The auditorium at Marine Park isn’t usually as crowded as it used to be.
Santa Monica’s officials square dancing club, the Red Ribbon Squares, has seen its numbers dip in recent years as people have moved away, pursued other interests or given up the hobby to care of their families. And the group now organizes dances just once each month, a far cry from the days when events were held almost every Saturday.
“It’s getting to be a dying art,” longtime member Ruth Michaelson said.
The local club’s slow decline in membership — it now has about 45 active dancers, according to Michaelson — is mirrored by the discipline’s withering throughout the region.
When Michaelson started square dancing about 20 years ago, there were five relatively accessible clubs in the area. Now, aside from the Red Ribbon Squares, the closest dances are run by an organization called Heels and Souls and held at the Felicia Mahood Multipurpose Center on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles.
“We are dwindling,” she said. “And it’s happening to clubs all over the country. … I hate to blame everything on the computer, but kids just don’t get out anymore.”
Square dancing’s waning popularity seemingly underscores just how impressive the local group’s longevity is. Earlier this year, the Red Ribbon Squares celebrated their 65th anniversary. A big dance is planned in January for No. 66.
And despite recent trends, the group still hopes to be around for many years to come. Last month, organizers held a free dance to showcase the art form to the community, drawing what Michaelson called a “huge turnout.”
But it takes more than watching one dance or attending one class to understand the nuances of square dancing. It’s a long process that takes considerable commitment, Michaelson said, and it requires regular practice.
“It takes months to learn,” she said. “You can learn a couple moves, but then you’ve got to remember them, and then the next week you learn a couple more moves, and the next week you learn a couple more. But it takes a good 17 weeks just to get the basics.”
Classes are held on Tuesday nights, and the regulars — known as “angels” — assist so that all newcomers have partners.
The local club also practices line dancing, which doesn’t require a partner. That’s actually how Michaelson got roped into square dancing about two decades ago: She saw a newspaper advertisement for line dancing, showed up for a lesson and quickly got “hooked” on square dancing.
Michaelson also fell in love with the sense of camaraderie in the group. During her years as a Santa Monica College jewelry instructor, she led classes at the Marine Park auditorium off Marine Street east of Lincoln Boulevard. One day, as she was setting up, square dancers who happened to be there helped her put out chairs for her students.
Her story is woven into the history of the Red Ribbon Squares, who have been dancing at the local park’s auditorium since the late 1950s. Earlier this year, Mayor Tony Vazquez signed a commendation that acknowledges the group’s durability.
The dance group has organized outreach efforts in recent weeks, doing a demonstration for the local Kiwanis Club and also performing at the Lions Club’s annual pancake breakfast.
“We try to say, ‘Hey, come on down,’” Michaelson said. “The best recommendation is word of mouth. We can accommodate just about anyone.”
For more information, visit redribbonsquares.org.