Bee bong, dodo bong, bong, bong, square to the count of four ...
Marshall Flippo from Abilene, Texas, is calling and he has the square-dancing couples at the Sheraton Park smiling, moving in and out, ducking under arms, bowing and swirling -- bright-patterned, knee-length skirts, puffed out by colorful petticoats with up to 50 yards of crinoline.
Meet a little girl and around you go, circle to the left...
Mike Michel, 68, who has been dancing for 28 years, exclaims: "I love it -- I like to get out and live it real wild three or four days a year."
In the Age of Disco, the squares are stronger than ever. Today, some 4,400 of them (out of an estimated 10 million nationally) will swing (and alamande left and do-si-do) into the final day of the three-day 20th annual Spring Dance Festival sponsored by WASCA, the Washington Area Square Dancers Cooperative Association.
"They close the bars when we show up," says Bob Harshbarger, who is handling public relations for the festival. "There's no way you can have a few drinks and go down on the floor and do those figures. It's not because we're pious -- we have parties afterward."
It's strenuous exercise, but "they do two numbers, rest for about five minutes and dance again," says Harshbarger.
For two days and three nights, with frequent breaks for rest and refreshment (there are water coolers all over the place), the same scene repeats itself, sometimes in five ballrooms simultaneously: A floor full of couples (divided into "squares" of four couples each) prancing, promenading and turning while a caller (a combination disc jockey, singer and choreographer) keeps up a running patter:
Acey-deucy, center trey... clover and girls spindletop ....
"My job keeps me pretty busy -- I guess my wife and I dance about six times a month, which is low," says "Cliff" McLain, a deputy director in the Department of Defense. "Most couples dance 10 or 12 times a month -- many dance three or four times a week. My wife and I belong to four clubs."
The festival offers the opportunity for up to 33 hours of dancing. There are 180 clubs in the Washington area with names like Square Dealers, Swingin' Squares, Dancing Nomads, Skirts and Flirts, and most of the people are local. But last year, 36 states and two Canadian provinces were represented. This year, they're still counting.
Across the country, there are approximately 2,000 square-dance festivals each year, and special cruises to places like the Caribbean and Hawaii. The WACA Spring Festival is one of the largest, but last year's national festival, held in Atlanta, attracted 25,000.
According to a WASCA official, it's hard to pin down the actual number of dancers in the U.S., "because a lot of them belong to more than one club -- the average size is about 40 couples.
"They have to stay small because of the halls available -- mostly church basements and school halls. You need at least 100 to 125 square feet for each square of four couples -- and it's crowded at 100."
Five ballrooms come in handy because square dancing is not only strenuous -- it's complicated. The basic level, called "Mainstream," involves 69 basic calls and takes about six months to learn (1,200 people are now taking Mainstream courses in the Washington area).
"Mainstream-Plus" adds 24 more calls (plus a slowly changing pool of experimental calls, 10 in general use at any given time); then there is "Advanced," which adds about 100 more, and then "Challenge levels" in which nearly 3,000 calls may be used.
A callers' association has standardized the calls so that square-dancers can go anywhere in the country (or to Japan, Germany or Italy, where square-dancing is also popular, with the calls done in English) and feel right at home.
Revived in the 1930s after dying with the American frontier, square-dancing is now rapidly evolving, with new figures constantly being introduced and tried out. "If you're away from it for a few months," says one dancer, "you're lost when you come back -- there's a lot of new material to learn."
Clover and those in the middle recycle... wheel and deal ...
The dancers are almost exclusively married couples, with slightly lower attendance among the young-marrieds, who are apt to have baby-sitting problems.
"My father-in-law learned squaredancing when he was 78," says caller Bruce Busch of New Jersey, "and my daughter learned at 7. One of her greatest joys is dancing with grandpa."
"There are a lot of teen dancers," adds his wife Bonnie, "and their style is a little more wile and high-kicking than ours -- but they tone it down when they dance with the old folks."
Wheel and deal... those in the middle pass out ...
Also featured is circle dancing, where the couples stay together with a soft female voice calling "fallaway, back, back, kick, side." The effect is like choreographed ballroom dancing -- "right purty," as one spectator says.
Slap knee, swivel, swivel, close, wiggle, wiggle, snap, kick, and on into the weekend .