High school do-si-do

SARANAC LAKE – Forget the Harlem Shake. Gagnam Style is a thing of the past. And twerking? That’s so last week.

The newest and biggest dance craze among teenagers is apparently square dancing. Or at least that’s what you would have thought if you walked into the Saranac Lake High School gymnasium Friday afternoon.

Dozens of students were arranged in squares of eight people, promenading and do-si-doing their partners around the gym as Plattsburgh square dancing teacher Gary Finney called out their steps to the beat. The only thing they were missing were overalls, plaid shirts and straw hats.

“Square dancing is where it’s at,” junior Dylan Kilner told the Enterprise during a break in the hoedown.

“That’s what we look forward to about coming to school,” added sophomore Alyssa Reyell. “People have been coming in from their study halls just to square dance. It’s just fun.”

For one full week each school year, typically the week before Thanksgiving, high school physical education teachers Jason Wamsganz and Kelly Spadaro bring in Finney to teach square dancing during gym class and free periods.

“Beth Sullivan and Jim Thompson, who were at the high school before Kelly and I, they got the ball rolling with this, and it really took off with the kids,” Wamsganz said.

Spadaro moved up to the high school last year after 17 years of teaching elementary physical education. She admits she didn’t believe the hype about how popular square dancing would be.

“For this age group, I didn’t think it would fly,” Spadaro said. “I was so surprised how well it was received. This year is even larger than last year, the turnout.”

Wamsganz described it as an activity that builds camaraderie among the students.

“I feel like they come together as a school when they do this,” he said. “We don’t really pressure the kids to do it. We hope that they’ll realize it’s kind of a cool thing to do.”

“Jason and Kelly have created an atmosphere where they take the kids out of their comfort zone, and they like it,” said school Principal Josh Dann. “Look at all these kids. Half our school is down here.”

Friday afternoon’s session was Finney’s last of the week. At least 100 students crowded onto the floor, joined this time by Dann, district Superintendent Diane Fox and several other teachers and staff. Other students stood or sat along the walls of the gym watching the action, including recent SLHS graduates Jenny Mott and Blair Moody. They said they came back because they heard square dancing was happening this week and they miss it.

“I’ve absolutely been in love with square dancing since we were in ninth grade,” Mott said. “I came in every class period I could to do it.”

This isn’t just a one-time school visit for Finney, 75, who said he’s been calling square dancing since he was 11 years old. He teaches square dancing in schools across the North Country.

“I’m in Tupper Lake,” he said. “I’m here. Next week I’m in Westport. The following week I’m in Bloomingdale for a week. Then I’m in Northern Adirondack and Northeast Clinton. I’m all over.

“The kids really enjoy it,” he added. “How many things will you come into this gymnasium for and see all the kids in the school here together participating? Probably not many.”

As the Enterprise spoke with Finney during a break, a student approached him, said her mom was looking to book him for a party and asked for his name and contact information.

For many students, high school can be stressful at times, especially given the current climate of high-stakes testing and new state education mandates. A week of square dancing is a welcome relief from that stress, Dann said.

“We should do this all the time,” he said.