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

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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, laughter and shuffle of shoes on wood as a square-dance caller rattles off promenades.

It could be almost any town in America; in almost any era from the 1940s on. But when the caller yells out, "Boys run around the girls!" it's more ceremonial than literal since nearly every dancer on the floor is a woman.

"Traditionally, they call them beaus and belles, but it's really only a matter of positioning — who's on the left and who's on the right," says Lucy Whitworth, a retired teacher and president of Sebastopol's Redwood Rainbows, the North Bay's only gay square-dancing club.

Over the past seven years, the Rainbows have evolved into a tight-knit social club of more than 100 loyal members. Dancing at least four nights a week, they've singlehandedly rescued square-dancing back from near extinction in the west county.

"I was down to one last couple at the Tuesday beginner night," says veteran caller Steve Minkin. "And I had to bring in three pairs of angels (veteran helpers) to come in and dance with them."

The group was called the Saucy Squares, founded in 1962 and made up of couples from the World War II generation, a generation of joiners who populated bowling clubs, churches, Kiwanis and Lions clubs. But its numbers had dwindled over the years.

"I was hoping the boomers might step up and save the day, but that never happened," says Minkin.

When he put out the word to entice new members, Minkin never expected a curious group of lesbian newbies would be the ones to carry the torch and keep alive a vestige of old Americana.

Maybe it was the prominent ad he put in the now-defunct "Women's Voices" lesbian magazine. Or maybe it was just word of mouth. But women started flocking to Wischemann Hall in Sebastopol.

The moves and the pageantry are the same as you would have seen back in the late 1940s and 1950s, when square dancing was a huge hit from Appalachian barns to New England gymnasiums and across the Midwest. Originating in 17th-century England, the dance had evolved into Western-American square dancing or just plain "barn dancing." All it took was four couples to make a square.

In Sonoma County, square dance clubs have come and gone through the years. Initially, the Saucy Squares were not unanimously receptive to the idea of belles standing in for beaus. "We had meetings with yelling and arguments," Minkin remembers.

But the gay-inclusive Squares members eventually won out over their protesting counterparts. And six years later, the Redwood Rainbows now run Wischemann Hall, attracting dancers who drive from as far as Sacramento to partake in their weekend challenge-level classes, widely considered the most expert form of square dancing. The Rainbows are part of a national movement, spearheaded by the International Association of Gay Square Clubs that boasts more than 60 members, including clubs in San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto and Walnut Creek.

On this evening, the first Wednesday in the new year, the rainbow flag flies proudly below white Christmas lights hanging from the rafters at Wischemann Hall. A half-dozen squares take shape on the wood floor and Minkin occasionally abandons his laptop and caller's booth to show off new moves. Instead of belt buckles, boots and cowboy hats, dancers are decked out in fleece vests, cross-trainers and mom jeans.

It's beginner's night, and more than 25 new faces have shown up. The old pros, aka "angels," are there to meet and greet and show them the ropes on the dance floor.

Cathy DeWilde remembers getting dragged to the dance hall for the first time by her partner.

"That first week I was thinking, what have I gotten myself into? By the third week, it's all smiles," she said.

Today, she's the club treasurer, logging in the new arrivals and making sure everyone gets a name tag.

On this night, several straight couples and single straight women have dropped in for a lesson. The Rainbows always welcome with open arms dancers of all sexual preferences.

"When you're my age, it's hard to find new friends," says Pat Newton, a 63-year-old straight woman. "It's kind of dorky dancing, but it's so much fun. You screw up and oh, whatever."

She enrolled in 2011, but had to take last year off to heal an injured knee. When she walks in the door tonight, before the music kicks in, someone yells, "Pat! You're back!" and she's instantly among friends again.

"One thing that's a little different about this is that at the end of a tip (a combination of dances in one square), everybody crosses their hands and says, &‘Thaaaaaank You!' And everybody gives each other a hug. In straight clubs, they just shake hands and say, &‘Thank you.' To me that's the difference," says Whitworth. "You get seven hugs after one tip, and there are four tips in an hour and a half. Where else in our culture do people get 28 hugs in one night?"

Even though the Rainbows overcame discrimination years ago, they still run across an occasional club, or other dancers, who are "less than accommodating."

"They don't know how to deal with it," says DeWilde. "It's befuddlement. However, if you're good, you become an ambassador and it doesn't matter. It's just, &‘She can dance!' It doesn't matter what position you're in or what role you're dancing. None of that matters."

(Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, and follow on Twitter @becksay.)

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