. Chi-Town Squares left the rock with his family, got a new Yellow Rock, and re-named the award in Eric's memory."
The previous year's award winner( s ) choose( s ) the next year's recipients. This year's award was given to Joe Kerouac at the anniversary celebration.
Upon receiving the Yellow Rock award, Kerouac said "someone needs to break this to my husband ( who was at the celebration ) that this award will be going on our dining room table." This statement elicited a lot of laughs from the crowd.
Following the awards ceremony, Kerouac told Windy City Times that the award "was a great honor and recognition for the work I have done as a board member for the past ten years. I have been square dancing since 1968 so to get an award finally is wonderful. It has been great to be a member of this club. I have met some fantastic people who have become close friends."
New board member assignments were also announced at the anniversary celebrationJeff Hutchins ( president ), Diva Mihelic ( vice president ), John Wood ( treasurer ), Bob Siegel ( secretary ) and Penny O'Reilly ( member-at-large ).
"It is overwhelming to be taking on this new role," said Hutchins. "It is good to see the veterans of the group who no longer dance come out for this celebration and I hope the club has 30 more years."
"I have made so many wonderful friends here," said Mihelic. "This club is the center of my life. I am eager to move the club forward in my new leadership role and I also just joined the education committee. I am excited to be a liaison between the board and that committee. It will be fun to learn how to run the club."
"I hope that square dancing grows as a hobby and the club has a better presence in the Chicago LGBTQ community," said outgoing President Jim Cosenza. "This is a really diverse community of people who come from all sorts of backgrounds. I have found that being in this club is an amazing way to make friends and connect with other members of the LGBTQ community outside of a bar setting."
"I especially encourage younger people to come check out the club," said Chi-Town Squares historian Phil Davis. "Anyone is welcome to come and dance and that includes our LGBTQ allies."
Membership is $50/year and dances are $8. Scholarships are available for those who cannot afford to pay. See www.chitownsquares.org/ for more information .