LAKEWOOD - Take a trip back to the 1960s, and step inside Celoron Elementary School. It's Friday night, and more than 100 of the area's finest dancers have gathered for an evening of square dancing. The caller shouts out instructions, and the dancers move swiftly to the music.
More than four decades later, a group of 25 longtime friends gathered in Southwestern Elementary School one last time.
A 47-year tradition of laughs, travel and organized exercise came to a close on Friday, Dec. 2. The school's cafeteria hosted the final dance for Cha-Tau-Qua Squares.
After 47 years, the Cha-Tau-Qua Squares dance club met for the final time Dec. 2. Approximately 25 people from Western New York and Pennsylvania gathered at Southwestern Elementary School for the event.
P-J photo by Scott Shelters
"We don't have many members. There's no interest in taking lessons," said club co-president Donna Nichols, who had danced with Cha-Tau-Qua Squares for 15 years.
At one time, the club boasted 120 members, who would gather in Celoron for an evening of dancing every week. An area resident could dance every night of the week at various venues within driving distance of the Jamestown area.
In the decades since, membership numbers for Cha-Tau-Qua Squares dwindled to as low as nine. The club made the move to Lakewood when Celoron Elementary closed.
"We danced about six nights a week, and then the seventh night we took lessons," said Elmer Mohney, 98, of Oil City, Pa. "It used to be we could drive a half an hour, and now we have to drive three or four hours one way to dance sometimes."
"Other clubs danced on other nights," said Mrs. Nichols. "There was a time when we would go dancing three or four nights a week."
Mohney, who has danced since 1965, traveled with his son, Tom, the caller for the evening, to Lakewood for Cha-Tau-Qua Squares' last dance. "I've got a sore leg, or I'd be out there dancing," he said. "You get to put your arms around the girls. There's no drinking, no smoking and just good people."
TOO MUCH WORK, TOO LITTLE TIME
A lack of interest has plagued many area square-dancing clubs. Co-president David Nichols used to dance in now non-existent clubs throughout the Western New York area.
Cha-Tau-Qua Squares scaled back their dances to twice a month in the 1980s. As a result, membership began to dwindle, and the club had to rely on increased attendance from outsiders to hold the dances. Square dancers from Salamanca, Frewsburg and Warren would join the remaining remembers of Cha-Tau-Qua Squares in recent years. Typically, about 25 people would come out for a dance in 2011.
The club's members had to furnish refreshments, pay for callers and cuers, and furnish the cafeteria for each square dance.
Nichols believes it all became too much work at the end. "It was quite a lot of commitment for people. People don't want to do that anymore," he said.
Learning all the square-dancing terminology can be quite taxing, the members said. There are more than 75 basic moves and about 120 in all. "They're afraid to make mistakes," Nichols said. "If the caller says to do it, you have to do it. If you're in the square, and you don't know how to do it and everyone else in the square is doing it, it kind of makes you look silly. With this, everybody is moving at once. You're always dancing; you're never standing."
Willa Rupczyk joined Cha-Tau-Qua Squares in the early 1970s. She enjoys the complex nature of the dancing. "You make a lot of friends," she said. "You have to think a little bit. You have to know your right from your left."
"When you first learn how to square dance, you can't take your mind off it," added Mrs. Nichols.
Rupczyk will continue dancing at other venues. She made plenty of friends and memories during the past four decades, including those from a club trip to Atlantic City for a square-dancing festival. She said 32,000 people attended it.
Longtime member Paul Edson knew the end of Cha-Tau-Qua Squares was near. He met his wife Marla while square dancing in Kiantone.
"When you don't have enough members to put on a dance without people from outside of the club coming, the writing is pretty much on the wall," said Edson, who became the club's cuer, the person who calls out moves during round-dances. "It's hard to get people to commit. It takes most of a winter to learn how to dance. For us, as dancers, to be able to go with them to teach them is tough." Edson said he plans to continue dancing at conventions outside of the immediate Jamestown area.
To participate in a Friday-night dance, a member needed to take 30 classes, which took place throughout the area on various nights of the week. At least four couples needed to get together in order to pay for a caller to come to a lesson.
Cha-Tau-Qua Squares hosted special dances twice a year, including its annual October dance and a Lucy-themed event.
Romayne Long spent the past 47 years in Cha-Tau-Qua Squares. She took the floor for the last time on Dec. 2. "We've made a lot of good friends and had a good time. You can't be sorry for it to quit," she said.
Tom Mohney, Elmer's son, served as the final caller for Cha-Tau-Qua Squares. He traveled from Oil City to Lakewood multiple times a year to call for the group. He noticed turnouts dwindle over time.
"There's a lot of things that have decreased members, like churches and social groups. I think it's because people get pulled in so many directions," he said. "A lot of people work unusual hours. Some people are very busy. Some people move around a lot."
Mohney began dancing in the 1960s and started calling in 1972. Despite a lack of participation locally, he said there are 1,500 full-time callers in the U.S. today, noting that they must travel extensively.
Nichols shook his head as he described the current state of square dancing. "Everybody gets old, and none of the young people want to do it. It would be great if they could throw the TVs out," he said. "It's so easy to sit home and watch TV. They don't want to get any exercise. My doctor told me, 'You should square dance; it's a good idea for your health.' I said, 'Why don't you join then?' He said, 'Oh, I don't want to.'"
With a lack of interest, Nichols won't gather with friends in the Southwestern Elementary cafeteria anymore, but he can still envision a time when a full floor of dancers moved accurately and happily to the music. They left looking forward to the next evening's dance or a return to southwestern New York the next Friday night.
The members of Cha-Tau-Qua Squares will now go their separate ways, and the Southwestern Elementary cafeteria will be dark and quiet on Friday nights.