Larry and Susan Sperry run an auto service center by day, but they’re dancing fools by night.
“We’ve danced in waist-deep water, we’ve danced in parking lots, we’ve danced on moving floats, we’ve danced on a curling rink,” Larry said.
The couple is co-chairing the 2010 Montana State Square and Round Dance Festival taking place in Billings this weekend. They started dancing together when they were in high school in Missoula after their parents set them up through a dance class.
It’s now been 50 years since that first dance.
“We may have a bad day, but when we go out we just forget about it and enjoy the music,” Susan said. “It’s worked for us all of these years.”
About 250 dancers from all over Montana and several other states are expected to attend the festival. Members of the public are also invited to participate, but they must already know how to follow square- and round-dance cues.
The event, which comes to Billings every five years, features such dances as choreographed cha-cha, waltz, foxtrot, rumba, swing and square dancing.
“These are people who just love to dance and travel,” Susan said.
It’s easy to see why Susan might make a good dance partner: her eyebrows angle dramatically over her eyes as she smiles, spreading the warmth of her grin across her entire face. And Larry, a stocky man who moves quickly as he repeatedly hops up from his office chair to greet customers, knows how to set her in motion.
“He’s got a mathematical mind, so he’s good at finding a good rhythm,” Susan said of her husband of 41 years.
Susan, on the other hand, has “musicality, the ability to follow, good body flow and motion,” Larry said.
As they talk about the festival, Larry and Susan sit in his office at the Poly Conoco, a business that he bought after working there as an employee for 28 years. Between them hangs a brightly hued painting by W.A. Guy that depicts the couple kicking up their heels at an event in Saskatchewan.
Through dancing, the Billings couple has traveled to the Caribbean, Canada, Hawaii and many other states as instructors and cuers, who preside over dance floors by announcing the next movement.
There can be between 20 and 30 figures, or movements, to cue in a given dance rhythm, but the more complex dances involve as many as 150 figures. Cuing the figures is like turning a music box knob to set a ballerina in motion; it keeps the partnered dancers twirling smoothly counter-clockwise around the ballroom.
“The dancers get the instructions for every measure they need to dance,” Larry said. “Everybody is doing the same steps to the same piece of music.”
The Sperrys began cueing and teaching dancing in the ’80s after they moved to Billings. They’ve taught through the Silhouettes Round Dance Club, the National Carousel Club 318 and other groups. They say that partner dancing can help couples feel more connected and teach those in new relationships how to work together.
“There’s a whole other psychology and dynamic about teaching people the difference between a single couple and a married couple,” Susan said.
The Sperrys are master dancers now. But it’s taken them years of commitment to amass a body memory of the many figures that could be called in a dance.
Partner dancing, especially square dancing, may have a hint of “old-folks stigma” to it, as Susan puts it, but the Sperrys say it has kept them spry. Unlike many other hobbies, bad weather cannot get in the way of dancing, and they’ve spent many a night tearing up the dance floor to their favorite foxtrot and jive rhythms with friends.
“(It) has a lot of benefits that people wouldn’t think about, and that’s social contact, exercise and just pure enjoyment of the dance and of your partner,” Larry said.
Contact Kahrin Deines at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1392.