Pass the Ocean, Spin the Top: The Friendship Squares of Geneva

August 11th, 2023

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

“Square dancing is friendship set to music, we like to say” -Marje Aude, 1999.

Drawing of holding hands.

The Friendship Squares of Geneva badge. The handhold design was shared with the Henrietta sister club.

Though square dancing was organized as early as the 17th century, it was first standardized around the world in the late 1950s. Standardizing the calls in the English language meant people could travel around the world and be able to follow the calls no matter where they were.

Standardized calls include phrases like Pass the Ocean, Spin the Top, and Load the Boat which guide dancers through the squares. Western style dancing is considered to be more complicated than other styles because there are more calls (about 9,000 in total with the average dancer knowing about 400), no order to the calls, and can be done in any combination. Local participant John Densk told the Geneva Times “There’s more finesse to [western dancing]. It can be difficult and its work. But it’s a lot more fun, I think.”

Locally, there was no organized square dancing group until the 1960s. Dr. William and Joan Newman moved to Geneva in June 1965 and immediately looked around for local round and square dancing events. They asked around and found there were various Rochester clubs that they were able to join. Through these clubs, they met Don and Lucille Pratt. Don was a caller and instructor in western square dancing and belonged to the Henrietta Friendship Squares.

Bill and Joan asked Don to give classes in Geneva and by September 1965 23 couples had signed up for lessons at the YMCA. Couples had to attend one class a week for 24 weeks to learn the calls and cues. At the end, they would need to go through graduation when they would be challenged to dance the steps in different ways including blindfolded while avoiding balloons on the floor, wearing shoe boxes, or couples’ legs tied together.

Two rows of squares dancers with people kneeling in front

The first graduating class, 1966.

The first class graduated by the Henrietta Friendship Squares in March 1966. The class would become the Geneva Friendship Squares. The sister clubs would share the ‘hand hold’ design and name which would extend to a new Penn Yan Friendship Squares that would graduate its first class in May 1967. The three clubs would pair up for special parties around holidays and benefit dances. A second class graduated in September 1966 and by 1967, the Geneva club would have almost 40 couples on its membership list.

In September 1967, the Geneva Friendship Squares joined the Rochester Area Federation of Western Round and Square Dance Clubs which had been organized in 1959 and incorporated in August 1967. The Dance-O-Rama, first given in early 1958, led to the Federation’s organization and is still held annually. Today the group is known as the Western New York Federation of Square and Round Dancers.

handwritten rules of square dancing

The “12” Commandments of Square Dancing

The Geneva Friendship Squares adopted a constitution and bylaws in September 1967. They also followed the ‘unwritten rules of square dancing’ which included rules such as don’t leave your square until the tip is over (a tip is usually two dances), listen to the caller, relax and be friendly, wear effective deodorant (because square dancing is a strenuous group activity), and dress for the occasion.

Scrapbooks from the group include numerous photos that show the variety in fashion from the members, many of whom made their own clothes for club events. In 1969, Millie and Bud Woodly were appointed the official historians for the Friendship Squares; from their efforts, we have six scrapbooks which span the years 1966 to 2009.

Members could earn badges for any number of reasons. In December 1969, Jan and Bill Newman were awarded the Founder’s Badge in recognition of their efforts in the club’s organization. Other badges include the ‘damp fool’ badge which identified a dancer who braved the rain to dance on a float in the 1976 Phelps Sauerkraut Festival. Others earned badges for dancing in unique places when they traveled to Germany, Hawaii, Spain, England, Ireland, and Scotland.

badge earned by by sucking lemons in front of the caller while he is calling.

Lemon Teaser Badge

Don Pratt continued to call for Geneva until 1980 when he became too unwell. Nationally and internationally known callers would stop by regularly through the years as they traveled across the country. Callers who stopped in Geneva include Johnny LeClair, Red Bates, Singin’ Sam Mitchell, and Ken Anderson who were recognized as some of the great callers of their times.

The Geneva Friendship Squares planned and sponsored the Sampson Fall Fest, a camp and dance annual event out at Sampson State Park, beginning in 1973. Each year the event had a theme including Under the Sea, Give My Regards to Broadway, and 1950s. In 1992, the Fall Fest became the Fall Frolic in Watkins Glen and the group continued to sponsor it until its dissolution in 2009. The event still happens every year in a different form but sponsored by the Penn Yan Friendship Squares.

people square dancing and sucking on lemonsMembership fluctuated through the years, but generally the number of couples ranged from 30 to 40 on average. Bill and Jan Newman were awarded in 2000 with the Daphen-Norman leadership award at the Rochester Area Federation and Square Dance Clubs’ Dance-O-Rama which highlights extensive and sustained leadership over an extended period of years in square, round, or contra dancing.

Throughout the years, the dancers danced in numerous locations across Geneva and beyond including the cafeteria of North Street School, HWS Gulick Hall, basements, parking lots, tennis courts, park pavilions, churches, and on parade floats.

For more information about squaring dancing –


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