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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Interview with Jerry Helt

By Leslie "Jovana" Pryne Wolf



Jerry Helt, 1973 JERRY HELT, one of the foremost and certainly one of the most popular Square Dance Callers in the country, has been calling squares since 1943, and full time for the past 20 years. He has a mechanical engineering background, but prefers calling squares as a vocation. He hasa traveled extensively throughout the Unites States and Europe, calling squares. He has recorded on the Blue Star, Kentucky, MacGregor, and Scope labels. Jerry lives in Cincinnati with his wife and family.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the subject only, and not those of the Folk Dance Federation as a whole.


Well, American Square Dancing developed from many countries, like England, Scotland, and Germany. In fact, it sort of represents our nationalities in this country and we have taken all the pieces of their dances and put them together, and we have an American Square Dance or an American Folk Dance. Also, from Contra Dance, which is basically English and Irish, we have developed our own figures. And we've taken some strictly American music and developed certain tunes that go along with the dances. This is really where our contemporary form is right now.

Now, if we go back and trace it out, it started in the East and moved into the South, where they had a certain form of dance. Then in to the Mid-west, where they had a traditional form but a different interpretation of the original dancing from England. Through Minnesota and the North, they had a polka-type of Square Dance. Then, it all sort of worked its way West. Back in the 1940s, several people, Dr. Lloyd Shaw from Colorado, Henry Ford, Sr., developed "American Square Dancing." In fact, Henry Ford was first in making any records and publishing literature on American Square Dancing.

Really, the West Coast kind of put this all together and came up with a contemporary Western-style of American Square Dancing. Then it worked its way back across the country; now the East Coast is doing Western-style Contemporary Squares.


There are some, and it's fading fast, but regional-type dances are still being danced. You go into the South, you still find a little bit of Clogging danced; you go into the North, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and you find a polka-type Square being danced; you go into the Mid-west, you'll find a certain traditional form danced there. In fact, here in California I'm sure there are some old-style Early California Western Dances being danced. But it's fading, and we as a society, being a moving society, are breaking down this regional type thing. So, with the contemporary form, if you go from California to New England, you'll find a standard style of Square Dancing going on.


Americans are very creative in very inventive. I receive across my desk every month a two- or three-inch stack of material, newly written movements. We look them over and say, "Well here's something that might be used." This goes back to the way we live; our society encourages new things. Get something new, do something new; what's new? And Square Dancing, being an American Folk Dance, expresses the way we live. We are expressing our economy. If your toaster doesn't work, you don't have it repaired, you buy a new one! This is happening in Square Dancing, it's happening in Folk Dancing, it's happening in Round Dancing. You learn a new dance, you discard it, and you learn a new one. I think too much of this might be detrimental to the activity, but this is going on. Also, the complexity of figures expresses a very complex life; and we are doing this in dance form.


Where the mass population is. California has a heavy Square Dance activity, New England, the Mid-west. Country people like Square Dancing, but city people like it just as much. And, it's more beneficial in the cities than it is in the country because country people have a certain philosophy of getting along with each other, communicating with each other. But city people no; you live in an apartment building and you don't know who the neighbor is. Now this is a problem that we're confronted with the Square Dance activity, and I think you're confronted with it in Folk Dancing: there is too little emphasis on the social aspects of the dance. We're like machines; we're out there dum, dum, dum, doing a dance; we go sit in a corner. So what we have to do, as leaders, is to redevelop the idea of communicating with the people, socializing the people.

So, when people come to a Square Dance, I feel obligated to induce communication. To me, this is more important than some of the dancing. The dancing will come along; the communication part is difficult, but it's necessary for the enjoyment of the dance. One reason why we don't socialize is the home; people sit and watch television – they're being entertained. In some cases they don't even communicate with their kids or their spouses, let alone with someone else. Another reason is that frequent company transfers make people reluctant to make friends that they may have to leave behind.

But I think through Square Dancing we can change that; we are changing it. I know of people who travel all over the country, and the minute they walk into a group, they have instant friends. This to me is vitally important. Because if dance turns into an activity where you walk in, you do your thing, and then go sit down, it can't survive. It's going to be a little minority thing, and I want this to appeal to the masses.


It's done all over the world. Very big in Japan; very big. They're very strict about calls; they use the Square Dance language. It's done in English. Because some of this you couldn't translate, you know. How are you going to say, 'Square Through' in Japanese? 'Square Through Four Hands'. That's a very long sentence in Japanese.

Square Dancing abroad really developed in Europe and Asia through our Armed Services people over there. Now, many groups know how to Square Dance in English, even if they don't speak any English. I'm told it's being done a little bit in Africa. Australia – it's very popular there. I think the Americans have made an impression on everybody around the world. Some of our customs, some of our food and dance; all these have mixed.


At one time, Folk, Square, and the whole business were all together as one. Then Square Dancing broke away and developed into an American-type dance. I think Square Dancing is the beginning of dancing for the average person; it's a little more palatable to the average American than Folk Dancing. The American male is the guy who is very reluctant to dance. And, he's the guy that you have to sell. Now, because we start Square Dancing as very elementary, he can do it. If you take him into a Folk Dance group and say, "Okay, you do a pas de basque," he's confused. But at a Square Dance he can almost walk. So that's part of the separation.

And you have, I feel, in the Folk Dance field, people who are 'folklorists', who like to collect and do things from different nationalities. The average American may feel toward Folk Dancing, "Let the foreigners do it."

I feel that Folk Dance music is foreign to most people. They're not used to hearing that type of music, and this I think, turns them off. Even in a Square Dance class, I don't start people with traditional music. I start out with something modern, that's familiar to their ear. We sort of bait the trap from there, and then we get into traditional things.

I think another separation is that Folk Dancing is always sold as an inexpensive activity, more so than Square Dancing. Some people thought maybe we should pay a little more and go first class, hire a caller. Where sometimes in the Folk Dance field, I don't know how it is currently, but in many groups everybody takes a turn, and you don't really have a paid leader or a paid instructor.

Also, in a Folk Dance group, you do maybe two Squares in the course of the evening. You've exposed people to the figure and the pattern, but you really haven't exposed them to Square Dancing. Not just one little call. It's very difficult to capture a group in one call. Very difficult. You're lost in the confusion of the other dances. And I think this might be some of the reason for the separation of Folk and Square: people like to do a full evening of one kind of dancing. I don't like to mix dancing. It confused me. It's like taking four books; you start a chapter in the third. Then you go back and take Chapter 2, and you're so confused when that's over, you might as well forget it. You won't know anything you read. And I feel this way about Folk Dancing; people are jumping around; they don't absorb it; they're not in it. And I think you have to really get in it to really feel it.


Well, we have separations within each activity which are similar. We have a gung-ho group, a minority group, who want to do very complicated dances. Bless 'em, I think it's great that they want to do this, but it's a battle. We say, "Hey, let's slow down a minute. This is good for everybody. If it gets to complicated, it won't appeal to the masses, and then we're in trouble" We went through this stage in early New England dancing. At one time, in early American dancing, you had to go to a dance master, learn the steps, and then go to a dance and do them. And they were in trouble. The thing faded out. It was appealing to a minority.

Another similarity is that its a do-it-yourself project. You don't walk in and say, "Here I am, entertain me." (This is typical American.) Square dancing and Folk Dancing is not that. You walk in, pay your money, and you say, "Here I am; what will we do? Let's do something." So you help each other. This goes back to the days of the 'barn-raising' when our pioneers got together, they worked together, and they danced and socialized together. And we still are hanging on to that tradition. If you eliminate the social part of it, then there's no sense doing it.


To communicate with the crowd. To satisfy their needs. You have to have a dedication to the group; you have to satisfy them. There will always be a deep need in the human being for another human being, and there's always a need for a group. We have aways run in tribes. This is human instinct. I have to accept this as a leader, and I have to encourage this. This seems to be the thing that satisfies a group. This is what they want and really need.

There's a psychological thing that's involved here. In an average Square Dance club, when people walk into the hall, they are individuals; they have individual personalities, individual emotions. Now, if the caller's really on the ball, through his music, his actions, and the things he says, he molds all the emotions together and comes up with a mass emotion. And he works with that. You send people up, they're high; bring them down, and they're low. And in the course of an evening, you can really get a response from the group, really bring this group together.

I compare it with Classical music, it's arranged in such a way that one minute you're depressed, the next minute you're high. And this is what you do in a Square Dance. This is what the caller should do with his music, with his voice, his actions, and the things that he says. You can't keep everybody on the ceiling all night long. You have to deliver and sometimes bring them down a little bit. THEN go up again. It takes a caller that's sensitive to the group; he has to have a good barometer as to what the group's needs are at any point. And there's a certain sensation, a certain good warm feeling that you get from this experience. I think people like the excitement of it; they like team work; they like being together. They like the element of surprise that's in it. All these things add up to a good time.


I alter my style when I call for every group. Folk Dancers basically are not frequent Square Dancers; it's a known fact. So, you change your style of calling for the simple reason that they don't know all the fancy terms. I'd be an idiot to drop some wild, crazy things on Folk Dancers. You have to look at this from a commercial standpoint. You pay your money; I'm here to do a job. I'm being paid to do that job. I'm paid to get up and make you look good. It's like a little game between the dancer and the caller. The dancer always wins. ALWAYS. Because he pays the bill. And you make him look good; you have to. That's what he pays for. It goes back to the basic philosophy: The customer is always right. I think sometimes callers and leaders make the mistake of going in the other direction, saying, "What a bunch of dumb dancers; they can't do this, and they can't do that." Maybe its the dumb caller; he isn't calling what they're dancing.


Well, let me explain an Exploding Square. Usually, it's made up of, say, four squares on the floor; this is a minimum. From four squares you could go to anything that represents a square or a rectangle – it could be uneven or even.

A man by the name of Ed Gilmore, who lived in Ukaipa, California, was calling a dance one night and he noticed that the people were kind of horsing around. All of a sudden, their lines were just going into another square, coming back out again, and kind of mixing and mingling. So, he put his brains together and worte up a movement where he actually mixed the people from one square to the other. Moving lines of couples are the Progressive Squares, and couples going into the other squares are Exploding Squares. Gilman developed this in the middle 1960s, so it's fairly new.

I like it for the simple reason that it's a sneaky mixer; you're breaking down that barrier between people, and they don't realize it until after it's over. Even beginners can do it with a certain group of fundamentals. Strange thing is, I don't do this a lot at home because on a regular group, you do it once, and "Okay, what's new?" But on the road, I like to do it, and I think people like it. It's an innovation, it's a gimmick, or whatever you want to call it. But it's interesting; it's fun.


The current trend is basic two-step, basic waltz, some samba, and cha-cha. Here again, in Round Dancing we have a group that want to do all new dances. And then we have another group that say, "I just want to do the Classics; I don't want to bust my brains every time I get up to dance."

I think our Round Dancing can learn from a lesson from Folk Dancing. I remember one time that Folk Dancing just got off the deep end. A guy would get up and teach five new dances, and they would say, "Okay, what else is new?" And this is happening in Round Dancing. They're getting to the point where what is neglected is the quality of the dance. They're working on quantity, not quality. I'd rather see one good dance than get up and learn four or five mediocre dances.


Oh, definitely. I think it's American all the way. I think it's a toss between that and maybe some of the Rock Dances, but I think Square Dancing has developed and is accepted as the American Folk Dance as we'll get.

We are a new country; we're still growing. Our Folk Dance is changing. (Remember that ream of material that I get?) Compared to Austria or Yugoslavia; they have their Folk Dance; it's developed. They had their problems; we're having ours. It takes time, and I can see a healthy growth in it now. More and more people are concerned about it, about the people who are involved in it, about leadership. In fact, this year for the first time, we're having a National Caller's Convention, strictly callers. We have a National Square Dance Convention each year, but this year we're getting together as callers and leaders to sit down and say, "Hey, what direction are we going in? What are our goals? What are we going to do about them?" And I think Folk Dancing should do this. Because you might satisfy people now, but what's happening to the activity? What's going to happen ten years from now? Are we developing new people? Is the activity developing? I think we have to project ahead.

The definition of Folk Dance is something that's been there for a while and is accepted and standardized in dancing. I would consider Jitter-Bug a Folk Dance. But Square Dance is more likely to survive, because everybody can do it. It appeals to the masses.


This is a bone of contention with people. I feel we judge people on their ability to execute movements, and I don't think that's right. I think you have to judge people on: Are they good people? Do they fit in with the group? Are they having a good time? They might be a lousy dancer as far as executing figures, but I can't go to that person and say, "You're not a Square Dancer." Because he IS a Square Dancer. Sometimes he's a better Square Dancer, as far as I'm concerned, than those who follow the general picture that we want people to do, because he's having a good time.

As appearing in Let's Dance magazine, a publication of the Folk Dance Federation of California.