Meredith Rich of Mastic Beach gets a kick out of joining the crowd at one of Long Island’s state parks doing retro square dance moves like the do-si-do and promenading to country-western tunes.
“It’s family fun,” Rich, 47, says of the popular country dance nights that are being offered free at Hither Hills State Park in Montauk Tuesdays in August and, up until last week, at Wildwood State Park in Wading River. She and her daughter, Cheyenne Rich, 22, got into the rhythm at one of Wading River’s nights sashaying back and forth in the Virginia reel, a folk dance dating to the 17th century. Mother and daughter also joined in for a more recent dance craze: line dancing to 1970s standards such as “Montego Bay.”
Tom Dess, Hither Hills park manager, frequently shows up with his kids, for square dance nights. “It’s quirky, funny, old-time dancing, and it’s one of those Hither Hills traditions that families have been coming for since the 1950s.”
Rich says she’s been partial to traditional dance forms ever since childhood days in school. “I was one of the nerds in gym that liked square dancing,” she says.
If you want to learn dance moves, the state parks take you back to the good old days of group dancing.
“It’s a lot of fun to promenade, do-si-do and do an allemande left,” says Patricia Keny, 40, of Coram. “Dancing in a large group like that, you really don’t get that often anymore,” adds Keny, who has been square dancing since childhood.
Western-style square dancing, which peaked in popularity in the 1970s, was offered for decades at the Jones Beach Bandshell, but was discontinued this year due to a decline in attendance, says George Gorman Jr., deputy regional director of the state parks department.
But square dancing continues to be popular at Wildwood and Hither Hills State Park in Montauk, thanks in part to the built-in audience among visitors sleeping over at the park campsites, Gorman says. Gorman estimates that 50 to 100 people, including local community members, show up week to week.
“It’s very nostalgic,” Gorman says. “People who reserve campsites have been going for decades.”
CALLING THE MOVES
Many of the dancers are longtime fans of Primo Fiore, 86, of Deer Park, who has been a professional square dance caller on Long Island for more than 40 years. “It’s for all ages, 10 to 90. It’s fun at any age,” he says.
Fiore started out teaching square dance as part of the curriculum at West Islip Junior High School, where he taught physical education for almost 30 years. Fiore called square dances at the Jones Beach Bandshell for 25 years, ending in 2004. He says he started the square dance program at Wildwood in 1975. Fiore also calls the dances at Hither Hills, where the dance area faces the ocean.
Fiore himself is a bit of a throwback, technologically speaking. No iPod for him. He plays vintage 45-rpm records on a record player. But attendees praise his ability to teach the moves to large crowds and his fondness for audience participation.
He starts the night by asking attendees to make a big circle. Once he familiarizes them with the moves, he takes them on a tour of traditional dances, with stops as far back as the Colonial period, and plenty of opportunity to make noise.
“When I do the Virginia reel,” Fiore says, “I have them hoot and holler and clap their hands.”
He also gets the crowds on their feet for quirky line dances such as the Chicken Dance, which he says has participants wiggling, flapping their arms, clapping and blinking.
Best of all, says Fiore, this is one dance night where you don’t have to know any fancy footwork to have a retro thrill.
“It’s fun at any level,” he says. “That’s what makes it popular.”
Country Western Line Dancing / Square Dancing
WHEN | WHERE 7-8:30 p.m. Aug. 14 and 21 at Hither Hills State Park, 164 Old Montauk Hwy., Montauk