A fiddle sounds bluesy notes, the cue for Carter Ackerman to start singing.
“Four ladies chain about three quarters,” he croons to “Fever,” the torch classic. “You turn that girl and roll away.”
Little Willie John and Peggy Lee never uttered those lyrics on their hits, but then, the singers didn’t have to direct 32 square dancers shifting around a gymnasium like a human kaleidoscope.
From the stage, Ackerman gazes out at the four-wheeling squares, microphone in hand, his buttery voice sliding over the downhome version of the pop chestnut spinning on his turntable.
“Fever, when you hold me,” the dancers hear. “Swing that girl and promenade. Fever, when you kiss me. Fever, all through the night.”
Decades after the square-dancing bug bit him, Ackerman’s passion for calling continues to burn.
He has called local Centre Squares club weekly dances and been a guest caller elsewhere since 1963. He and his wife, Ruby, helped found the club when they moved to State College in 1960, and its members last month honored the couple for their leadership at the club’s 50th anniversary celebration.In those 50 years, there have been too many Star Throughs, Pass the Oceans and other called steps to count, but Ackerman is still as captivated as he was as a teenager at his first dance in a small Minnesota town.
It’s up to him to keep the dance flowing, to choose the calls that set the couples in motion, trading partners, weaving in and out and then returning in time to the music. Every dance renews a balancing act. He must engage some but not discourage others; keep the best dancers on their toes while not catching the lesser ones flat-footed.
“What the dancers don’t want to think is you’re up there trying to be a better caller than they are dancers,” he says.
Long ago, he learned that calling requires more than fluency and timing. Friends laud him for his patience, especially in the weekly classes he and Ruby hold to teach square dancing and round dancing, a form of ballroom dancing with calls. One night, after a wrong turn or two, might require a bit of extra instruction delivered with a 100-watt smile and a tone mellow as hot chocolate.
“He reads his audiences very well,” says Glen Carter, a Centre Squares member.
It’s a skill his wife admires. She loves square dancing, but leaves the intricacies of moving people around to her dance partner since high school.“No, if I did that, they’d bang their heads together.”
Waltzing through life
Ackerman is calling — but this time, for any dancers. He’s looking at an empty floor during a regular Centre Squares dance at Pleasant Gap Elementary School.
“Let’s see if we have any takers for a very smooth two-step. Very smooth,” he says of the round dance he has in mind. “Any takers on this one? Doesn’t look very promising.”
He proposes a polka instead, which draws several couples from the chairs along the wall. From a case, he selects a 45 rpm record — one of more than 3,000 disks in his collection — removes the clear sleeve and places it on his $2,000 Hilton AC-205 turntable. It’s a special square dance caller model, capable of also playing CD tracks and MP3s from a laptop.
After the record is in place, Ackerman calls out to his wife in the back. “Let’s dance this one,” he says. “I can call and dance at the same time.”
Their waltz through life began near Oak Ridge, Tenn., where both their fathers worked at the Manhattan Project base. His was an electrician, hers a bus dispatcher and construction worker.
In high school, she went to a basketball game with her date, a football player. An older classmate on the court caught her eye, and she turned to a friend.“I said, ‘Boy, that Ackerman has nice legs,’ ” she recalls.
So much for the football player.
“I started being friendly with (Carter), and the chase was on,” she says. “And I got him.”
He had already fallen for square dancing. In the early 1950s, he spent summers working on his uncle’s prairie farm near Pipestone, Minn. One Saturday night, they took him into town for a dance.
Modern square dancing, more complex than the age-old folk variety, had spread after the war from California. Ackerman was impressed.
“It was something I had never seen before,” he says. “Immediately, I liked it because of the geometry and the music, the symmetry, and the people having a good time dancing together. All that appealed to me.”
His first lessons came from a library square dance book. Today, a novice needs about a year to learn enough figures to participate at an intermediate level. Back then, though, dances were simpler, and Ackerman quickly absorbed the basic steps.
At the University of Tennessee, he continued dancing — and romancing his high-school sweetheart. She, however, did not do-si-do. Only after her graduation, their wedding a day later on June 2, 1958, and their move to Los Angeles the next day did she join the fold.
A budding engineer, he went to work for Hughes Research and Development Laboratories while pursuing graduate studies at the University of Southern California. The couple found a downtown square dance club, which helped them search for a home.
She took her first class, several lessons behind everyone else.
“It was work,” she recalls. “We used to stand in our dining room and walk through some of the maneuvers, to remind me what to do.”
When she became pregnant with the first of their three sons, her dancing stopped, but the couple picked it up again once Ackerman started a Penn State doctoral program and a job at the Applied Research Laboratory in 1960.
His boss’s hobby turned out to be square dancing. He introduced the Ackermans to local enthusiasts, and Centre Squares formed. After three years, the first caller quit. Ackerman, who had been practicing at home with a few records, volunteered for the mike.
“I said, ‘I’ll take over temporarily until you find another caller,’ and now 47 years later, I’m still here.”
Lord over the dance
A beginning class is in session, and Ackerman delivers a lesson to couples stepping to Western swing.
“You four people circle right once around,” he says, soon instructing, “Right hand on top, underneath. Then promenade clockwise.”
He estimates that he and Ruby have taught at least 2,000 dancers during his years as a caller. “Teaching is always a big part of being a modern square dance caller because people have to learn the moves,” he says.
Various steps mix the couples around. Some move hesitantly, but none of the squares fall apart.
“At this point, you all have your original partners you started with ... I hope,” Ackerman says, another genial smile beneath his full head of silver hair.
“He’s very patient,” says Nancy Welshans, a Centre Squares member. “I’d be tearing my hair out at some of the things people do.”
Technology helps. On his mike, a discreet button lowers the music’s volume during calls and instructions. “They can’t dance it if they can’t hear it,” he says. His turntable also can slow down a fast 45 rpm record slightly to ensure his calls are understood.
Ackerman’s empathy for beginners learning to Box the Gnat and Wheel and Deal stems, in part, from his own journey. A caller, he says, takes five or six years to develop a mature style. In his case, he also studied with a local singer who made him practice Italian arias. All the vowels, he remembers, provided good training.
“I’ve always had a strong sense of rhythm but I had to improve my sense of pitch,” he says.
As a veteran caller, he’s adept at both “singing” calls — which mix sung lines and specific calls for the song — and “patter” calls, during which he strings together calls and essentially makes up the dance as he goes. Like a chess player, he must think of several moves at a time.
“You don’t want the dancers to stop and wait for your next step,” he says.
His wife credits his “analytical mind” for helping him keep track of dancers and maintain order, but he admits mistakes still happen. The key, he says, is to make a light joke and move on. Diane Jankura, a State College resident who takes Ackerman’s class and had him call her bridal dance, likes his easygoing manner.
“Every now and then, he’ll get tongue-tied, but like with the rest of us, it’s no big deal,” she says.
The bottom line, Ackerman says, is that square dancing and calling are supposed to be fun. And for him, almost 60 years after he walked into a small-town dance, they still are. As long as he can remind dancers to bow to their corners, he’s not ready to bow out.
It’s an easy call to make for someone still willing to channel Elvis at a dance.
“I don’t want a four-leaf clover, a rabbit foot on a string,” he warbles, once again making them whirl and twirl. “I want a good-luck charm hanging on my arm, to have, to hold, tonight.”