WORTHINGTON - “Bow to the partner, bow to the corner, join hands, circle to the left, circle to the right ’til you get back home …”
In its heyday, the Turkey Trotters square dance club would fill a dance floor with 20 squares of eight members each. Today, the membership has dwindled to just nine people - barely enough to fill one square - and when the snowbirds head south for the winter, the membership drops to three.
The declining interest in square dancing is forcing the club to fold next month, 67 years after Don and Mae Garberson of Worthington and Bunny and Bonnie Sunderman of Windom first met in Worthington to discuss forming a club.
The Turkey Trotters were christened in the early spring of 1951, with charter members choosing the name to coincide with Worthington’s title as the Turkey Capital of the World. The club, however, was never exclusive to Worthington residents and its dances still attract dancers from South Dakota, Iowa and across southwest Minnesota.
Grace Kay is the last living charter member of the Turkey Trotters, although Bernice Camery joined within a year of the club’s formation. Camery is the oldest and longest-dancing member, and still twirls around the dance floor.
In addition to attending the Turkey Trotters’ dances twice per month, she often accompanies fellow club members Chuck and Jackie Moore to square dances across the region. The Moores are co-presidents of the organization, and have danced with the Turkey Trotters for 37 years.
The demise of the club has been slow and steady, say the trio. Recruitment has always been a challenge.
Camery, who convinced the Moores to join the square dancing group in 1980, said people are just too busy with other things these days. Even luring the Moores to the dance floor took some work on her part.
“I hounded them until Chuck gave in,” Camery said with a twinkle in her eye.
Chuck was working on his doctoral degree at the time, so he and Jackie agreed to join after he completed his studies. The Moores took dance lessons in Slayton with the Murray Mixers, but the Turkey Trotters have always been their club.
Already in the 1980s, it was evident the draw to square dancing wasn’t what it used to be. Camery fondly recalled Monday night lessons with 60 couples in the 1960s. The Moores shared the floor with just 10 other couples when they learned to dance two decades later.
“It really hurts now when there are only nine members of the club,” Camery said. “We just had so many dancers (at one time) and every little town had a club - Lismore, Adrian, Sibley (Iowa), Iona, Round Lake. You could go dancing every night of the week.”
Many of those small town clubs disbanded, and it isn’t just a regional phenomenon.
“Square dancing has declined throughout the U.S.,” Jackie said, noting national conventions that drew more than 20,000 attendees in 1982 had just 8,000 to 9,000 attendees by 2002. That year, Camery said attendance was down because people were afraid to fly after 9-11.
“It’s sad,” said Chuck, a witness to the declining interest in square dancing. He was a caller for dances for the past 11 years. “In the 1980s we had square dancing lessons one night, round dancing a second night and dancing a third night during the week.”
“I said my goal before I retired was to dance eight nights a week,” Camery said with a laugh. “I never quite accomplished that, but I worked at it.”
Her Turkey Trotters name badge - the turkey-shaped pin created by Vernon and Grace Kay in 1964 - has expanded in length over the years with participation badges from events like the National Square Dancers Convention and the 2002 dance on the Wabasha Bridge.
The slogan for square dancing is “Friendship set to music,” said Camery.
“It’s the people, it’s good entertainment and it’s good exercise,” she said. “It’s endorsed by the American Heart Association, and it’s just such good fellowship. Everyone is there to have a good time, there’s no competition.”
“We have made friends across the state and also friends from the nationals,” added Chuck. He and his wife have also travelled to Crailsheim, Germany and square danced there.
“Don and I have been to (Crailsheim) five times,” added Camery. “They always managed to have a dance while we were there.
“It’s because of the square dancing that we got so well acquainted with the people over there,” she added.
As a club, the Turkey Trotters did more than just square dance when they gathered, and it’s the social aspect club members will miss the most.
Camery said years ago the club had a golf outing and summer picnic to which dancers brought their entire family. It also hosted a February Frolic for several years that Bernice and her husband, Don, planned, and would often get 50 to 60 dancers together to take part in an annual hoedown in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“That’s no longer going, either,” Jackie said.
Up until a few years ago, the Turkey Trotters had an annual entry in the King Turkey Day parade as well.
“We often said, we wonder what our lives would have been like if we hadn’t gotten into square dancing,” Camery shared. “What would we have done all those years?”
Square dancing is a couple’s activity, but not everyone remaining in the Turkey Trotters still has their spouse to dance with.
After Camery lost her husband, it was the Moores who got her back on the dance floor. Though she and Don had talked about staying involved in the club after one of them was gone, Camery said that first time back was difficult. There were so many memories, and also some worries about who she would partner with.
“She danced every dance that night,” Chuck recalled.
“We agreed that the one was not going to just sit home and mourn the loss of their partner,” Camery said of the deal she made with her husband. “We would keep on volunteering and keep on doing what we were doing and keep on square dancing.”
With the loss of a partner, Camery said several women in the Turkey Trotters have learned to dance the man’s part so they can continue dancing.
“There are a number of single widows and you want to see them dancing,” added Jackie.
“One time they needed a woman and I filled the woman’s part. I think that created more anxiety,” shared Chuck with a smile.
The final gathering of the Turkey Trotters will be Dec. 9 in the Farmers Room of the Nobles County Government Center. They will have a light meal at 6 p.m., with dancing from 7 to 9:30 p.m., mixed in with some reminiscing about the club. Dean Fishel, a former Turkey Trotter, will be the caller.
After the final dance, the Moores and Camery say they plan to continue square dancing, though they will have to travel. The nearest square dancing clubs are in Sherburne and Sioux Falls, S.D. Both communities still offer dance lessons to attract others to join in.
“I’m sure they’d welcome you to learn,” said Chuck.