WELSHFIELD, Ohio – Nine-year-old Stephanie Garaja pulls a laminated paper from its folder, studies the lyrics printed on it for a moment, and nods.
The little girl’s hands, once steady to apply metallic purple nail polish that’s now chipped, tremble a bit as she reaches for the microphone.
She grins when the needle is dropped onto the nearby record player. The music starts, pours out the open overhead door toward nearby homes and a gas station, and energizes eight of her friends waiting nearby.
Her confidence surges, her hips shake, and she belts the words out like a pro.
Now honey cut that out
It’s evident she’s learned a lot from her 15-year-old sister, Ashley, who watches her sister’s practice performance from across the room.
Claim to fame. After this year’s Ohio State Fair, both ladies can claim fame as state champion singers.
But don’t look for them onstage on Star Search or American Idol.
You’d have better luck finding them in the first bay of the Troy Township volunteer fire department’s building, where they practice Sunday afternoons, dressed down in tank tops, shorts and flip flops, singing and dancing their afternoons away with close friends.
The sisters are singers and dancers in the award-winning Geauga County 4-H Cloverleafs Square Dance Club.
Full-time commitment. Twenty-five members dance and sing the calls year-round, giving up free time to practice at least weekly in preparation for their major competition at the Ohio State Fair.
It pays off.
At the Aug. 2 event in Columbus, the club pulled out all the stops to dominate the junior and senior age divisions for dancers and callers.
Dancers took first in the junior team contest and both first and second in the senior event.
Senior caller Erin Politzer won her event. Junior caller Stephanie Garaja took first place, and her older sister, Ashley, took second in the senior set.
Last year, Ashley Garaja won the senior competition, and teams also swept both the junior and senior dance divisions.
Practice makes perfect. Leading up to their main event, the ladies and gentlemen refine their skills by dancing whenever they get the chance – at the Geauga County Fair, the Huntsburg Pumpkin Festival, the Troy Township Homecoming, and other local festivals.
Practices are crucial to test each dancer’s reaction time.
Callers sing the calls to each record for performances, but during competition, callers can hash, or call whatever they want, explained one member.
Hash tests each dancer’s hearing and dancing as they keep up with the caller – something that can’t be done through memorization.
For the younger dancers, simply hearing the calls in spite of the music is sometimes a challenge – especially during a song called Monster Mash, according to 9-year-old Lexus Stank.
“All the monsters are talking, and it’s hard to hear the caller. Sometimes we mess up,” she admitted.
The youth members, who range in age from 6-20, also attend adult dances throughout the year to learn more.
Naturals. After years of practice do-si-do-ing and working through the calls, a ‘star through and roll’ or ‘single circle rareback’ comes as naturally as chewing gum for the youngsters.
For some of them, it’s a little more embedded: In its 31-year existence, the club has matched four or five couples and drawn in multiple generations of some families.
Sixteen-year-old Kari Russell is the group’s veteran, posting 11 years of dancing to her resumé.
From birth she was destined to circle up – all four of her older brothers danced with the group and, during his youth, so did her father.
“It’s pretty much a family tradition,” Russell said.
Today, there are siblings, cousins and boyfriend-girlfriend couples who dance here for fun.
True friendship. For the dancers, it’s not the petticoats and homemade skirts and blouses that keep them coming back each year.
Members give up softball, summer swimming and vacation time, but realize their true friends are dancing as their partner or in their square.
“Our bonds come from school and [dancing],” said Stacey Hull, a 15-year-old who’s been dancing two-thirds of her life. Her sisters, Chrissy and Kailey, also dance with the club.
“Our other friends laugh at us, and where we live just makes it worse,” said 16-year-old Ginger Mayo, referring to their rural communities.
“We’ve kinda learned to refer to this just as 4-H, and we don’t say square dancing,” said Clara Reardon, who, at 16, has been dancing two years.
The older girls giggle. “But we tell them it’s fun, and I think they think it’s cool,” Hull said.
Because the club lacks enough male dancers to fill the bill, several of the girls partner up and spin, twirl and link up from a different perspective.
Dancing the boys’ parts, switching left for right, only reinforces their skills, the ladies said.
A solid history. The Geauga County 4-H Cloverleafs Square Dance Club, formed by Betsy Simpson in 1972, is a spin-off of the Skirts and Flirts club.
Adviser Missy Schmitt has been involved with the club for 20 years, and it’s been closer to 30 years of die-hard enjoyment for head adviser Sharon Moorehead.
Both danced with the club as youngsters and excelled: Moorehead was a state champion caller, and Schmitt was a five-time state champion dancer.
“Our club used to have back-to-back wins until about 1997,” Schmitt said.
Next generation. For the advisers, the development of young dancers draws parallels to having a child – it takes roughly nine months for Moorehead to teach all 68 basic western square dance calls.
Moorehead and Schmitt lead beginners by the hand through their first lessons to build a solid foundation.
After only a year of dancing, most of the under-12 age group said their favorite steps are ping-pong circulate, teacup chain, and load the boat.
Despite what hundreds of elementary physical education classes offer as their version of square dancing – usually confined to do-si-do, swing and promenade – these youngsters know the real deal after their lessons.
“They were doing it all wrong. I had to explain how to do-si-do the right way,” explained Ginger Mayo, a Cloverleaf for eight years, of her elementary school experience.
For Moorehead and Schmitt, the club’s goals are easily manifested. Frequent meetings, mixed with blood ties, love and plenty of dancing, have helped each member learn to work together, they said.
Without realizing it, members are also honing their leadership skills, walking and spinning each other through each dance and passing their knowledge to others.
“Dancing is a lot of fun, and I think these kids really show that they enjoy it,” Moorehead said.
The club isn’t actively recruiting, but welcomes new members age 6-19 each fall. For more information call the Geauga County Extension office at 440-834-4656.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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Dancing daily at fair
The Geauga County 4-H Cloverleafs Square Dance Club will perform daily at the Geauga County Fair, which runs Aug. 28 to Sept. 1.
Performances are scheduled:
* Aug. 28 and 29, 7-9 p.m. at the Junior Fair building.
* Aug. 30, noon to 1 p.m. on the Junior Fair entertainment stage, and from 4-5 p.m. and 7-8 p.m. at the Junior Fair building.
* Aug. 31, 4-5 p.m. and 7-8 p.m. at the Junior Fair building.
* Sept. 1, 1-2 p.m. and 4-5 p.m. at the Junior Fair building.
– Andrea Myers
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