Every Monday night Joyce Kachkowski dons her white dancing shoes, a tiered pink skirt and dances like an angel.
Not a white-winged spirit with a halo, but an angel according to square dance lingo, where an experienced dancer pairs up with a beginner in order to help them learn the steps.
The Grand Squares dance from 7 to 9:30 p.m. on Monday nights at Norberry-Glenlee Community Centre, 26 Molgat Ave. Cost is $10 for annual club membership and $4 per person for each evening. For more information, contact Mary Best at 204-461-1765
The club celebrates 60 years with a dinner and dance featuring caller Ernie Hollender on Sat., Oct. 5 at Parish of Saints-Martyrs-Canadiens, 289 Dussault Ave. Tickets available for $25 by emailing email@example.com.
"I like dancing with beginners," the West End resident says of helping others new to dance.
"I like helping people learn."
Now 82, Kachkowski dances weekly from September to May with Grand Squares, a modern square dancing club of about 80 members which meets in the multipurpose room of the Norberry-Glenlee Community Centre in St. Vital.
In modern square dancing, dancers take their cues from the caller, instead of dancing to a set pattern. Square dancing takes its name from the shape formed when eight dancers, divided into four couples, stand in a square on the dance floor.
Now in its 60th season, the Grand Squares club welcomes new dancers each fall, offering beginner or basic level, as well as more advanced moves called plus dancing during its two-and-half-hour session on Monday nights, explains the club president.
"You learn together and you learn from each other," explains Mary Best, 67, a retired United Church of Canada minister who along with her husband, Marc Whitehead, serve as president-couple for the club.
"What we’re trying to do is encourage more people to join the square dance family."
So far, the club has succeeded at that, with half a dozen folks joining them recently. Whitehead says people come alone or with a partner, with several women prepared to dance either the male or female part, depending on the need.
"One of the really neat things about this club is singles are welcome," Whitehead says.
"We have a few men who dance the male part and some men do the women’s part at a higher level."
He says couples who start as beginners will be split up so they can learn the steps from angels like Kachkowski.
Often dubbed "friendship set to music," square dancing involvement has decreased in recent decades, with about 350 people participating in 16 clubs across the province, down from the thousands a few decades earlier, says the president of the Manitoba Square and Round Dance Federation.
"It is definitely on the decline and we don’t know how to turn it around," explains Delmar Marks, not intentionally making a pun about his dancing hobby.
He says some potential dancers may be put off by the traditional square dance costume of wide gathered skirts and frilly petticoats for women, and western shirts for men. Most clubs have relaxed their dress codes, with dancers wearing clothes they are comfortable moving in.
Women at Grand Squares show up in a variety of outfits, with some tending toward the traditional big skirts with lacy underpants matching the crinoline underskirts, and others dressed in regular skirts or slacks.
Although she owns a large collection of traditional dance costumes, longtime dancer Audrey Lebedeff decided at age 83 that she would wear what she wanted.
'This is what keeps me active. It keeps me agile. I think if it wasn't for dancing, we would be sitting around more' — Nick Lebedeff who has had two knee replacements and two artificial hips
"Up until last year, I wore crinoline skirts and I got tired of it," says Lebedeff, who dances several times a week with her husband Nick, 85.
"This is what keeps me active," adds Nick Lebedeff, explaining he has two knee replacements and two artificial hips.
"It keeps me agile. I think if it wasn’t for dancing, we would be sitting around more."
"I’m thankful every day we can do this," says Audrey Lebedeff.
Not only does square dancing keep people moving, it also helps mental agility as dancers follow the caller directing them to circle left or right, move forward or back, or do-si-do-ing their way around their partner.
"It’s good exercise for the mind because you have to listen to the caller," explains Ray Hill, 61, who has danced for about 40 years.
"If you have distracted thinking, you break up the square," adds his partner Carla Wall, 58, who found her footing on the dance floor after joining the club a year ago.
Along with the physical and mental benefits, square dancing creates strong bonds between participants, who may start out as strangers but connect as they face each other, linking arms or clasping hands as they follow the calls, says Best.
"If you’re dancing, you’re engaged with people," she says.
And that engagement leads to fun together, especially at the lower levels as dancers get more comfortable with the moves, explains Shirley Gendron, 71, who joined the Grand Squares in 2003 with her husband Ronald.
The couple dances four times a week with different clubs in and around the city, they once took a Hawaiian cruise for square dancers and spend their summer driving to dances in southern Manitoba.
"The higher you go, the more complicated it is and people want to do it perfectly," says Gendron.
"Here we’re still learning and making more mistakes and making mistakes makes everyone laugh."
You really get to laugh a lot," adds Ronald Gendron, 73, dressed in the club colours of navy and white.
"You forget your troubles when you come square dancing."
Kachkowski credits square dancing with helping her deal with the grief of losing her second husband Arnold, whom she met when she first started dancing. Their 1998 wedding featured a live band and 120 square dancers.
Next month, she receives the Crocus Award from the provincial federation, recognizing a quarter century of square dancing. Although she appreciates the honour, what’s more important to her are the relationships she’s formed over the years.
"You make friends and keep those friends," she explains of the welcoming atmosphere in the square dance community.
"They’re concerned. If somebody misses a dance, somebody calls them."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.