Chicago's black community has always been known for dances like “the bump,” “the robot” and “the electric slide.” But they are also known nationally for a good old American folk dance, and there is one very special woman that put them and Chicago the map.
Chicago is known for talented people like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Kanye West, but there is a jewel in the black community that's right behind park district building doors and you may not know about it.
These dancers are known as the Southside Squares, the only remaining black square dance club in Chicago. They were once considered the largest and most respected black square dance group in the country.
While square dancing may evoke images of old fashioned hoe downs, this club dumped the dosey-does for modern tunes James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. The costumes are more casual with less ruffles and more leather.
Most of the dancers have gathered here for over 40 years. They call each other family and were even featured at the one of the inaugural balls for former president Jimmy Carter.
However, much of the club fame is due to one special woman: Swersie Dumetz Norris. She was the first black person to become a square dance caller at the national level.
According to Susie Dumetz-Cole and Diana Dumetz Carry, two of Swersie’s daughters, she used her famous smile and quiet determination to face off against racial barriers.
“When you go to the conventions when she was first starting out she is African American and there is still prejudice out there at that time and so not everybody would let you dance with them,” Dumetz said. “What was great about it was that she had the personality and we had the knowledge of square dancing that allowed us, they didn't mind after awhile."
Family and friends reminisced about happy memories with Swersie. They remember her work with handicapped adults and her popularity as a caller at Chicago's gay and lesbian square dances.
Diana and Susie traveled with their mother on her trips coast to coast as a celebrity caller at state conventions, on cruise ships and even as a special guest on the Phil Donohue Show. Swersie even taught Donohue how to dance on national TV.
"We don't normally think of square dancing as part of the black experience,” Donohue said. “Do women call as often and as successfully as men?”
"Some of us do, yes,” Swersie said. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years."
Swersie’s career began as a high school music teacher at Washington High in Chicago. She was part of a group of teachers that pushed to include square dance in the curriculum and give students a safe haven for recreation.
Diana remembers her mother being very involved with her students.
"At the heart of what she did was understanding young people, understanding how to engage young people,” Carry said. “Our house was the hub of the neighborhood. We were the family home and everybody came to our home. All the kids came and all learned square dancing in our basement. In fact Jeanne Moutoussamy, who married Arthur Ashe later down the line, she used to come to our basement and square dance too.”
Swersie’s signature call was to “When the Saints Come Marching In” and she earned the nickname “Bubbling Brown Sugar” because of her fast paced calling.
She died in 2001, but her legacy as a trail blazer for both blacks and women includes a new crop of nationally and internationally known black square dance callers. Daughters Diana and Susie continue to dance at special occasions
The Southside Squares club are still going strong. They are also hoping for a new generation of dancers to join them and perhaps make another mark in history. Square dance is the official dance of 19 states including Illinois.