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Montana Square Dance Festival held at Billings MetraPark for last time

A bittersweet moment for one Billings square dance caller
Posted at 7:33 PM, May 26, 2024

BILLINGS — Square dancers from all over the state made their way to MetraPark's Cedar Hall in Billings this weekend for the 53rd Montana Square Dance Festival. It's the last time the event will be held at MetraPark, a bittersweet realization for one Billings square dance caller.

Hunter Keller has been a part of the square dancing community since he was two weeks old.

“Been in this hall my entire life,” said Keller, one of the two featured callers for the festival, on Saturday.

His family took him to Cedar Hall for his first square dance.

Billings native Hunter Keller in front of MetraPark's Cedar Hall

“They used to put me in the car seat or the carrier and put me on the stage underneath the table, and they would go dance,” Keller said.

Their love for square dancing rubbed off on Keller. He started attending square dance lessons as a teen when his grandmother said she would buy him a car if he tried it.

Keller enjoyed it so much that he started experimenting with his late grandfather's record collection from when he was a caller.

It wasn't much later when a mentor asked him to bring an old record and a microphone to a class.

“Plugged my microphone in and I thought, oh he’s going to use my grandpa’s record and my microphone. That’s really cool. And he says okay Hunter, it’s your turn,” recalled Keller.

Dancers strut their stuff during the 53rd Montana Square Dance Festival

That was 20 years ago and now Keller is a household name within the square dance community across the region. He's called in 46 states and has traveled to Japan, Germany, Sweden, Taiwan, Denmark, and Australia to call.

MetraPark's Cedar Hall in Billings was where he honed his craft.

“We’ve been in this hall since the late 80s. Square dancers went in, they put the floor in the hall, they put the burlap on the walls to make it sound proof, put the ceiling in,” Keller added.

Cedar Hall, however, will no longer be a part of his stomping grounds. With the dwindling numbers of the square dance community, Keller said the Yellowstone Square Dance Council can't afford the increased rent that MetraPark is charging.

MetraPark's Cedar Hall

“It’s hard for me ‘cuz after being in this hall my entire life, now looking at next season I’m not going to be, but that’s okay. It’s just another thing that’s changed. A lot of memories here but it’s good,” said Keller.

Calling the Montana Square Dance Festival's last event at Cedar Hall is extra special, as it's his first time calling with one of his mentors, Tony Oxendine.

“He’ll call something and I’ll go, that’s really cool and so I’ll put that in the back of my head to use next time. And I’m sure there’s dancers here that are going, oh no, now Hunter’s going to use that,” Keller added.

Keller met the South Carolina native in 2008 when Oxendine was teaching at a caller school in West Yellowstone and took him under his wing.

"You look up to these callers that you think, I'm never going to meet. You know, I've got all their records and stuff. They're superstars in this activity," said Keller.

Tony Oxendine and Hunter Keller call the 53rd Montana Square Dance Council together

Oxendine had founded Royal Records in 1985 with Jerry Story, another one of Keller's role models. They signed Keller onto their label as a recording artist in 2008, giving him the opportunity to travel to Nashville, Tennesee twice a year to record music.

"It's pretty cool to walk in to those places. They've got photos on the walls of these massive mega stars and it's like, no way, these people stood right here and now I'm there. So that's always kind of cool to see," added Keller.

Oxendine is also a former Chairman of the Board for CALLERLAB, an international organization of square dance callers, and a recipient of their highest award, The Milestone.

For Oxendine, traveling to Keller's home town to call together is a heartwarming experience.

“That’s the cool part is watching these guys. He was a little snotty kid and to watch him grow up and mature to be a really good caller,” Oxendine said.

Tony Oxendine

Oxendine said Keller's unique compared to other callers.

“He’s the only mortician square dance caller that I know. He was a full time caller for quite a while but his love was always being a mortician. He studied and passed all the tests. He loves it but it is weird. I don't think I could do it," joked Oxendine.

Though his day job is starkly different than his evening gig, Keller hopes to breathe life back into the past time that he loves. He's found an opportunity to do so as a newly elected member of CALLERLAB's Board of Governors.

"We're kind of in a stage now where we're looking at trying to change some things. See if we can't rebuild our activity back to, if not to what it was before, certainly rebuild it a different way," Keller added.

Hunter Keller calling the shots at the 53rd Montana Square Dance Festival

Keller said all walks of life are welcome to do-si-do their troubles away at any of the Yellowstone Square Dance Council's practices and events.

“That’s kind of what I want to do and want to make these people get through whatever they’re going through. 'Cuz you don’t know what they’re going through and so if I’m able to bring a little joy to them, that’s a good thing,” said Keller.

The Yellowstone Square Dance Council will be holding their future club meetings, practices, and events at First Presbyterian Church on 13th Street South and Poly Drive in Billings for the foreseeable future. You can find more information here.