Part 1 - Our Beginnings
For background purposes…the stage was set for gay square dancing in Miami in the late 1970’s. In an effort to generate business, two bars and a bathhouse each sponsored a square dance “team” that met to compete and out-do each other in memorized sequences and styling. The initial spirit was one of competitiveness, but in time the dancers befriended each other and began learning square dance calls in a cooperative environment. That group of dancers coalesced to become the “South Florida Mustangs”. In 1985, the Mustangs were honored with the prestigious Golden Boot Award for being the first-ever gay square dance club.
In the meantime, gay square dancing sprung up in other regions, particularly in San Francisco. There, Skip Barrett instructed for large groups of lesbians and gay men at bars such as The Tracadero Transfer and the Rawhide. His “brand” of square dancing was unique in that he did not follow the prescribed Callerlab format. Rather than teaching specific square dance calls, he taught complete memorized sequences. The dancers often had no idea when one call stopped and the next began; they simply memorized a routine. For a while, that led to mass confusion when they attempted to dance with members of other gay square dance groups.
As for local/Denver history…it all began in 1981 when Wayne Jakino (of Charlies fame) traveled to Reno, NV to attend the National Gay Rodeo. He was so inspired with what he saw there that he returned to Denver determined to create a Colorado Gay Rodeo Association chapter (CGRA). He solicited input from Charlies’ owner, John King, and various bar patrons who had strong ranching/rodeo backgrounds, and he asked people to sign a petition of interest. He envisioned a rodeo association that was broad in scope, one that included both square dancing and clogging contingents. Right away, in the fall of 1981, square dancing and clogging lessons began at Charlies (the old Charlies at 7800 E. Colfax). A few women participated, but most were men. For a couple of years, the focus of lessons was on preparation for CGRA-sponsored benefits and shows. Square dancers did get through the Mainstream and Plus lists, but progress was slow, and there was a strong emphasis on learning the proper styling and simply “looking good” for an audience.
In the spring of 1982, in anticipation of the 1982 National Gay Rodeo, the CGRA square dancers took on the name “Mile High Squares”. In Reno that summer, Denver square dancers met (and began long-term friendships) with square dancers from Miami and San Francisco. Of course, the big event of the weekend was the rodeo, but the dancers found time to meet and perform exhibition-style for one another. Even though all the dancers were learning the same calls (right and left thru, wheel and deal, flutterwheel, for example), no effort was made, at least not officially, for the dancers to dance together. That said, by happenstance, a Callerlab-accredited caller, Dave “Happpy” New Year, from Los Angeles, appeared on the scene and offered to set up his equipment in an area “out back”, behind the big country dance barn. Word of his intentions got around, and before long, two or three squares of dancers showed up, anxiously awaiting his calling. Skip Barrett, of San Francisco, overheard what was going on and became incensed that his authority as gay-caller-extraordinaire (not!) was being challenged, and so ordered his dancers onto the buses. Off they went, ahead of schedule, back to San Francisco. In spite of that ruckus, for the first time, gay square dancers got a taste of dancing to a live caller, and the thirst for more would become unstoppable.
The Mile High Squares dancers stayed in touch with caller Happy New Year, and that fall, invited him to come here to call for an invitational weekend of dancing. Dancers from all gay clubs were invited. Although only five out-of-town dancers came, that event was later credited as being the first-ever gay square dance “Fly-in”. The following February, dancers from Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver met in Miami for a weeklong Fly-in of square dancing and sightseeing, and it was then that a meeting was held to form the National Gay and Lesbian Square Dance Association (*). The number of square dancers was growing quickly and it was determined that we could soon host a convention of our own, apart from the rodeos. The National Gay Rodeo in Reno was fine; it served as a catalyst for bringing us together, but the time was fast approaching when we could stand on our own two feet. Again in the summer of 1983, square dancers from around the country met in Reno, but it was resolved then that The National Gay and Lesbian Square Dance Association would host its first convention in Seattle the following year, in 1984. Never again would gay square dancers be linked so closely to and dependent upon gay rodeo.
Meanwhile, in Denver, the politics were heating up and the frustrations becoming rampant. The CGRA authority continued to see Mile High Squares as an exhibition team, but many simply wanted to relax and have fun dancing. Finally, at a meeting on December 8, 1983, the situation came to a head. Karl Jaeckel, club instructor, voiced his objection to four existing policies…1) The fact that lessons were continually preempted for show practice, thus slowing progress through the Mainstream and Plus lists, 2) The fact that women were not always made welcome, 3) The fact that dancers who graduated were not automatically invited to join the club; they had to be selected (i.e., deemed “good enough”), and 4) The fact that in order to join Mile High Squares, dancers had to pay CGRA dues. Karl and the majority of dancers envisioned a square dance club that had a greater focus on recreational dancing. And so it came to pass that in February of 1984, the “recreational dancers” broke away from CGRA and formed their own club with a new name and a new identity. They would call themselves the Rocky Mountain Rainbeaus. The first dance was held on a Tuesday night (by chance, Valentine’s Day) at Oscar Wilde’s, a rather dumpy gay bar at Federal and 8th Ave. The new group had about six weeks to go to prepare for the first annual gay square dance convention, and so they busied themselves designing a logo, creating a banner, making vests, ordering club shirts, and the like. In order to finish Mainstream in time for the convention, the dancers had to meet twice each week. It was a whirlwind of activity for the Rainbeau Founders, to be sure! The Rainbeaus were the “new kid on the block” in Seattle, the newest of a dozen or so gay square dance clubs. Nine club members attended that convention, and because we were there, Rainbeaus are considered a Charter Member of the IAGSDC.
A number of people from the early days are still around and involved with the club today. You may wish to chat with them about their experiences from those times. Each can add something to the story…Karl Jaeckel, Bob Southerland, Bud (now John) Rhyne, BJ Dyer, Cal Smith, Mike Woolf, Jim Baily, Ralph Lorier, and Bill Ross. Look for more details about the early days of the club in the next articles about the history of the Rainbeaus.
[(*) Footnote: It was in November 1983 that “Squares Across the Border” was formed in Vancouver, B.C., and the name of the association was changed from “National Gay and Lesbian Square Dance Association” to the current “International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs”. It’s a little known fact that the letters of the word “lesbian” from the original banner were taken and used to create the word “international” for the first IAGSDC banner.]