Photo by: ANDY HALLMANFairfield native Jerry Story, right, has become a fixture in the square dancing world. The dance is gaining popularity in the area once again thanks to Robin Ragen, left, of Batavia, and enthusiastic participants such as Sarvani Viger-Edson, center.
Fairfield native leads dances across globe
By ANDY HALLMAN - Fairfield Ledger
Fairfield is the hometown of one of the world’s most renowned square dance callers: Jerry Story.
Story’s voice is recognized not just in dance halls across the United States but in places as far away as England, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. He’s on the road 300 days out of the year, during which he leads about 500 square dances.
Residents will have a chance to see and hear Story in action at noon Thursday when he will call a square dance at the Argiro Student Center on the campus of Maharishi University of Management. He will be accompanied by 34 visiting square dancers from Japan. The public is invited to view the performance.
Dances will continue Friday and Saturday at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, where Story will lead classes all weekend long.
Story’s introduction to square dancing came at a young age and in a most unusual way. He was a very musical child who learned the guitar at age 5 and who was teaching lessons on the instrument by age 12.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to go to Nashville,” he recalled.
Story played in a country band in his early teenage years, performing many sets in local honky-tonks. His parents weren’t too fond of the venues he and his band mates played in. “They didn’t like me playing in bars,” he said. “They went to church on Sunday to pray for what I did on Saturday.”
He doesn’t remember the circumstance, but Story has a distinct memory of being grounded at age 14 in 1969. His parents punished him by making him attend a square dance. Story was a gifted singer and soon realized he had a knack for square dance calling, which involves telling the dancers what moves to execute while singing and entertaining them throughout the dance.
Before long, Story was teaching classes in square dancing, too. He started a group called “Shufflin’ Shoes” in 1970 in Fairfield. At its peak, the club had 120 participants ranging in age from 10-90. By the time he was 20, Story was teaching square dance classes around the country.
In the mid-1970s, Story introduced square dancing to the new students at Maharishi International University.
“I taught a class there once a week and had more than 200 students attend,” he said. “They loved it. We held a couple of square dance festivals in the fieldhouse.”
Story said the job of the square dance caller is to move the dancers around the floor and bring them back to their corner of the room by the end of the song. He said he feels like a puppet master moving the dancers around on strings. “No activity can offer what square dancing offers,” he said. “You have to listen to the music and move in unison with seven other people in your square, and some of those people are in their 80s or 90s.”
The Fairfield native gained international recognition when he visited Saudi Arabia in 1978 to tour, teach classes and film a series of square dance instructional videos. People from several countries were in Saudi Arabia at the time doing various building projects. He said Europeans took home his tapes and shared them with their friends.
“They all flunked their English classes because they listened to me speak it,” he said.
A square dance group in Sweden hired Story to call for the first ever square dancing festival in the country, which attracted 800 dancers. Story said he loves calling and he will never tire of it. The traveling, on the other hand, is another story. Last year, he spent five weeks touring the Orient and he makes trips to England on a nearly annual basis. He has taught in more than 18 countries including Japan, China and Australia.
Story said square dance clubs tend to go through a boom and bust cycle just like the economy. In Montreal, square dancing caught on like wild fire and within a few years the flames of passion for the dance had burnt out. Fairfield is no exception, and for many years after Story stopped leading classes in the 1970s, interest in the dance was low.
Now, square dancing is enjoying a revival in Story’s hometown. A square dancing club formed in Fairfield earlier this January, led by Robin Ragen, who trained with Story and other well-known callers. Ragen was teaching a square dancing class in Ottumwa at the time, which was attended by six dancers from Fairfield. The six asked Ragen if he would mind teaching classes here, and he said he would be delighted to. Since January, Ragen has been coming to Fairfield two to three times per week. More than 150 people have taken lessons in square dancing in the past couple of years.
Story said he is pleased with the direction square dancing is heading both locally and around the world.
“People are picking it back up at the grass roots level, and we’re seeing groups go back to the basics,” he said. “This is a very positive thing.”