Answering the call for square dancing

Posted Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go The NORTEX Round-Up 2013: Celebrating Texas’ Heritage — The Yellow Rose of Texas, is Saturday and Sunday at the Grapevine Convention Center. Information: nortex.org

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Melton Luttrell didn’t blow out candles on his 85th birthday Sunday.

He saved his breath for that evening when he stood on a dance hall stage and began tapping his toe to the lively beat of an old fiddle tune, recorded on a 45-rpm vinyl disk.

Dressed in a dark suit and western boots, the caller flashed a welcoming smile.

He raised a microphone to his lips.

On cue the dancin’ began.

“Honor your partner and your corner too, circle to the left and around you go. Circle to the left and don’t be slow …”

Luttrell’s singing rap filled the Swingtime Center in southwest Fort Worth like sunshine.

“Allemande left with your left hand. Partner right and a right and left grand. Meet your honey and promenade. Home you go with the pretty little maid. Head two couples go forward and back, then square thru in the middle of the track. Four hands ’round and don’t look back.”

He sounded like an auctioneer reciting poetry.

Spin the top. Slip the clutch. Box the gnat. Flutterwheel.

About 60 couples, mostly seniors, whirled intricately around the hardwood floor, performing the movements seamlessly. Occasionally they clapped once in unison and let out happy whoops on cue. Many wore lemon-colored shirts and matching petticoat skirts in honor of the The Yellow Rose of Texas, a legend commemorated in song.

That night Luttrell and Jon Jones shared the spotlight at the Trail End dance, a prelude to the big annual Round-Up sponsored by the North Texas Square and Round Dance Association (NORTEX). This weekend more than 500 participants from dozens of regional clubs will gather at the Grapevine Convention Center.

They found their calling

Luttrell and Jones are area residents, longtime friends and widely known for their square dancing expertise and accomplishments. Both have been calling more than 50 years and are members of the Texas Callers’ Hall of Fame.

Like others his age, Luttrell was a child of the Great Depression.

In the 1930s the Caddo native lived with his parents in the back of his daddy’s gas station. For entertainment the family found pleasure and comfort in music and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio every Saturday night.

John Luttrell scraped up enough cash to buy his only child a fiddle but couldn’t afford a case. Lutrell remembers the flush-cheeked embarrassment he felt walking to his school music class, toting his instrument in a paper sack.

After taking a few square dance lessons he knew he wanted to become a caller. In 1950 Luttrell convinced the owner of a new drive-in movie between Ranger and Eastland to let him put on a square dance as a grand-opening promotion.

“How much you charge?” the businessman asked.

“Fifteen dollars,” Luttrell said hopefully.

After the movie owner agreed the 21-year-old asked about payment for musicians.

“That’s out of your $15,” the man said.

Luttrell earned his first paying job as an entertainer calling square dances for several weeks from the rooftop of the outdoor theater’s concession stand, his voice broadcast through the rows of car-window speakers.

He gave half of his nightly $15 to a guitar player and fiddler.

Luttrell worked for 37 years as an electrical engineer in the aircraft industry and turned his love for square dancing into a second job that helped him provide for his wife and family. Traveling hither and yon, he called an average of 25 dances every month for more than three decades.

A square dancer for years

When Jon Jones was 8 years old and learning to plow behind a mule he never dreamed that square dancing would become his passion and his passport — his ticket to see the world.

Born in the West Texas town of Jayton, Jones learned to dance in squares as a teenager. He and high school friends regularly dosado-ed in an old downtown building until some local Baptists blew the moral whistle and put a stop to it, citing sashaying as a sin.

“Thing is, I was a Baptist, too,” Jones recalled with a laugh. “I got run out by my own people.”

But religious opposition didn’t keep him from climbing the ladder to his dream. Determined, he taught himself to call dances by listening to others. Clearing his throat he imitated their singing calls and lilting patter calls. He memorized some of the colorful, corny, jingles — fill-in patter — rhymes passed down like family heirlooms that are part of a caller’s stock in trade.

Love my wife/love my baby/like my biscuits sopped in gravy.

or

I got a wife who’s lean and tall/sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall.

‘I enjoy seeing people happy’

In 1980 Jones began traveling abroad to teach square dancing, and calling.

With a missionary’s zeal he brought the official state folkdance of Texas to 24 countries including Russia, the Czech Republic and the People’s Republic of China. The former longtime employee of the city of Arlington also taught a one-hour P.E. course in square dancing at the University of Texas at Arlington for 13 years.

Jones, 77, doesn’t plan to quit calling anytime soon.

“I love the camaraderie. It’s still fun,” he said simply.

Luttrell feels the same way.

“I keep calling,” he said, “because I enjoy seeing people happy.”

So there they were, together, in the company of their supportive wives and appreciative friends. Calling dances. Living in the moment. Celebrating life.

At one point they even joined voices, two Texas country boys, harmonizing to the recording of When You’re Smiling, written in 1928, the year Melton Luttrell was born.

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Video: Watch the square dance callers

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