Annie Coleman came out as a square-dance caller last August, when she threw a hoedown for her 29th birthday. Before that, few of her guests knew she’d been calling dances since she was 14, and she was a little worried about what they might think of an activity often associated with eighth-grade gym and frilly petticoats. “I really didn’t think I would get a good response,” she says, “but everyone loved it. We danced from eight at night till three in the morning.”

Coleman, who works in the financial industry, learned to call at her family’s Wisconsin resort, the Golden Horse Ranch. Opened by her grandparents in the 1940s, the ranch (now closed) held weekly barn dances with Coleman’s grandfather as caller. That, she says, is also where she learned that dancing “breaks down boundaries when you meet new people. It gives people an out to totally let down their guard.”

Coleman told her friend Anthony Burton, who plays guitar in the band Forty One Rivers, about the unexpected success of her birthday shindig. “We got to talking and all of a sudden it became clear that we needed a live band and a huge public dance event,” says Burton.

The pair swung into motion, pulling in four other musician friends and naming themselves the Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band. Open End Gallery–where Burton and some friends had thrown a prom-themed party complete with formalwear and photographer that summer–offered them use of its Fulton Street space. Soon others jumped on the bandwagon. Some friends constructed a makeshift mechanical bull out of an empty beer keg; another filled a shopping cart with hay for hayrides. “Everybody wanted to help,” says Burton. “Somebody was like, ‘Can I make fried pickles?'”

The event, held in January, was a hit. The band thought at most 30 people would dance, but instead Coleman wound up leading a crowd of almost 100 for four hours in dances like the Texas Star, Swing Your Ma, and the Virginia Reel. At the end of the evening, as she led the group in a circle dance–in which dancers hold hands to form a ring and skip sideways, forward, or backward as the caller directs–a bandmate dubbed her the B.F. Skinner of barn dancing.

The band hadn’t planned on playing another gig, but after people kept asking when the next show was, they decided to keep going. Golden Horse Ranch landed a spot at the Old Town School’s Folk & Roots Festival in July, and this weekend they’ll appear in Grant Park as part of SummerDance.

“Square dance isn’t really a living art form anymore,” says Coleman, “so a lot of people are into it as history. Some people are into doing things ‘right’ and they take it really seriously. I don’t think that’s what square dancing used to be. I don’t want to dis the scene, but we’re very different. We’re like punk square dance.”

Purists might object to their polka version of the Dukes of Hazzard theme song, but the band also plays lots of traditional tunes, and Coleman always sticks close to the basics. She doesn’t just shout out calls, she walks participants through the dances beforehand, goes over the steps several times, and gets confused dancers back on track when they mess up. “You don’t need to have any rhythm to do square dancing,” she says–you just have to listen to the caller and pay attention to the other dancers. Besides, she says, half the fun comes from having the freedom to mess up: “It gives everybody an excuse not to be cool.”

The Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band plays from 7:30 to 9:30 (with dance instruction by Coleman from 6 to 7) on Saturday, August 2, at the Spirit of Music Garden (Michigan between Harrison and Balbo) in Grant Park. It’s free; for more information call 312-742-4007.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.