At 89, Fresno's Ernie Kinney is world's oldest square dance caller

The Fresno BeeMay 13, 2014 

Ernie Kinney still commands a room of square dancers.

At his calls, women swirl their square dance skirts with petticoats while their partners shuffle their feet like there's no tomorrow in a class that Kinney teaches Thursday nights at Clovis Senior Center.

At age 89, he is the "oldest active square dance caller in the world," according to Callerlab, an international organization for square dance callers, based in Topeka, Kan. Callerlab had about 625 square dance callers attend its national convention in April in Sparks, Nev., including Kinney.

On Saturday, Kinney and the Traveling Pioneers square dance club in Clovis will put on a square dance demonstration as entertainment at a job and health fair from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Clovis Memorial Veterans Building, 808 Fourth St. Saturday is Armed Forces Day. Kinney, a U.S. Marine who fought in World War II, and the Traveling Pioneers will perform at 10 a.m.

Stewart Thatcher, president of the Traveling Pioneers, says square dancing has had a special appeal to people for a long time.

"It's great entertainment and great exercise," he says. "The thing that my wife (Verna) and I like about it is there's no alcohol and no hanky panky."

Thatcher says square dancers throughout the world owe a great deal to Kinney, who has called square dances in all 50 states as well as in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Japan and England. Square dance is called in English in nearly all countries.

"A lot of people just come to dance to Ernie, because of his fame," Thatcher says. "He has been all over the world. He's been there and done it.

"If you're into square dancing, you've heard of Ernie Kinney — and most have danced to him."

Kinney, who lives in Fresno, says he always has been involved in music. So it was natural for him to take up square dancing in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The year was 1960.

Kinney was part of the Coalinga Country Cousins and Cantua Creek Buckles Ruffles square dance clubs, both called by Rabbit Oquinn. When Oquinn quit, Kinney became the caller for the Cantua Creek group.

He hasn't stopped calling since.

Kinney was a teacher and superintendent at Cantua Creek Elementary School for 24 years. After retiring in 1976, he had more time to call.

"I like people, and I have trained hundreds of square dance callers," he says. "If you don't like people, you should do something else.

"I told my teachers the same thing: 'If you don't love children, get yourself another job.' "

He says the number of square dancers has dropped significantly over the years because people are too busy.

"A friend of mine says people aren't square dancing because they are sitting at computers instead," he says.

Yet, Kinney continues to preserve an important part of history.

"I'd like to do that," he says. "But I think I am going to retire in the next 15 years."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304, or @ronorozco_bee on Twitter.

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