Most people don't associate blacks with square dancing and hoedowns. But that hasn't stopped the Dudes and Dames of Los Angeles from do-si-doing, promenading and sashaving every chance they get.
This all-black, square- and round-dance club has overcome the insults of whites and sneers of fellow blacks to become a nationally recognized group. Starting in 1966, with a handful of participants, the club now has 76 members, aged 12 to 80, who get a steady workout in Los Angeles, the square-dance capital of the world.
The group has performed for California Gov. Jerry Brown and appeared on Los Angeles TV and boasts a couple of much-sought-after callers. And tonight at 7 the club makes its first Washington appearance, at Howard University's Blackburn Student Center.
Right now the Dudes and Dames are viewed as an American success story. But things weren't always so rosy.
Dollie Lee, an original member, recalls; "In the early days we'd go to open dances, sometimes join a square, and the whites would walk out. Usually someone else would step into their places."
(Square-dance etiquette, a stringent code that requires men to wear long-sleeved shirts and prohibits the wearing of blue jeans, also forbids dancers to walk out of squares.)
The pressure of being turned away from dances or having dancers walk out of squares go to them. They began setting up their own squares -- until Chuck Jones, originator of the Road Runner cartoon character, called them on it.
"Chuck really encouraged us," said Lee, a retired beautician. "He was a caller and used to tell us he didn't want to see us in squares together."
Another caller who encouraged them was Joe Lewis. Lee remembered a dance he called in the 1950s in Fullerton, Calif.
"After the tip (a two- or three-call segment followed by a rest period), people grabbed their hats and coats and rushed to the exits," she said, unable to suppress a throaty laugh. "Well, Joe Lewis took the mike and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we've got other Americans dancing with us tonight. Let's all get together and see what a good time we can have.'"
Andy Rawlinson, one of the group's callers, said he used to smile when people called out of squares.
"If you let it get to your head, then it's your problem," he said. "When people walk out of a square, that's it for the night for them."
Rawlinson, a tractor-trailer driver in the Los Angeles-San Diego area by day, has become a highly successful caller.
"In 1968, I decided to learn square dancing," he said. "I was dating a woman who square-danced. And she used to always try to get me to go with her. I said, 'No, I've heard that music. I don't like it.' I associated it with racial discriminiation, prejudice and down-home ways.
"So one night I went to the Dudes and Dames Club to wait for her so we could go out later and do the twist. You know, I found myself sitting there listening to the music, patting my feet. I liked it! So I started taking lessons. And later I became fascinated with the caller, the guy who orchestrated all the goings-on."
Rawlinson taught himself how to call by listening to singing callers on records.
He's never taken a class in calling. Nevertheless, he's cut records and called at national square-dance conventions, and he works at least four nights a week as a caller -- mostly in California, but occasionally in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana and Oklahoma.
In 1976, he took a group of young white square dancers from Oakland on a tour of Romania. As a result, he was invited the next year to the Soviet Union and Poland.
The Dudes and Dames are performing against the backdrop of a square-dance boom that's hit the nation in the last decade. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are members of a club in Dawson, Ga. In 1977, 6 million people were involved in club square dancing, and the District has 162 such clubs. Some 36,000 persons attended the National Square Dance convention in 1976.
There are other black square-dance clubs in Chicago and Detroit. And blacks are members of predominantly white clubs across the country. Contrary to belief, say the Dudes and Dames, blacks have been square-dancing for years. No one's been noticing.
Frank and Carrie Jones (he's the club's current president) say they started square dancing because it was cheap entertainment.
In the early 1950s, the Los Angeles City Parks and Recreation Department sponsored square-dance classes for 50 cents a lesson.
"We had young children," Carrie Jones recalled, "and not much money. This meant we could go out and square dance and socialize for 50 cents a night. And I think the idea of costumes helped bring the ladies in. Some of our neighbors thought we were crazy."
The Joneses are also acclaimed round dancers (fox trot, tango, cha-cha, waltz, samba). Actually, they prefer it to square dancing.
The Dudes and Dames, a smorgasbord of retirees and working people -- teachers and truck drivers, doctors and locksmiths -- are appearing at Howard in a program called "Western Strokes for Eastern Folks," sponsored by Phoenix Inc., a group of black women interested in presenting unknown aspects of Afro-American culture.
The program will feature western food and an exhibition of cowboy memorabilia belonging to William Stepp, a black former Wyoming rancher, who'll also be present.
Said Carrie Jones: "We want blacks in Washington, D.C., to know they can square-dance. We want to make square dancing the national folk dance."