“We go as far away as we get booked,” Gipson said. “Some of us go to Palm Springs, San Bernardino and San Diego.”
On any Friday or Saturday night, there’s a square dance somewhere in Southern California where a caller is needed, said association President Jim Smith.
Callers travel, much like club DJs of the younger generation, carrying sophisticated speaker and amplifier setups, bringing something from an Old West culture to a landscape dotted with strip malls and crisscrossed with freeways.
They call — a practice that involves singing and giving instructions for the next step — to mostly middle-aged dancers belonging to clubs with names such as Shirts and Skirts, Guns ‘n’ Garters and Orange County Lariats.
The region’s square dance circuit includes an estimated 60 dance clubs, a third of which are in northern Orange County, including Anaheim, Garden Grove and Westminster.
Gipson, a construction superintendent for Shea Homes, teaches square dancing two nights a week in Buena Park. He has another class in Santa Monica, with lawyers, dentists and college professors.
“It’s not the cowboy who just came off the ranch anymore,” he said.
To become a member of the callers association, the candidate must be recommended by an established member, Gipson said. It can take years to learn the intricate rhythms and steps. The pay can be $300 and up at big dances.
Some, such as Gipson and Smith, are certified through the International Assn. of Square Dance Callers, which has standardized the calls, so dancers in Oregon can square dance to a caller in Florida without skipping a beat.
Nationally, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 callers, said John Letson, executive director for the American Callers Assn., based in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Most callers consider it a hobby, although some do it full time, said Gipson, who on a busy week can make $500. But there are full-time professionals earning $60,000 to $70,000 a year, he said.