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When Annie Coleman takes the stage in her cowboy boots and bright red lipstick instructing people to form squares for ”Dip the Oyster,” some couples fall right into place, secure in their knowledge that a square is composed of four pairs and that your position at the dance's start is "home." Many of these confident types are rockin' cowboy hats.
The newcomers are wide-eyed, not entirely convinced that spending a Saturday night square dancing with dozens of 20 to 30-something hipsters (and a smattering of hardcore dancers who do-se-do without irony) is a great idea.
Coleman plays guitar and bassoon, sings and calls dances in The Golden Horse Square Dance Band, an ensemble that mixes classic country standards with unique country rebel and has attracted a dedicated set of groupies since its debut seven years ago.
This is no kitsch act. Coleman, a third-generation square dance caller, grew up in Oak Park but spent summers working in her family’s Westfield, Wisconsin resort, The Golden Horse Ranch—so she’s no stranger to leading a crowd of confused city folk.
Once Coleman starts breaking down a dance, even skeptics get caught up in the excitement. The caller is responsible for creating a bond between the musicians and the dancers to build a communal vibe. It’s a big task, but her genuine enthusiasm is contagious. Her ability to work the crowd is hereditary.
Founded by her grandfather Bob Coleman, Sr. in 1949, The Golden Horse Ranch was named after its roaming herd of Palomino horses. Families traveled to Westfield for one-week stays in self-sufficient cabins—that were never outfitted with TVs or telephones—and participated in riding and archery lessons. In the evenings, guests danced, sang by the campfire or took part in a talent show, ala Dirty Dancing. Until it closed in 1998, generations of families relied on the ranch as one place they could count on to remain the same year after year.
Drawn by more than horses and archery, guests returned because of the atmosphere. “The ranch was so open and warm,” says Coleman. “My grandma was [warm and welcoming]; it wasn’t like the resorts you think of today. Families shared tables and got to know each other; we took the chance out of meeting new people.” It’s that sense of community that Coleman is recreating in today’s urban bar scene when she encourages squares to get to know each other and swap members for each dance.
Revisiting her roots wasn’t something Coleman planned to do professionally. This whole thing started simply because she missed square dancing. So, on her 28th birthday, she decided to break out her old records and call for her party.
Calling for her friends, Coleman had one of those realizations you get when you’ve seen a movie as a kid and then watched it again as an adult. “I’d been calling since I was 13 and I never realized how sexual the songs are until I called with beer, surrounded by my friends. First, they all looked at me like, ‘Hey, you can call square dancing!’ and then like ‘Oooohhhhh, that’s kinda dirty.’ One of my favorite lines is from ‘Head Two Gents.’ “If I had a girl and she wouldn’t dance, I’d buy her a boat and send her afloat and paddle my own canoe.’”
News of Annie’s birthday bash traveled, and her friend Anthony Burton (pictured above in the white Good Guy hat) wanted to plan an official dance. Within a few weeks they had a band together and a gig. The original members of the band got together and learned the songs by listening to her scratchy old records.
That first public gig at Chicago’s Open End Gallery was going to be their last. They expected about sixty people—instead a couple hundred showed up. Since then, the Golden Horse Square Dance Band has hosted hootenannies at a number of Chicago bars and festivals, including Summer Dance in Grant Park and The Hideout Block Party; the Open End Barn Dance celebrated its seventh annual show last March.
Coleman has theories about why social dancing is so contagious. It’s less about the dancing and more about human connection. “It’s so easy to close yourself off in the city, to look at people and make snap judgments about who they are and who you’ll get along with. Square Dancing breaks down barriers and gets people talking; and, it’s less intimidating than some dancing because though there is a couple-y thing about it, it’s not one-on-one. You end up partners with everyone in the square,” she says.
Coleman’s biggest goal is to make people comfortable by creating a sense of community. “We’re all just humans and if you break down barriers you’ll meet people you’d never know you had anything in common with. I knew that from the ranch and have been searching for that feeling since the ranch closed.”
“The connections between what we’re doing and the ranch seem so obvious now but I didn’t realize it until it was all happening. We’re recreating that open spirit away from the ranch. After that first gig, I felt more open; I got so many hugs that night. It was just pure-ass uninhibited fun, people connecting with each other and having a good time.”
The most liberating thing about square dancing is that it’s not about getting the steps down perfectly or about being the best. As Coleman reminds us from the stage, it’s not even about doing the steps right—it’s about having a good time. She employs a casual style throughout the show, offering this constant reassurance to the rhythmically challenged: “If your square messes up, don’t worry about it, just find your way back home.” She knows the approach works—it’s exactly what she has done herself.
Today, Annie is taking her community-building skills off the dance floor and into the actual community with her newest venture, Living Room Realty.
Catch the Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band’s Kids show June 7th in Millennium Park Sat. and see them again July 18th as part of the Great Chicago Performers of Illinois, also in Millennium Park.