Hip to be square

Matt DeYoung • Feb 3, 2017 at 1:00 PM

For 30 years, John Cook has been spinning tunes and calling out directions to generations of daddies and daughters.

While Cook has been calling square dances for much longer than that, 2017 marks the 30th year of his calling the local Dads and Daughters Dance, which is now hosted by the Northwest Ottawa Recreation Authority.

Cook takes the opportunity not only to introduce newcomers to his love of square dancing, but also to urge dads to love their little girls.

“My whole approach is, I want dads and daughters to have some connecting time,” he said. “I encourage the dads to spend time with their daughters. It’s all about making memories. They grow up so quickly. Dads tend to get busy fixing the leaky pipe or whatever needs fixing, and they turn around and their girls are grown up and gone.”

Cook is a third-generation caller. He learned the art from his father and grandfather, and furthered his caller education by attending various institutes and workshops taught by some of the legends of square dancing from across the country.

“Actually, I got into it about fourth grade,” he said. “My grandfather and my father were involved with square dancing, with calling, so I had access to the equipment — turntable, microphone, records. I would come home from school and play square dance music, call dances. Over the years, I went to a lot of seminars and began calling dances.”

Thirty years ago, Chuck Yakemonis took over as the recreation director in Grand Haven, and brought with him the idea of a dads and daughters dance.

“He had me come do a dance,” Cook recalled. “The dads were a little hesitant.”

But never fear — the dances Cook puts on for dads and daughters are quite simple to follow. By the end of the night, both dads and daughters typically leave with a smile on their face.

“By the third year, we had to expand it,” Cook said. “That was when elementary schools were kindergarten through sixth grade. I said, ‘You know, we could really split this up into an upper-elementary and a lower-elementary thing, so we did K-3 dances and 4-6 dances. Then it turned out there wasn’t enough space, so we went to two dances for each.”

Now NORA offers multiple evenings for kids in grades K-2, 3-4 and 5-6. 

“The kindergarten through second-graders, we don’t get real technical,” Cook explained. “We just move to the music and have fun. We do a bit more with the third- and fourth-graders, and by the time they’re in fifth and sixth, you can do a bit more as far as complexity goes. Still, the bottom line is moving to the music and having fun with dad, making memories.”

NORA coordinator Jill Vander Stel said having Cook call the dances makes the events that much more special for dads and daughters. 

“If we had a DJ just playing music, the dads would sit around on their phones while the girls run around,” she said. “John’s square dancing makes them interact with their daughters. It’s easy to follow and great exercise.”

Square dancing has changed since Cook began calling it as a fourth-grader. For one thing, the technology has progressed tremendously, but you can still find Cook spinning records on his old turntable.

The only problem?

“If the record wears out, I can’t buy another one,” he said. “I  might scrounge around and get lucky and find a used one somewhere, but it’s not like it was 40 years ago when you picked up the phone, call the record dealer and have him mail it to you. I’ve been forced to digitize my record collection in order to maintain the copies of them.”

When Cook was calling dances back in the 1960s, square dancing was a big deal. That began to change in the 1970s.

“I first came to Grand Haven because my father was calling for the Grand Haven Whirlers, who were associated with the (YMCA) back in the mid to late 1960s,” he said. “That was when the Y was in the Armory.

“There are fewer and fewer square dance clubs now,” he continued. “The Grand Haven club sort of died out when people lost interest in coming and learning. At one point, there were clubs in Muskegon, in Grand Haven, in Holland, Nunica, Hudsonville. There were 8-9 clubs in Grand Rapids at one point in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Now, west of Lansing, there are probably less than half a dozen clubs.”

Most of Cook’s square-dance calling these days takes places at specialty parties, church groups, family reunions and block parties.

“Those are the kinds of dances where people don’t have to have any prior experience,” he said. “They just have to be good-natured, fun-loving people who are willing to come out and walk to music. ... My niche seems to be taking people that have never danced before and just getting them out moving to music, having a good time.”

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