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To find the great American folk dance, you don’t need to travel to some dark mountain hollow or backwoods firehouse. Just head for the heart of the suburbs.

In the fluorescent-lit cafeteria of the Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring, the Village Swingers gather in their bright, gaudy costumes for a Saturday-night square dance. Two dozen mostly elderly couples crowd the dance floor, flashing Western-style outfits and frilly crinoline skirts.

It may not look like a coven, but there’s something undeniably eerie about this group of giddy geezers: Their Howdy Doody grins seem a little frozen—almost conspiratorial—and their movements a bit too mechanical, as if they’ve been programmed by a cult leader using do-si-dos as mind control. There are no clumsy missteps as the dancers promenade in perfect unison. Everyone seems to know exactly what to do: They obey the amplified commands of a caller, a licensed professional who barks over ’45s of specially produced instrumental arrangements of golden oldies, everything from “Yankee Doodle Dandy’’ to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.’’

“There’s no skipping, running, jumping, or any of that turkey-in-the-straw stuff,’’ explains a gray-bearded gent in a star-spangled vest. “You just shuffle your feet along to the music.’’

“There’s no smoking or drinking,’’ says his wife, or “taw,’’ as female partners are called. “Just good clean fun.’’

“People still think of square dancing as fiddlers in a barn, and it’s anything but that,’’ says Village Swinger Dick Peterson, chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Washington Area Square Dance Cooperative Association. “It’s evolved into a truly modern American dance.’’

Village Swingers are one of hundreds of modern Western square-dance clubs—from Arks & Doves to Zig Zaggers—thriving in the Washington area. On most weekend nights, these fanatical, dues-paying club members are packing schools, community centers, and churches, among other venues—anywhere they find space for their frolics.

But it’s not enough that their relentlessly cheerful cult flourishes: Behind the bolo ties and under the ruffled petticoats, the square dancers are hatching a plot to get their leisure-time, boot-scootin’ activity recognized as the official American folk dance.

Since 1977, 27 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have adopted square dancing as their official folk dances. Maryland recently unveiled its state-dance symbol (a ’50s-style square-dancing couple) on its Web site; it will also appear in the official state manual, along with illustrations of the state crustacean (blue crab) and the state bird (oriole).

From Oregon to Delaware, the square-dance agenda has triumphed mostly without opposition, but this quiet revolution of seemingly frivolous legislation hasn’t gone completely unnoticed.

A small cadre of critics—from old-time cloggers to polka fans—claims that square dancing isn’t merely some harmless hobby for the RV crowd, but a vast conspiracy to overshadow, and ultimately wipe out, authentic regional folk dances. They detect a whiff of old-fashioned fascism in this wave of “officially approved’’ folk dances: Remember, they warn, that Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany reveled in the sanctioned, nationalist song-and-dance of the costumed masses.

“No other group has tried to have their folk dance receive the dubious honor of ‘state folk dance,’’’ says Julie Mangin, an old-time musician who runs clog-dancing events in Silver Spring. “Real folk dances don’t need the approval of a legislative body.’’

“It’s cultural extortion,’’ says Stan Fowler, a folk dance enthusiast who battled the square-dance bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 1994. “They’re putting this cultural veneer of mom and apple pie on something that’s not even a real folk dance. They want to cram this down everybody’s throats. It’s like saying, ‘Square Dance—It’s the law.’’’

A ranger at Glen Echo Park, Fowler keeps his long hair tucked in his cap when he’s

on the clock. For 15 years, he has organized weekly dances at the park’s historic Spanish Ballroom: Here on the polished, century-old, wooden-plank floor, all sorts of folk dances have flourished: square and contra and round dances, clogging, swing, tap, and Cajun dancing. The events feature live bands performing old-time music, and everyone is welcome, regardless of whether they even know how to dance. (By contrast, modern Western square dancing, also called club dancing, has recorded music and strict rules on dress codes and dancing ability, including different talent levels.)

In his office, Fowler keeps a crateful of material on what he calls the square-dance conspiracy. It’s a bulky chronicle of mostly defeats, but also some small victories. He relishes the skirmishes that have so far prevented some states from jumping on the square-dance bandwagon: “In Pennsylvania, there’s a war between the polka people and the square-dance people. So far it’s a stalemate.’’

He notes wryly that North Carolina had to settle for three recognized folk dances: square dancing, clogging (for the mountain regions), and the shag (for the beaches). This, he says, reveals the diversity and richness of true folk traditions.

“Folk dance is people doing the dances of their area, their region, their ethnic group,’’ he says. “The crinoline movement wants to homogenize dance into a something like a bowling league, with uniforms, steps, and rules you have to adhere to. It’s like making the Perdue chicken into the national bird.’’

Fowler says square-dance advocates have been pushing their agenda for years, and have learned from past defeats: In 1984 and 1988, national folk-dance bills were defeated after testimony from historians and folklorists. But now they won’t relent until every state—including Hawaii—makes the conversion, and square dancing is finally crowned the national folk dance.

“These are well-heeled, well-connected people who know how to use the system,’’ says Fowler. “Most are retired, and they’ve got a lot of time and money.’’

What irks Fowler even more is that Baltimore has been chosen to host the annual National Square Dance Convention, billed as the “World’s Greatest Square-Dancing Event,’’ in the Year 2000. Fowler claims this is a political payback to Maryland lawmakers for passing the square-dancing bill in 1994.

“Yeah, we just won the bid for Baltimore,’’ says Dick Peterson, who is organizing the convention. On his purple Western shirt, next to his grape-cluster bolo tie, he sports a pin that declares, “I’ve Set My Sails for Baltimore 2000.” He says the convention, attracting thousands of square dancers from across the world, will prove an economic boon to Maryland.

Peterson says it’s no secret that his group’s goal is to get two-thirds of the states to adopt square dancing as their folk dance; by the year 2000, he hopes to petition Congress to declare it the national folk dance. It would simply make official what he claims has been the unofficial dance of the people for centuries: “Square dancing is an American heritage, it’s like apple pie,’’ he says. “It was brought here by our forefathers, and it’s danced in this country and all over the world.’’

Mostly, Peterson is tickled that modern square dancing is finally getting some recognition; he proudly points to the February issue of Smithsonian: The cover boasts a photo of a 17-year-old Alabama lass hoisting her crinoline petticoat and winking over her shoulder at the camera, an impish gesture recalling Linda Blair’s 360-degree head swivel in The Exorcist. The article depicts modern square dance as a grass-roots mass movement several million strong—as well as a thriving mini-industry: (“It is a convention marketer’s dream,’’ reports Smithsonian. “A gathering of affluent people who don’t drink and get rowdy.’’)

Peterson acknowledges that modern square dancing is really just a few decades old, the invention of a certain Dr. Pappy Shaw (aided by the financial help of Henry Ford) back in the ’40s. But Peterson claims that as the official folk dance, square dancing is indeed inclusive, embracing contra and clogging and many other folk dances. “It’s an amalgamation of the dances brought over in the 16th century, a melting pot that has evolved into the modern square dance.’’

Sure, square dancing has changed, says Peterson. That’s what folk movements are all about, adapting to the times, and getting more popular: His organization includes 130 clubs in the Washington metro area, boasting thousands of dues-paying members. But it’s not about making money, says the retired retailer—it’s about having good, old-fashioned fun: “My wife and I go for an evening out and for $8 we get about two hours of dancing. There’s no alcohol like in those line-dancing clubs—it’s a family thing.’’

Those who are out of step with the idea of official recognition don’t bother Peterson a whit. “You’re always going to have people saying that the Indians have the true national dance,’’ he scoffs. “We’ve had people say that tap dancing was the true American dance, but tap was imported—it didn’t develop here.’’

Fowler says that Western square dancing is not a tradition in Maryland; while symbols such as the state dog (Chesapeake Bay retriever) are unique to Maryland, its “state folk dance’’ is shared by 26 other states. “Why should the so-called Free State follow in lock step with everyone else?’’

Fowler’s great-uncle was a fiddler at country dances in West Virginia, and Fowler says he’s trying to carry on the family tradition with his weekly gigs at Glen Echo Park. He vows that his dances will remain informal affairs with a sense of community and a link to the past.

“At our dances, we’re preserving a part of American history through movement and music,’’ he says. “The visitors here participate by actually doing dances that were done 200 years ago to tunes that were popular 200 years ago. We don’t need to explain it to them. It’s a vital, body-on experience, and that’s what we lose with the crinoline dancers. CP