The First Western Star Dancers


The First Western Star Dancers
By Russ King, Lifetime Member (Published in The Western Star newsletter, February 2005)

When Western Star co-founder Scott Carey attended the 20th Anniversary hoe-down of the San Francisco Rebels back in 1984, he little imagined that in 2004 he'd be attending our 22nd Anniversary Dance, and that the Rebels, like all but one other straight club in San Francisco, would be long gone. But a lot has changed, for gays and straights alike, and Western Star, through a combination of good planning by the founders, the determined efforts of later generations of dancers, and sheer dumb luck, has managed to hang in there. As a member of the first WSD class back in 1982, and a member of the old Foggy City Squares (not to be confused with Foggy City Dancers, though related) starting in September 1981, I saw a lot of the action up close and personal, and recent conversations with Scott have helped fill in a few gaps. So here's some of our early history, and to paraphrase a bit, "Fasten your seat-belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."

It was a very different world when gay square-dancing first came to San Francisco in 1980. The Gay Band and the Gay Men's Chorus were just two years old, Armistead Maupin was still cranking out new adventures for Mary Ann Singleton, Castro Clones were remaking themselves into Urban Cowboys, and all things Country-Western, thanks to John Travolta, were suddenly trendy. There were two major stores on Market Street specializing in nothing but cowboy gear--boots, hats, shirts, the works--and the Reno Gay Rodeo was off and running; for the next few years it would be Gay Country-Western Mecca, attracting hundreds from the Bay Area alone. You could even admit liking the songs of Tammy Wynette without fear of ridicule. At this point, an unknown, gravel-voiced singer, full of ambition and good-ole boy sex appeal, wandered onto the scene and spotted a golden opportunity.

Skip Barrett didn't know much about square-dancing--he was not a dancer himself, let alone a teacher or caller--but he knew how to work a room and work a crowd, and he knew how to sell a song. He learned the square-dance versions of the kind of country-rock vocals that were his specialty, got someone to teach the calls in the songs he wanted to use, and set up shop at Dreamland. Foggy City Squares was soon off and running, and the performance and exhibition teams became key components of the fast-growing group. While Skip belted out his high-energy vocals and strutted around like a rock star, the teams did flashy high-kicking demonstrations of the new dances to be taught at class, and functioned as his back-up chorus in public appearances around the city and beyond, as Skip spread the square-dance gospel far and wide. In November 1980, Scott Carey and his friend and co-worker Agnes Smith wandered into Dreamland for a square-dance demo/intro evening, liked what they saw, and signed up for the next ten-week class starting in January. And at the January class, Scott Carey and Ron Douglass met up, liked what they saw, and soon became a couple.

After the January class, the still-growing Foggy City Squares relocated to the Trockadero Transfer on 4th Street, a large club with raised stage, plenty of dance space, revolving disco ball, and a well-stocked bar on the mezzanine level, which the students were encouraged to patronize during breaks. By the time I started dancing in September, classes numbered over a hundred, but any resemblance to a contemporary CALLERLAB class was purely coincidental. We learned whatever calls were in the new song Skip wanted to feature, so my class learned to teacup chain before we could spin the top. There was no hash, and stirring the bucket--forget about it! Essentially, we didn't learn calls so much as memorize choreography, and "Brian," our 'teacher,' freely modified definitions to keep things simple. (Betcha didn't know that 'Load the Boat' ends in an ocean wave--well, it does, at least when the next call is swing thru and you don't want to bother explaining why facing couples can do 'ocean wave' calls. And by the way, swing thru always begins with the boys on the ends of the wave.) We were encouraged to stay in the same position in the same square throughout the ten-week class, so everyone could dance up a storm with the same pinpoint precision as the team members--even when Skip got the calls mixed up, as he tended to do fairly often. It wasn't square dance as we know it today, or as anyone outside of San Francisco knew it even then, but it was great fun. As we lived out our fantasies of being in a high-energy Busby Berkeley chorus, we all worked up quite a sweat, and quite a few guys stripped down to tank-tops or less; the atmosphere was hot in more ways than one. But behind the scenes, a real-life backstage drama was developing.

Through his new boyfriend Ron, Scott met another couple at Foggy City Squares, Roger Perry, a costume designer for Charles Pierce, and Dennis Ficken, who owned a flower shop on Potrero Hill and had once studied for the priesthood; with Scott's friend Agnes, they became a tight group of friends, with everyone except Scott winding up on the teams. But being on the teams, or having your boyfriend on the teams, meant having to get up close and personal with Skip, and as they would soon discover, Skip was a person better seen from a distance. There's a reason that San Francisco has three gay square dance clubs, all founded within a fairly short time period--in two words, Skip Barrett. Skip was charismatic, media-savvy and boundlessly energetic, introducing large numbers of gay men (and a much smaller number of women) to the joy of dancing in a square with seven other guys all working as a single cooperative unit. But he expected everyone to be extremely grateful to him for giving them this experience, particularly the team members.

Because Skip had no ability as a teacher or a dancer, he was completely dependent on his various deputies to run the cash cow that Foggy City Squares had now become. Skip was no idealist, and his first priority was to monopolize the square-dance market with an iron grip. There were rumors of substance-abuse problems, and hints of his paranoia and mood-swings began becoming visible even to class members. If a member of the teams got on his bad side, which became increasingly easy to do, they were unceremoniously given the boot, demoted overnight from flashy chorus cutie to square dance limbo. Ron, Scott, Dennis, Roger and Agnes decided they'd had enough of Skip, and it was time to break away before they found themselves in the same situation. But they'd fallen in love with square-dancing, weren't about to give it up, and didn't see why it should be considered synonymous with Skip Barrett. The newly formed Gay Marching Band and Gay Men's Chorus were democratically run organizations, so why couldn't gay square dancers have something like that? So what to do, and where to start?

What Ron, Scott, Dennis, Roger and Agnes decided to do was to found another gay square dance club in San Francisco. They knew nothing about CALLERLAB, and in any case Skip had done his best to push the idea that standard square-dancing could never work for same-sex couples, that memorizing singing-calls from a single position was the only way to make it possible. But they were five thirty-somethings with lots of energy and determination, and they plunged in anyway. Scott scoured the Yellow Pages for stores that might sell square-dance records or instruction manuals, eventually BARTing over to Phil Maron's dusty folk shop in Oakland, where he obtained a modest supply of singing-call records and a short square dance handbook published in 1954. The little group, plus three obliging phantoms, met in Ron and Scott's large kitchen space to walk through calls and try figuring out their actual definitions.

By February 1982, they'd been joined by two more dancers and had a lead on a free space they could use. Discreet conversations with other dancers followed; a second-floor ACT rehearsal space on Geary was secured, some inexpensive (but not easily portable) used stereo equipment was purchased, a name for the new group was chosen, and finally the equipment was hauled downtown for the first Western Star Dancers' drop-in square-dance evening on Friday, March 5. (I remember getting the word passed to me by Alan Hall, one of the regulars in my square, where I had a longstanding commitment to the role of third lady.) There was a lot of good-natured haggling about what to do when the calls on the records didn't produce exactly the same results as when taught at Foggy City Squares, or what do to about the calls that hadn't been taught at all, but on the second evening, a challenge-level dancer by the name of Bill Klein walked through the door and decided to give the new group his help and encouragement.

Bill was a short, opinionated leather queen. He wasn't a caller, but he knew all about Callerlab and the world of straight square-dancing, and he knew what the new group would be up against, since he'd already had his own run-in with Skip. Bill did not approve of the teaching methods at Foggy City Squares, and his opinions on the subject were not well-received by Skip when he volunteered to teach the calls correctly; their encounter may or may not have ended in a fist-fight, depending on which version you believe. In any case, Bill agreed to teach a real class for the new group, based on the Callerlab teaching order, and to help them connect with the larger contemporary square dance community. On Monday May 10, 1982, the first Basic/Mainstream class got underway in the 2nd floor lobby of the Civic Center YMCA. They had hoped to rent the auditorium, but Skip had beaten them to it, renting it himself for non-existent team practices.

Bill Klein was not the most patient of teachers, as I can testify from personal experience, but he was doing it without any kind of remuneration. We had no hash records, so Bill introduced the idea of all-position dancing by having us learn both roles as soon as possible. When some dancers complained that they couldn't keep track of who was dancing what, Bill sternly admonished them: "You will learn the calls by definition. If you are doing your part correctly, it will not matter if it's a man, a woman, or a Hanukah bush coming at you." Virtually every dancer in that first class was also a member of Foggy City Squares, so we already knew, or thought we knew, most of the calls, but we also had a lot of bad habits to unlearn. ("What do you mean, it's okay for the women to start a swing-thru on the end of the wave?!?") The schedule was accelerated, going all the way through Mainstream in 10 weeks. There were three squares rather than the dozen or more we were used to at the Trockadero, but here we changed partners and squares every tip, and actually got to know everyone in the class. Rumor had it that Skip's lieutenants were parked outside watching who was attending this rival class, and whether true or not, Skip seemed to know immediately which of us were two-timing him.

Whether he liked it or not, the formation of Western Star was only the first crack in Skip's empire. Another group of dancers from Foggy City Squares had been meeting for extra practice in the El Cerrito living-room of Richard Tuck, and that summer they branched over to San Francisco and became Midnight Squares. At the Reno Gay Rodeo in August, gay square-dancers from all over the country made their first major contacts with each other, and when a gay caller from the Los Angeles area, [[Dave "Happy" New Year]], set up his equipment for some impromptu squares in the parking lot that Saturday night, it quickly became apparent that what Skip had taught us bore little resemblance to what gay square dancers were learning in the rest of the country. Those of us who'd taken Bill Klein's class had no problem, but those who'd only had classes with Foggy City Squares were left floundering, and Skip hastily hustled his team members onto their bus and back to their hotel, to avoid being contaminated by suspicious outside influences.

Shortly after the first WSD class graduated, we elected our first Board of Directors. The five founders wanted to immediately establish a new precedent for a member-run, non-profit group, and that's how it's been ever since. With Bill Klein again teaching at no cost to the club, a second class was started on September 13, and in October Dave "Happy" New Year was flown up from Los Angeles to call the first official Western Star weekend dances on October 22 and 23. Finally in December 1982 we were able to make it from the YMCA lobby into the auditorium to give the newbies a proper graduation. (Those of us in the first class didn't have anyone ahead of us to do hosting duties—instead of being graduated by the club, we became the club.) It was a slightly bittersweet occasion though, since Agnes, emceeing in dazzling white cowgirl drag, had transferred to a new job and was moving to Seattle only days later. Steve Browning was on hand to videotape and photograph the occasion--the first club function in the YMCA auditorium, which would be our home throughout most of the 1980's, the first WSD graduation night, and the last club event to be attended by all five of the founders.

1983 would bring more changes; over a dozen WSD members would fly to a February fly-in hosted by the South Florida Mustangs, where the groundwork for what would become the IAGSDC was laid. The long and convoluted process of building bridges with the local straight square dance community would begin. In June, Western Star would be the primary organizer of the first major square-dancing presence in the Pride Parade, with new graduate Freeman (aka Steffany) Stamper getting his picture in the Chronicle in full drag regalia. In July, Larry Brown would organize the first Western Star 4th of July Angel Island picnic. Up in Seattle, Agnes would join the Puddletown Squares, and become a key player in the planning of the first IAGSDC Convention the following year; she's now living in the Tacoma area. The Foggy City Squares exhibition and performance teams would finally rise up en masse against Skip, buy out his interest, rename the club Foggy City Dancers, and move the new group towards Callerlab teaching and a cooperative relationship with the clubs that had already broken away. Skip would betray the terms of the buy-out and start a rival group in direct competition with them, but the tides of history and his own personality would work against him, and despite his enormous influence in the early growth of gay square dancing in San Francisco, he's largely forgotten today except by a few of us old-timers. Scott and Ron would break up amicably, remain friends, and Ron would eventually move to Palm Springs, where he now lives. Scott would remain active with the club for the first ten years, and also become active with the emerging IAGSDC, serving a term as Chairman and becoming an early recipient of the Golden Boot Award. Roger and Dennis would break up less amicably and Roger would move to Miami, where he briefly danced with the Mustangs before moving on to other things. Western Star teachers, callers, dancers and boards have changed over the years, not to mention our location, but the club has managed to survive. If the personalities and the gossip haven't been quite as juicy as the earliest days, it's because the founders believed, unlike the man they reacted against, that square-dancing, and the fellowship it spreads when it's at its best, is bigger than any one person, and ultimately the property of the dancers themselves. It's a philosophy that's served us well--23 years and counting...