Grab Your Partner. Do-Si-What? In the Middle of Manhattan?

The New York Times

September 19, 2013

by Lisa W. Foderaro

New York City is a big dance town. Flash mobs gather in Grand Central Terminal, and there is break dancing in Washington Square Park, hypnotic house dancing on the club circuit and the worldwide sensation with the local name — Harlem Shake.

But square dancing?

“Why not?” asked Daniel A. Biederman, the urban parks expert who, as executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation, has invited the public to promenade and do-si-do on the one-acre lawn wedged between skyscrapers in Midtown. “I’ve always loved square dancing. I’ve done it in different parts of the country and I’ve always noticed that people are smiling and having a good time.”

On Friday evening, a caller will lead the second of three square dances in Bryant Park this month. The first, on Sept. 9, attracted 760 dancers, far more than the dances held last year, the first time they were offered. What those swinging their partners may not realize is that they are revitalizing a dance form that was, improbably, a rage in postwar New York.

In the summer of 1948 alone, some 250,000 people joined a series of square dances that were held by the city’s parks department in Central Park and Riverside Park in Manhattan and in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The silver-tongued Ed Durlacher, a New York native and one of the leading callers of his day, was known to draw up to 10,000 dancers to a single event. “The nation was swept up in something of a square dancing craze,” said Michael Miscione, the Manhattan borough historian. “New York City caught the bug, too.”

A 1949 article in The New York Times, under the headline “Big City Parks ‘Go Small Town’ at Parks’ Great Dancing Parties,” described one such dance in Central Park where women wore “wide swing skirts and blouses” and men “scarlet neckerchiefs.” Mr. Durlacher, the leader of the band Top Hands, told the 1,500 people in attendance to form squares. “His simple instruction,” the article noted, “was interlarded with bits of salty humor.”

At the dance in Bryant Park earlier this month, Pat Cannon, a modern-day caller, warmed up the crowd by having them form a giant circle around the lawn. Members of the park’s staff helped those who had come stag to find partners. “It was very beautiful,” she said. “I asked them to look their partners in the eye, wave to them and say howdy. How many times can you do that with New Yorkers?”

Ms. Cannon, who runs Foot and Fiddle Dance Company, was impressed by the agility of the participants, especially compared with those at some of the stiffer corporate events she works. “It was a sophisticated audience,” she said. “They were there specifically to dance. I was able to do some more complicated things and there was a great sense of rhythm. There was even a square dance caller from Germany who was in town on holiday.”

When Ms. Cannon arrived in the city the 1970s, the square dance mania of the 1940s had long faded. Still, she found other devotees at places like the Eagle Tavern on 14th Street and later at South Street Seaport. “There were pockets of square dancing even then,” she said.

The final dance in Bryant Park, scheduled for Wednesday, is likely to include Carol Stern, who, as the granddaughter of Mr. Durlacher, is square dance royalty. “I plan to go,” said Ms. Stern, who lives on Long Island and remembers joining her grandfather’s square dances at Jones Beach as a child. (A newsreel of Mr. Durlacher calling a dance in Central Park is at squaredancehistory.org/items/show/145.)

Although Mr. Durlacher died in 1964, his enthusiasm for square dancing lives on. Ms. Stern is president of Educational Activities in Freeport, on Long Island, which grew out of a company called Square Dance Associates that Mr. Durlacher founded; it now sells fitness and dance recordings, including those of her grandfather.

“He was evangelical about square dancing,” Ms. Stern said. “He believed it would help kids by giving them purpose and focus.”

A version of this article appears in print on September 20, 2013, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: Grab Your Partner. Do-Si-What? In the Middle of Manhattan?.