America's Gay Square Dancing Underground Wants You to Join Them
Longtime dancer Dave Kampel explains how the subculture changed his life—and introduced him to his husband.
This month, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of LGBTQ nightlife all across America. Follow our coverage here.
Square dancing has long been a pastime synonymous with down-home heteronormativity. Like many types of formalized dance, the style has strictly prescribed gender roles, featuring assigned parts for men and women and requiring matching outfits for paired couples. But since the late 70s, it's also been a surprisingly effective tool for queer community building, providing LGBTQ people with a social alternative to the usual club and bar scene.
Its proliferation is in no small part thanks to the International Association of Gay Square Dancing Clubs. Officially formed in 1983, a few years after the dancing subculture first started gaining steam, the IAGSDC is composed of a number of regional clubs across the United States. All are built around subversions of the norms of standard "straight" square dancing: allowing for casual attire and disregarding the traditional gender roles imposed in the form. The specific rules vary club to club, but they're bound together in a spirit of inclusivity. Since 1984, this torch has been carried on in New York City by a group called Times Squares.
Upon arriving at a recent Times Squares meeting in Midtown Manhattan, I was given a square dancing crash course by club president Warren Livesley, a tall, impressively moustached older man. Four couples stand in a square, as a "caller" shouts out standardized moves dancers respond to with in-time precision; it's as much a collaborative game of human Bop-It as it is choreography. The approximately two-dozen assembled dancers (all of whom appeared to be around 40 or older) were of varying skill levels on the standardized square dancing spectrum, ranging from "Mainstream"-level beginners to "Advanced" dancers.
The evening's caller was Betsy Gotta who, Livesley informed me, was one of the first straight people to call for LGBT clubs. She cued up a selection of instrumentals that ran the absurd gamut from Eiffel 65's "Blue" and Drowning Pool's "Bodies" to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polkadot Bikini," all while sing-songing moves nonstop (everything from honky tonk to show tunes is fair game, I learned). The dancers followed along more or less in lockstep; the occasional flub was shrugged off with a good-natured laugh. Between sets members hydrated, snacked on cookies, and chatted warmly.
After a few hours observing from afar, Warren asked if I wanted to give it a go myself. I hedged, at first. "That means you want to," he said chuckling. Before I knew it, seven men (and Betsy) were collectively leading my two left feet through a song's worth of basic moves. My efforts were shaky, but nonetheless met with smiles and enthusiastic applause. I left more than a little sweaty, but impressed by the club's infectious, welcoming atmosphere.
Later in the evening, I met Dave Kampel, a gregarious former president and longtime member of Times Squares, who informed me that he'd been coming to the club for over 25 years. Like many others, the place offered him a community unlike those he'd found elsewhere—he even met his husband through square dancing. I called him on the phone a few days later to learn a bit more about the communitarian spirit and the history of gay square dancing.
THUMP: How did Times Squares get off the ground, and what made it an appealing alternative to other kinds of nightlife?
Dave Kampel: [In] response to AIDS, there was a need to affiliate and do something as a group that didn't involve going to bars or clubs and didn't involve alcohol or drugs that people could go to and actually do something and enjoy it.
Our club was set up as a teaching club, as most clubs are. Our structure is to teach people what's called Modern Western Square Dancing. It's a fun activity. You can dress as you like. You can dress casually. You don't to have to have a partner when you show up. It's active. It's dancing, but it's also very social. Not everybody fits into the mold of being in a bar.
When did you start getting involved with the club?
I got involved in the fall of 1992. My then partner and I were looking for something to do, so we saw a small ad, I think, in the Village Voice for gay and lesbian square dancing. When we showed up, we really enjoyed it from the moment we started dancing. We liked the dancing, we liked the square dance caller who was cuing us, and we liked a lot of the dancers. It's been a major part of my life now for 25 years. It's taken me from 39 to almost 64. That's a lot of years.
And you've actually served as the president for awhile, right?
I was president for three years [in 1996, 2007, and 2014], and I was on the board in different capacities for more years than that. It was great because if you're the president or a board member, you get to set a tone for the group, which means that you get to create an atmosphere that makes people who walk in—who may be a little hesitant—feel that they came to the right place, that people are friendly. Someone's going to come up to you immediately and say "hi." Someone's going to ask you to dance.We dance together, we travel to other locations to dance. When you're traveling with friends, that's a great thing because you've got your built-in social group with you.
What are some of the best experiences you've taken from your time with the club?
I think one of the things would be deep, close friendships. Some of my close friends have passed away during the years... These memories of these people will be with me forever. Then my ongoing friends in the club are very, very important to me. … I hit the jackpot: square dancing, friends, a husband. Square dancing for us is like a fountain of youth.
When we go square dancing, our annual [national IAGSDC] Convention is in a different city, and it's a four-day event. That involves everything from dancing at different levels all day to banquets. There's Leather Tip, where everybody who dresses in leather dances on the dance floor. There's a Munchkin Tip for dancers under, like, five-something and their friends. Then there's—in gay and lesbian square dancing, it's not always the most politically correct—there's the Moonshine Tip, where anybody who wants to square dance naked can do that for an hour… Something for everybody.
So, you met your husband square dancing?
I met him in 2007 at [Times Squares' annual] square dancing fly-in, which has the name of Peel the Pumpkin. We knew each other for a while, and then while we were away at [2010's] square dancing fly-in, event we fell in love… When the dance floor thinned I just saw Lester standing in front of me and I thought to myself "Hmm... I'll bet he'd make a really good boyfriend." Unlike my regular self, which is a little shy and retiring, I thought, "This time I am going to go after somebody." So I did. It's very romantic to fall in love at the age of 57, and then we got married when I was 60.
Was there square dancing at the wedding?
No, because we didn't have the room for it. I would've loved that. The day before there was a square dance, and we went from a square dance to our rehearsal dinner, and the next day was the wedding. We had square dancers at the wedding. In fact, a square dancer married us.
Somebody you knew from the club?
Yeah! As a matter of fact, I was going to say, not only do they square dance, but they actually had the credentials to marry us!
There's square dancing conventions, like dress code and gender roles, that you don't necessarily adhere to in your meetings. How do you think this affects dancing at the club?
It makes it easier. The way [square dancing] splits a couple is it's a boy and a girl. I dance the boy's part, I can dance the girl's part. I like to put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and dance. [In] the straight square dancing group, the husband and the wife, or the man and the woman, would match. That's how square dance callers always can tell who's a couple.
We don't have as many rules, but we do have some rules. You want to make sure everybody's comfortable. You want to make sure that if you have straight people dancing with you that they feel comfortable, as you would want to feel comfortable in a straight club.
Our ex-president, Kim Norling, always favored kilts; she would wear a kilt from work on the subway. [Since] our square dance fly-in is always during Halloween, we used to have people walking through the city streets in their costumes getting to the square dance. My friend rode the Connecticut Metro North from his home to the city dressed as Dr. Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror. He was wearing black stockings, a bustier, and didn't think twice about it, because, well, that's what you do.
They came straight from doing the "Time Warp" to square dancing.
Big high heels, too.
That can't make some of the moves...
Too easy? Well, you'd be surprised. Square dancing is a lot of things to a lot of people, but the one thing it is, is it packs a lot of diverse experiences onto the dance floor. When [dancers] want to be sarcastic every once in awhile, when things will be a little contentious, they always say that "square dancing is friendship set to music."
Where do you fit in the larger square dancing community? What's that relationship like, and how has it changed?
I think if people like square dancing then they can get past the fact that they're dancing with gays and lesbians. If I'm a gay man and I'm dancing the boy's part in a straight club, then that's very easy for them to deal with, because another man doesn't have to swing me. If I'm dancing the girl's part and I'm in a square, then sometimes the men — some of them are older. It's not something that they're used to doing. They're looking and say, "Oh my God, I have to twirl around that 180-pound man with a shaved head and a goatee!" It's a little jarring sometimes. Then there are other people who could care less.
This is dancing, it's not sex. You're asking someone to dance with you, not get intimate with you. I think things have gotten more liberal as time's gone by.
How else have you seen the club change over the years?
Our club is shrinking. In 1996, when I was the president for the first time, I had over 300 members in the club and now we have less than 100. … My [first] square dancing [class] was almost 90 people. Now we're lucky if we get 5, 6, 7 people in the class.
I think that there's been a drop off in square dancing because people don't understand what square dancing is. They think it's something that you did when you were in grade school or you did when you were in summer camp, or you do it if you're mom and pop living on the farm. It's much more than that. … It's a great form of Americana, and gays and lesbians are part of Americana. It should feel a little more relevant than it does because square dancing is fun, and it brings people together. You swing, you touch one another, you move together, you move as a couple, you move as a people. You can't help but enjoy somebody when you're swinging them on the dance floor.
So what would you say to try to get people to come out and give square dancing a whirl?
I would say square dancing is much more relevant than you think it is. Square dancing is much more active than you think it is, and to remember that square dancing is dancing, and dancing is fun. Even my friends from outside of square dancing, will say, "Oh, I've been meaning to come for an evening," or something like that, but they don't. They're missing something wonderful. For me to do something for 25 years in a row has got to be pretty special, or I wouldn't be coming back.