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LOLO – If we are a civilization in decline, is it possible to chart that descent alongside the slow erosion in the popularity of square dancing?

Bobbie Bartlette thinks so.

“I understand that square dancing isn’t what it used to be, and I have to say that it worries me,” said Bartlette, who runs the Lolo Square Dance Center and Campground on Highway 12. “Square dancing is really about getting together with people and socializing and making friendships. As a people, we don’t do that as much anymore. It worries me that there could be something coming that will require us to really come together as human beings and I’m not sure we’re going to be able.”

Bartlette isn’t suggesting that the community spirit forged by square dancing is the answer to worldwide strife, but then again, it wouldn’t hurt.

“Any time you spend the day dancing, listening to music and talking to others is good for you,” she said.

Bartlette has been dancing for a half-century, and seems all the more cheerful for it.

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Dancing has been the family business and way of life, a haven from the demands of a career, and the path taken to meet her husband, Barry.

“Dancing has been pretty good to me, I’d say,” Bobbie Bartlette said recently on a walk around the 27-acre property, which is still owned by her mother, Afton Casbeer. “That Barry and I can be doing this, something we really love, after having our careers is really special.”

The two grew up in square dance families, Bobbie in Missoula and Barry in Livingston. Their dads were both square dance “callers,” and the men likely knew one another from traveling the dancing circuit.

“It’s a pretty tight group, so they would definitely have met one another over the the years,” said Barry Bartlette, whose pre-dancing career involved managing hydroelectric facilities for the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Both Bartlettes grew up dancing, and some of Bonnie’s fondest memories the involve the “squares” – a dance group of eight – of kids who would gather on the periphery of their parents’ dance gatherings.

“We were always just as happy as we could be,” Bobbie said. “Back then square dancing wasn’t an old-person sport.”

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Those kids all grew up, of course, and Bobbie went on to a career as a scientist at U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula. Barry went into dam management, but they both kept dancing and Barry stepped into his father’s shoes as a dance caller.

By the mid-1990s, Barry had finally transferred back to Montana, working at Canyon Ferry Dam, which holds back the Missouri River and created the reservoir.

At the 1996 state square dance convention, Barry met Bobbie and love bloomed.

“I felt like a pretty lucky guy, getting to come back to Montana after being away for awhile, and then finding someone like Bobbie, who loved what I loved,” Barry said.

Bobbie soon brought Barry home to her parents, Ray and Afton Granger, who’d been running the Lolo square dance center along with a campground that catered mostly to RVs since 1978.

“I told my dad that I’d brought home someone he could really like,” Bobbie said.

In fact, the caller Ray Granger was pretty tickled when he heard his prospective son-in-law call a dance.

“He’s doing it the right way,” he told his daughter.

Bobbie and Barry married in April 1997 and Ray Granger died the next year, throwing the dance center/campground’s future into doubt.

Despite some doubts, Barry took early retirement from the Bureau of Reclamation and he and Bobbie took over the family business.

“We were scared to death that first year, but it’s all worked out,” Bobbie said.

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Although the Bartlettes’ year is filled with square and round dancing, it’s really the 61-site campground that sits in the ponderosa pines between Highway 12 and Lolo Creek that pays the bills.

“You’d like to be able to make a living off of dancing, but that’s just not really in the cards,” Barry said. “We do have a lot of people in the campground in the summer who are here for the dancing, but we wouldn’t make it if we were just running dances and clinics.”

The business is actually threefold, with part three being Afton’s Square Dance Apparel, which occupies a large room in the back of the dance hall and represents a trip into both the past and present of square dancing.

The traditional petticoats associated with square dancing are displayed with other clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on a casual Friday at work.

“There has always been a style to the dress, and there is something elegant with the skirts that flow and twirl,” said Bobbie. “But the fact is, you can dance in just about anything and just as happy.”

Just about anything, that is.

“There are still some gentlemen dancing in their cowboy boots, but once they wear a pair of real dancing shoes, they never go back,” she said.

There’s also this: While the Bartlettes present square dancing as an egalitarian hobby open to those of all ages and creeds, if you show up with buttons on your shirt, you are going to feel somewhat out of place.

“It’s sort of all about the snaps,” Bobbie said with a laugh.

“The nice thing is these shirts work out pretty good as work shirts when you’re done dancing in them,” Barry said.

It’s the end of May and the campground is bustling. By June, the campground will fill with folks who come for the round dancing.

“June is sort of a round dancing time for us,” said Barry.

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But the coming summer is also the season of one the campground’s most enjoyable and curious undertakings: Wiffle Ball golf.

It’s precisely as it sounds, a game of golf played through the trees with a plastic golf ball and a single club. The course has nine holes, but each has two separate tees, so you play eighteen.

It’s fair to say, as Barry and Bobbie do, that the entire course is played “in the rough,” but that takes away nothing from of the enjoyment.

“People really enjoy this course, but I tell you, if you play with your own clubs, you’re making a mistake,” Barry said with a grin. “This course is not kind to your clubs.”

With that, a visitor trying to chip in from 20 feet struck some extremely solid rock on his follow-through, proving the wisdom of playing with the house’s clubs.

“Told you,” said Barry.

Maybe you’ll come out for the golf, but more likely you’ll come for the dancing.

Know that when you do you will not only have a good time amongst good-hearted people. You’ll also be striking a blow for civility and community, and thus doing your part to make the world a better place.

“I do think we’d all be better off if we danced a little bit more,” said Bobbie.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or by e-mail at mmoore@missoulian.com.

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