To some of us it seems that Clark Baker was born square dancing but actually, he didn't start until third grade. Although he danced quite a lot in grade school, he says he didn't think about it much "but just did it". Then, in 1974, as a college sophomore, he took the MIT crash course. Miriam Alexander (Baker) and Mary Beth Finch (Tersoff) were also in that class. Mike Tersoff, John Sybalsky, Rachel Morris (Carey) and Bill Mann were also part of Tech Squares then.
In early 1975 John Sybalsky offered a Challenge Basic 100 course; Clark was part of this 3-4 square group which also included Miriam, Mary Beth, and Mike Tersoff. Clark says he was blown away when John called things like pass in and swap around! John says "Clark didn't stand out in the group."
After completing the course, Clark and his roommates organized a tape group called "Those Kids". Mike Tersoff was their advisor. When they finished what was then C3, they asked to join the Norm Poisson C2 group "Venomites" and soon after joined the C3 group "Poissonites". They were later voted into "Deadlyites" but not without controversy. Some members argued that "those kids will change square dancing forever" — they were right. The kids, as they were called, began dancing in a tape group at MaryLou and Danny Ryan's house. There was some resistance from other dancers since the kids were all young, single (and probably) brash nerds from MIT; but as Mary Lou pointed out, they could dance, and that is what mattered. This tape group was part of Mass Tape groups, an organization that sponsored live dances 3 or 4 times a year; the caller list included Jimmy Davis, Ross Howell, Jeff Barth, Dave Hodson, Keith Gulley, and Ed Foote.
John Sybalsky says Clark hasn't really changed a whole lot; he is still irreverent, still strangely socialized and still a master of the you-didn't-really-say-that. He told two stories to illustrate this. The kids didn't have regular partners and John remembers Clark saying of the women in the group, "Well they are all interchangeable parts". He also remembers when Anne Symanovich made a special square dance dress for her birthday and Clark said, "Here comes Anne in her birthday suit". Kathy Burrowes knew this brash young group of MIT dancers and says that "Even Clark has developed a lot of tact over the years". "Those Kids" immersed themselves in square dancing and they spent a lot of time talking about definitions, positioning, and how things worked. This was especially true of Clark; he even did his undergraduate thesis on square dancing. His thesis was a program that tried to create smooth flowing choreography. He also learned to use and modify computer typesetting tools and was involved in such things as creating the index for Burleson and helping Don Beck typeset his book for callers.
Clark started a group called "More Kids" with John Sybalsky as the caller. This is where Clark got his own calling start with one tip per week as a guest caller. When John left the area, Clark became the regular caller. Clark still has a fat notebook of handouts he created for that group. Rachel credits him as the first to include pictures "with knobbies for faces". The handouts included puzzles and problems and this evolved into his book, The Challenge Square Dancing Handbook written in 1978 and still a classic most of us own.
In 1976 they started going to Long Island for the October C3/C4 weekend with Lee Kopman. Here they met a new C2 couple who watched; the couple was Paul and Carol Galburt. They became friends, and the Galburts hired Clark and John Sybalsky to call for weekends at their house. Rachel was part of the group that drove to Long Island for these weekends and remembers staying up late talking about concepts and positioning. She credits the group with bringing more precision to challenge dancing; she says "it was the right group of people to hash through fuzzy ideas and define them more precisely". Paul says many discussions went late into the night and were so spirited the Galburts installed special carpeting to deaden the sound and keep from waking the neighborhood. Paul also remembers video taping the dancing and carefully analyzing the tapes. Clark speaks nostalgically of those times at the Galburts and when he started the New Year's weekend at Lakeshore Farm, he wanted to capture some of the fun of that time.
Back then the National Challenge Convention was invitational and there was only one hall where the floor level was C2 1/2 with star tips. In 1976 their local tape leader, Mary Lou Ryan, vouched that they were competent to attend. Clark became the organizer for after hours and lunch time "hard stuff" which evolved into the C4 hall as it is today. Bill Heimann remembers the kids at convention wearing black t-shirts and being young and better than anybody, but not arrogant about it and dancing with everybody. John Sybalsky remembers being at a Butler convention when some guy with a crew cut came running up and asked if he and Clark made tapes—the guy was Bill Heimann. Clark remembers the early conventions in Butler, Pennsylvania as the best years because "there was only one hall and we were all together. The more halls they had, the worse it got."
Bill Heimann first remembers meeting Clark at a Challenge Convention in Butler where Clark was handing out his Challenge Square Dancing Handbook. Bill devoured it on the plane on the way home and thought it was marvelous. He says it is "positively the best thing ever written about square dancing and quite brilliant". The next clear memory Bill has of Clark is at a Lee Kopman October weekend sometime in the late 70's. He went with two pages of questions; he and Clark spent all the time between tips discussing those questions. Bill was enthralled and says "this started a friendship that included lots of talking on the phone and discussing strategies to overcome difficult problems". An example he remembers is dixie spin. The strategy in this case meant recognizing that dixie style was a difficult call that most people did by feel but needed a precise definition to work from all positions. Once you could do dixie style, dixie spin was easy.
Their phone relationship continued and they talked at least every two weeks. Bill taped the conversations so others in his area could benefit from the discussions. He remembers being at a dance in the New York area where Juanita Barschi came up and said "the reason I can't dance as well as you is I don't get to hear all these tapes"; so Bill made a copy and sent her one.
Bill describes Clark as a significant figure in challenge dancing. He says people used to discuss caller accuracy at great length after each dance. He credits Clark with changing the precision, not just for himself, but influencing all challenge callers to be more accurate. He also says Clark was a major innovator in creating interesting resolves. This was a significant change in square dancing away from a boring beginning to set things up and a boring ending to bring people home. He also called Clark "the Johnny Appleseed of square dancing". He has this image of Clark at Cherry Ridge sitting under a tree talking first with one group, then with another. Some people were status conscious, but Clark talked to everyone. Booking at Cherry Ridge was also a tense and horrible status thing; Clark responded by nailing his booking sheet to the wall for anyone to sign up on.
Clark and Miriam were married in 1980 and (surprise) they included square dancing at their wedding. They went to East Hill Farm for their honeymoon where Clark attended caller's school; I think we can say dancing was a serious addiction. Although Clark had been calling for several years when he attended caller's school, he did so badly on his singing call, that he was nearly placed in the beginner's class. Bob Gambell convinced the teacher that he really belonged in the advanced class despite his poor performance.
When Clark and Miriam bought their house, a space to dance in was an important feature. He credits Bill Heimann with the idea for a matrix on the floor and their dance space has a black and white tiled matrix to dance on (you often hear Clark say "Do you know what spot you are on?" or "Black spots, please"). Several groups worked, and continue to work, on challenge dancing in that space, including all of the Boston area C4 dancers. Kathy Godfrey points out that "the Boston area has been unique in having a caller run workshop to bring dancers up to C4. Kathy also says "Bill (Ackerman) and I owe a lot to Clark for allowing us to call at his Sunday night group". Clark is active in local caller groups, which is rather surprising since the world he calls in is quite separate from theirs, and theirs is often antagonistic toward challenge dancing. When asked why he gives so much of his time to local caller groups, he replied that he is interested in how they think and likes to contribute what he can. He also organizes and schedules the challenge hall at the New England convention.
Clark wrote the program he uses to write his material in 1983. He says that people doubted computers could be used for writing material because dancing wasn't precisely defined. Bill Ackerman says, "Clark showed you could not only define things precisely enough but also write creatively using a computer. Clark was definitely the right person to introduce this innovation." When asked what effect computers have had on dancing, Clark said they force more precise positioning and definitions; there are also fewer sequences that don't work. Using a computer to write material also makes it possible to use some call and concept combinations that would be difficult to work out with checkers. He and Paul Galburt later adapted the program to run on PC's and it is currently used by 70 challenge callers around the world.
As for his own impact on square dancing, he names his book, his computer program, and an influence on the style of C4 dancing that has more rigor and difficulty. The Boston area is known for its technical approach to dancing and Clark Baker is at the center. Bill Heimann says he has the "utmost respect for Clark" and sees him as a major factor in the evolution of challenge dancing. Paul Galburt said he agrees with Bill but would state it even more strongly and say that Clark is a pivotal figure and that if it weren't for Clark, we wouldn't have what we have. Clark has really defined what C4 has become. John Sybalsky said, "One of the greatest joys of my challenge square dance life was hashing over a new idea late at night with Clark and watching it take form. His skill at taking a vague idea and giving it a precise form and life is his greatest contribution to challenge dancing." Kathy Godfrey says "One of the amazing things about Clark is that he is still so patient and enthusiastic after so many years in the activity and he absolutely never let it go to his head. And that is one of the reasons that so many people like and respect him." Bill Heimann calls Clark the "father of throwing out the puzzle for the dancer to solve". All of the people I interviewed expressed a great deal of admiration for Clark and I do, too.