University City

Friendship is set to music in Charlotte

It was Thursday night, and like most houses of worship after the preacher and parishioners have gone home, Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church looked as calm and still as the holy water inside a baptismal font.

But in the parking lot behind the sanctuary, hints of an after-hours gathering trickled out in measured drops.

The faint beat of a far-off drum mixed with the soft scratch of a few rustling leaves that the autumn winds had caught. The lines of dancing silhouettes, their arms hooking and trading off randomly and rhythmically with each other, twirled behind the window shades in the yellow light of the fellowship hall.

It’s been this way on the first Thursday evening of the month for as long as anyone can remember. That’s when the Swinging Mallards Square Dance Club meets to dance.

Miles away in uptown, while the hotspot clubs spun the latest from Kanye and Pitbull, University City’s 39-year-old square dancing club savored oldies from artists born at least 60 years earlier, like Barbara Mandrell and John Denver.

Square dancing has always fallen in and out of favor with the masses. When the Swinging Mallards began in 1974, 58 members attended the then twice-a-month dances. Today, the club has a steady following of 15.

“It has its seasons, its peaks and valleys,” said Holly Walker, one of the founding members of the club. “It goes up for a few years, then it goes down for a few years.”

But the dances are never empty, even during the valleys. The Charlotte area has at least a half-dozen other square dancing clubs that show up to dance, all wearing either pins or shirts emblazoned with their club names. Boots N Slippers, The Square Wheelers, The Swinging Saints and Belles & Beaus will all take turns throughout the month, hosting dances on their own turf.

Some people dance for the social aspects, others for the exercise. Along the way, many who first learned as teenagers, like Jerry Lock, the Swinging Mallards’ vice president, continued to dance as adults as a means to unwind from the stress of their jobs at the end of the day.

“That’s the good thing about square dancing,” said Lock, a retired electrical engineer. “You can come to a square dance, and if you’re still thinking about work and stuff, you soon will forget it. You leave the stress behind because you have to pay attention.”

Most are retired and come from a variety of backgrounds, but they rarely talk about anything other than dance steps, said Lock.

“I know there’s doctors and lawyers, but most people I don’t even know what their occupation is,” he said. “You’re a square dancer and a friend.”

It’s a sentiment so ingrained in the square dance culture that it’s become the motto of the N.C. Folk Round & Square Dance Federation, a network of 60 square dance clubs in the state: “Friendship Set to Music. Turning Strangers into Friends.”