Fifty years of Tech Squares
Editor’s note: this article was transcribed and arranged by Heidi Clark, the Tech Squares Historian, from an interview with Guy Steele PhD ’80.
MIT has been central to my life in some major ways — early on, through earning my PhD in Course 6 and meeting my wife. Over 25 years later, its impact grew again unexpectedly when I was introduced to square dancing with Tech Squares, MIT’s square and round dance club. Now I dance at MIT every Tuesday evening, and sometimes more frequently.
Modern square dancing is a dynamic dance form that stays interesting and challenging. The dance requires attention, quick recall, intellectual skill, and a spatial sense of changing patterns. In groups of eight, dancer pairs hear a caller’s sequence of commands (known as “calls”) and react within a second to execute them. Each sequence is new; many callers can make up the patterns on the fly as they scramble dancers around, and then figure out how to get them back where they started. As the current PE instructor and club secretary Ginda Fisher says, Tech Squares is “group theory performed as a team sport, set to music.”
Tech Squares has been around for decades. In fact, Tech Squares just celebrated its 50th anniversary this fall with a weekend-long dance event in September featuring a total of nine square dance callers and five round dance cuers. Two hundred members and friends, travelling in from around the U.S., came together for three days of high-energy dancing across two dance halls in the Student Center. As a member for over 10 years now, I felt the excitement and nostalgia that this very special weekend brought so many of us.
I've been hanging out at MIT since the late 1960s — first as a student taking courses through HSSP, then as a part-time staff programmer (while an undergraduate at Harvard) at Project MAC, now known as CSAIL, then as a graduate student at MIT (MS ’77, PhD ’80). Back then, I knew fellow computer geeks Clark Baker and Bill Ackerman; I now know they were also members of Tech Squares at the time. I also met the very interesting fellow student who is now my wife, Barbara Kerns.
Decades later, when our son Matt went to MIT, his East Campus friends pulled him into Tech Squares, and he loved it — enough to tell Barbara and me, "Mom? Dad? I think you'd like this too. Why don't you come some evening and watch?" When we did, we met a lot of friendly and encouraging people. In 2006, we took the Tech Squares dancing class, and we've been dancing there ever since. We didn’t stand out as outsiders — the club welcomes non-students into its semester-long class and makes its graduates members for life. Tech Squares has a strong student presence and the gifts of a multi-generational group. As members move through life phases, they stay connected; new parents find they can even dance with babies in carriers; the motion rocks them to sleep.
What I love most about square dancing, and I’d say what keeps so many hooked, is its cooperative, almost entirely non-competitive nature. Knowing the calls and doing your part makes you pretty good at dancing; to really excel, you must constantly anticipate what the caller might do, help your square, and offer quick fixes to mistakes. This last part is surprisingly crucial; there is a beloved element of “supportive rivalry” between dancers and callers. Callers strive to stump the dancers, and the best dancers help their peers push themselves so the prevailing skill level stays high. Callers and dancers grow together — and with great modern tunes, the infectious energy of wit and brand new material, and successful dance challenges, these interactions come to build a very personal bond.
Plus, there’s more to the Tech Squares experience than Tuesday night dancing. Along the sidelines, members snack, socialize, and play board games. It is not unusual to see an MIT alum discussing math or physics problems with current students, or students finding internships and jobs through alumni.
The Tech Squares 50th anniversary was a chance for members to reconnect and reminisce with old friends. All three of the club’s principal callers (Dennis Marsh for 16 years, Don Beck for 12 years, and Ted Lizotte since 1998) and four founding members (Bill Mann, Don Beck, Veronica McClure, and Linda Silversmith) attended. Dennis and Don “came out of retirement” to call again for us. It was a great chance to learn what the early years of square dancing were like, and also to appreciate how far in complexity, speed, and ingenuity Tech Squares and this dance form have come.
The club has maintained a great deal of continuity. Three of those founding members are special to me personally. Bill helped me polish my dancing. Veronica, who was club cuer for decades, taught me (and others) how to lead the Grand March that begins each class graduation ceremony. Don, a long-time member of the professional organization for square dance callers, encouraged me when I started calling. And Linda’s engagement announcement dance was the very first of a Tech Squares tradition — the celebration of club members' big life events (such as a dual wedding reception in 2011) with a special square dance.
The Tech Squares bond was very visible at the weekend, with current members and old-timers dancing together and trading club history stories. During breaks and over dinner (massive takeout from Mary Chung's!), we chatted over the club’s start, what favorite events and anniversary dances were like, and how Don himself created three of the hundred dance moves every Tech Squares member learns. Current members shared their recent triumph at the 2015 National Square Dance Convention in Springfield, MA: the club entered four teams in the “Last Square Standing” competition and swept all top four places out of 19 squares. (I credit Ted’s thorough, precise teaching. I was in the square that placed third, and I well remember the surprise and pride on Ted's face when he saw what we had done.)
Dancing with Tech Squares is a great activity with a great group of people. I enjoy helping students learn the moves and grow, as we club and class members dance together. Tech Squares has an international reputation for the quality and technical skills of its dancers, but that's not why people come to the student center every Tuesday evening.
They come — I come — because it's the most challenging and cooperative way I know to have a lot of fun.