When Jim and Tammy Melton do-si-do toward their 60th wedding anniversary next year, it won’t be the first milestone celebration that’s been thrown in their honor.
The Vinemont couple, known for decades in North Alabama’s tight-knit square dancing community, walked in on a surprise Saturday at the Vinemont Community Center, where around 100 people — many from out of state — were waiting to spring a party on them to commemorate spending more than half their lives keeping a time-honored part of Americana alive and thriving.
If you square dance in this part of the country, there’s a good chance who know who the Meltons are. Jim’s been calling dances for decades, back when the music relied on records instead of computers. Originally from Anderson, Indiana, the couple moved to Alabama when Jim took a job at Nicholson File in Cullman — where he worked more than four decades until retiring in the 1990s.
Neither Jim nor Tammy much cared for square dancing at first. Married and in their early 30s, friends from work tried to get Jim interested — but in the early going, he wanted no part of it.
“Some friends of ours up in Anderson, where we were living at the time, they squared danced. And they tried to get me to come along and square dance with them, and I wouldn’t do it. I just didn’t want to,” he explained. “Well, they kept at me, and eventually I agreed. Finally I said ‘I’ll do it — one time.’”
After a few sessions, it was Tammy who thought maybe they’d stepped into something that wasn’t for them. “But after we’d gone and done it a few times, I said, ‘We’re not quitting this. We are going back,’” Jim jokes.
From there, it wasn’t long before Jim wasn’t just swinging his (at first) reluctant partner; pretty soon, Tammy warmed to the tradition too, and he began calling dances — a task that came with its own hesitations.
“When I started calling, I started in by myself, and at that time in Indiana, all the callers — they wouldn’t help you,” he explained. “They didn’t want you coming in on their territory. They took it seriously, and so I had to learn it as I went along.”
When the Meltons first moved to Cullman, their daughters Kelly and Jama — then in high school and middle school, respectively — already were part of the family’s square dancing tradition. But, as Kelly observed Saturday, it’s a piece of culture that seems to be eroding with the passing of time.
“When my sister and I were kids, that’s what mom and dad did. Dad was around 30 when they started dancing, and we were going to those dances when we were kids,” she said. “I’d say the average age at the dances now is probably around 65.
“I don’t dance now,” she added, as Jama nodded that she doesn’t either. “But back then, the whole family danced. Square dancing now is not near as big as it used to be — especially with younger people. But for mom and dad, square dancing has always been their life. And I really think it’s kept them, in some ways, young.”
Now in their 80s, the Meltons are still part of the local Friendship Squares dancing club, and they still show up at the East Point Community center on Tuesday evening, where the club gets together each week. Tammy’s had to pull back from active dancing following a recent health issue, but Jim still calls dances — even for clubs in Decatur and Florence, whose memberships were well represented in Vinemont Saturday to honor the Meltons’ life inside the square.
If you’re interested in learning more about a tradition with roots dating back to America’s earliest days (and beyond), check out Cullman’s Friendship Squares (their slogan is “Friendship set to Music”) online at friendshipsquares.alabamasquaredance.com.