In a small ballroom at the Philadelphia 201 Hotel on Friday, Sandie Bryant meddled with audio equipment and a laptop that sat on a table in front of her.
“You all want a fast song or a slow song?” she asked her audience of two dozen square dancers that were divided up into four groups.
“Fast!” the dancers responded enthusiastically. The people that filled the ballroom were only a fraction of the 800 square-dance enthusiasts who gathered in Philadelphia from around the world for the 36th annual International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs convention — a four-day square-dancing extravaganza that came to Philadelphia last week.
The seven ballrooms of the hotel held different square-dancing workshops and themed dancing segments, called tips. Themes throughout the weekend ranged from “pop music” to the risqué “magic underwear” — yes, square dancing in your unmentionables is a thing.
A half-smile crept across Bryant’s face. The sounds of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” played through the speaker and Bryant began to call out commands for the dancers to follow, where gender doesn’t play a role.
“Pass the ocean," Bryant said, perfectly in sync with the rhythm of the music. The dancers gave a hand maneuver and moved into different positions on the floor and awaited Bryant’s next call. Bryant was dressed in a sensible white collared shirt with a rainbow IAGSDC logo at her left shoulder. Her voice was deep and mature, a characteristic she believes makes her an ideal caller, the person that issues square-dancing commands to an audience.
Terms like swing through and Ferris wheel might sound meaningless to the untrained ear, but the square dancers knew exactly how to respond.
Square dancing was introduced to the gay community around the rise of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, according to a handful of convention attendees. Many LGBTQ square dancers felt that they were discriminated against at traditional square-dancing events, so naturally, the dancers of the time created their own events, and soon followed the IAGSDC, which was founded in 1983.
“We have our gay styling,” said Turtle-Bear, 62 of Albuquerque, N.M., who has been square dancing since 1988 with her local group, the Wilde Bunch. This year’s convention was her 27th with IAGSDC. “In square dancing, it’s very boy-girl. So we’re conscious about gender roles, so we switch back and forth.” Turtle-Bear joked that remembering her role while dancing is arguably harder than the actual commands from the caller.
But the convention isn’t exclusively for the LGBTQ community, according to Roy Wilbur, a volunteer organizer.
“The mood has always been inclusive," Wilbur said. “As more and more people come, you’ll see greater diversity. There is a majority of LGBTQ people, but there are a lot of straight people who enjoy the convention, too.”
Dancers, mostly white and middle-aged, cruised through the lobby of the hotel greeting one another with more hugs than handshakes. Most were dressed comfortably, others sported outfits with panache, but all wore name badges that had medallions attached for each year they’ve attended the conference. Thirty-five large banners, representing past cities that the convention visited, were displayed on the hotel walls.
“We often refer to this event as the annual family reunion,” said convention board member Dane Bragg, who lives in the Lehigh Valley. “When you have family reunions, every now and then you think, ‘Hey, I want to have it at my house.' ”
Bryant, 68 of Chicago, said that square dancing is “the world’s best-kept secret.” She’s been attending the convention since the late 1980s and has been calling for more than 40 years.
“I’m calling everywhere,” Bryant said. “I just got back from a 17-day trip to Taiwan, Tokyo, and Japan. … I’m leaving Tuesday for a European trip to Denmark and Germany.”
Bryant said she keeps her 12-minute square-dancing sets fresh by playing contemporary music with a festive sound. Her go-to track? Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
“I play the Temptations. I play Luther Vandross. And then I’ll turn around and play Meghan Trainor," Bryant said. “I always have people come up after my tip to ask what songs I was playing.”
On the last day of the convention, which took place Sunday, a group of dancers took part in a tradition known as the Badge Tour — where dancers filled five buses, drove to popular landmarks, and performed a tip. In Philly, the dancers visited Penn’s Landing, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Eastern State Penitentiary.
“Doctors say people should keep their brains active and do physical exercise to stay healthy,” Bryant said. “What’s better than this?”