Barbi Ashwill dragged her husband, Lee, to a square dancing lesson in 1978, and the Salem, Ore., couple has been tapping their toes together ever since.
The Ashwills are in Oklahoma City this week for the 62nd annual National Square Dancing Convention at the Cox Convention Center.
“She danced before we got married,” Lee said. “The guys are the hardest to get to the lessons. She said I'll make you a deal. You go to one lesson, and if you don't like it, I'll never say another word.”
Both were wearing matching green Thursday as they took in the sights at the convention, one of the highlights of their year. They come to the conventions in part to see old friends and to hear the dance callers they don't get to hear in Oregon.
“Square dancers are so friendly,” Barbi Ashwill said. “You can introduce yourself to people and sit and talk. You feel very comfortable doing that.”
Convention Chairman Gene Morton is from Vernon, Texas. He said this was the convention's fifth time in Oklahoma City, more than any other city in the country. About 4,000 people are registered this year from 49 states and 13 foreign countries.
“We have some people from as far away as Japan and China,” he said.
“It's growing in those countries.”
This weekend will include a fashion show and a parade of states. There are vendors selling every kind of square dancing attire imaginable. There are also workshops and panel discussions on dancing.
Lawrence Johnstone came to Oklahoma City from Ukiah, Calif., to serve as a caller. He started square dancing as a freshman in high school in 1978. His parents got him into square dancing because they thought it would be a good way for the family to spend time together.
“You need to have a good sense of timing,” he said. “You need to understand what the calls do as far as where they move the dancers to and that takes a lot of memory.”
Johnstone said the role of the caller has remained more or less the same over the years but modern square dancing affords more opportunities to improvise.
“In modern square dancing, everything is more extemporaneous,” he said. “In older square dancing, everything was memorized. Now callers have to be thinking two steps ahead while they're telling the dancers what to do.”
Attire Thursday afternoon was casual. But in the evening sessions, dancers are required to wear formal attire that can include colorful skirts for women and bolo ties for men. Couples, married or otherwise, usually wear shirts and dresses with coordinating color schemes.
Lynne Mardock came to Oklahoma City from Illinois in part to hear the different callers but also to shop. She already had purchased a new skirt at the convention on Thursday morning.
“I prefer the short dresses with the poofy skirts,” she said. “I do wear both. When I first started dancing, it was strictly the short skirts, and now that I'm a little older, I like the long ones, too.”
The convention wraps up Saturday night. Plans for next year's event already are underway. It will be held in Little Rock, Ark.
“People will start talking about the next one as soon as this one is over,” Morton said. “It's something everyone here looks forward to year after year.”