Adding Flair to Tradition, Richmanâ€™s Dancers Promenade to Madonna
Â By Sally Deering
Â Slip the Clutch, Shoot the Star and Roll Away with a Half Sashay; these may be non-sequiturs to most of us but to square-dance fans these terms get them twirling on the dance floor and if Howard Richmanâ€™s calling the dance, there might be some Madonna in the mix.
Square Dance calling may not be a typical job found on a resume, but Richman does it to add to his income as a theater artist and he travels throughout the Tri-State area to gyms, schools and church halls to put people through their paces on the dance floor.
â€œWhen square dancing was in its hey-day there were no computers, internet, or texting, and on Friday or Saturday night this was the chance to meet people,â€ Richman says. â€œIt has since evolved.â€
For those of us who barely remember dancing the Virginia Reel in grammar school, traditional square dancing has three levels. The entry-level called â€œMainstreamâ€ comprised of 64 movements; â€œPlusâ€ with another 30 movements and â€œAdvancedâ€ with another 30. Mainstream and Plus have their own clubs where people take classes and hire callers like Richman to swing them through a labyrinth of patterns in time to the music.
â€œItâ€™s like when you first learn the alphabet,â€ Richman says, â€œfirst you learn letters, then words, Â then sentences and then it gets more literary. In the Mainstream level 68 different steps or movements can be strung along in many different combinations which get you back to your partner and back to your home position. Once you learn those, you can go to any mainstream level club.â€
One of the exciting things about square dancing, Richman says, is that the dancers never know whatâ€™s coming next.
â€œThatâ€™s modern American square dancing,â€ Richman says. â€œThey get up and I start speaking the calls and theyâ€™re doing what Iâ€™m telling them to do and Iâ€™m putting them through a good combination of movements in a smooth and flowing way. You have to know left from right but itâ€™s okay to have two left feet.â€
GREENWICH VILLAGE SQUARE DANCES
Richman learned he had a thing for square dancing back in the mid-1980s when he saw a newsletter advertising a square dance in Greenwich Village.
â€œThere were a lot of nice people there,â€ Richman says. â€œI was an aspiring dancer at the time, so I picked up the steps pretty quickly. Â I was singing along with the music, and someone said to me, you should be a caller. I looked at it as a performance; I never dreamed it would go this far.â€
THE MUSIC ISNâ€™T JUST COWBOY SONGS ANYMORE
When Richman calls a square dance he uses a range of music from traditional square dance songs to contemporary pop tunes. Square dancing is 128 beats per minute, thatâ€™s the speed the music should be for calling, Richman says. Heâ€™s called square dances to pop songs like Meghan Trainorâ€™s â€œAll About That Bassâ€.
â€œIâ€™ve called Madonna songs, Destinyâ€™s Child, Paul Simon,â€ Richman says, â€œand traditional country songs like â€˜Back in the Saddle Againâ€™.â€
PRACTICE WITH FRIENDS
Stating out as a square dance caller, Richman says he practiced his calls with a little help from his friends.
â€œYou get people over to your house and tell them Iâ€™m going to call for an hour and then Iâ€™ll feed you,â€ Richman says. â€œYou memorize things and things start to click. Itâ€™s my job to remember whoâ€™s partnered with whom.â€
Although, sometimes partners can get jumbled on the dance floor.
â€œIt used to be easier, the guyâ€™s shirt would match the galâ€™s dress,â€ Richman says. â€œThere would be the couple in blue, the couple in yellow, now itâ€™s much more casual, you have to look and pay attention at the beginning of the set. And people will switch partners now whereas in the past it used to be a woman would only dance with her husband.â€
Richman will go in and teach a class before he starts calling the dance, and in June, he will have come full circle and will be back in Greenwich Village, this time teaching square dance. A Jersey City resident who grew up in South Orange, Richman admits square dance calling isnâ€™t a typical profession in New Jersey.
â€œItâ€™s a pretty rare job,â€ Richman says.
He credits square dance caller Joe Landi for inspiring his style.
â€œI make people think more than most callers,â€ Richman says. â€œI can be challenging, but Iâ€™ve been told my music selection is fantastic, and Iâ€™m not boring.â€
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