El Camino Reelers

Square Dance calls to “Do-Si-Do,” “Promenade” and “Roll Away To A Half Sashay” became a welcome pastime for the LGBTQ community to socialize, stay active and sometimes even find love. 

The El Camino Reelers is a modern Western Square Dance club in the South Bay, formed in Palo Alto in September 1985 by lesbians and gay men looking to have fun and meet open-minded people.

More than three decades later, members continue to square dance to country music and traditional folk, as well as soul, disco and show tunes inside St. Andrews United Methodist Church, 20 minutes west of San Jose.

Tickets to attend the smoke-free and alcohol-free environment never require a partner, fancy outfit, coordination or knowledge about dancing. Members don’t even need to be part of the LGBTQ community.

This is far from an isolated phenomenon in the South Bay.

Marilyn Martinyak Pat Dixon
Marilyn Martinyak (left) and Pat Dixon (right)

El Camino Reelers were part of a wave of LGBTQ square dancing clubs that popped up nationwide, after intramural social “teams” first organized in Miami in January 1977. That same year, square dancing found its way 3,000 miles west in San Francisco, and three GLBTQ square dance clubs had formed by 1981.

Eventually, two members of San Francisco’s Western Star Dancers — Marilyn Martinyak and Patricia Dixon — started El Camino Reelers as an alternative to the clubs an hour away in the city. Marilyn and Pat were together for 27 years before marrying in Sunnyvale in 2008.

Early membership was comprised of mostly women during initial classes, but attendance grew through word of mouth and advertisements in newsletters of LGBTQ organizations, including High Tech Gays.

Within a year of its inception, El Camino Reelers became a member of the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs. As of 2021, the IAGSDC includes more than 80 clubs – primarily in the United States and Canada – and hosts an annual convention that brings together more than 1,000 dancers.

The El Camino Reelers became well-known as a “geek repository” due to its location in Silicon Valley, and members who worked at Adobe, Sun, Google, and Yahoo. The club lived up to that reputation in 2005, when they hosted more than 800 attendees at the 22nd annual convention, dubbed “Star Thru The Silicon Galaxy,” at the Marriott Santa Clara. Several smaller weekend gatherings, called “fly-ins,” were held every fews years in Cupertino, Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Jose from 1995 to 2010.

The El Camino Reelers are one of a dozens of clubs across the Bay Area, but remain the sole LGBTQ-specific organization in Santa Clara County.

The last live club night was Wednesday, March 11, before the Covid-19 pandemic halted in-person gatherings and activities. Virtual club nights resumed on April 14, hosted through Zoom every other week.

More information can be found on the El Camino Reelers website, as well as within the IAGSDC History Project, founded by Allan Hurst, a dancer, caller, and writer from Sunnyvale, California.