They come from 49 states and nine foreign countries, and they come here to dance.

More than 5,200 dancers are expected to participate in the 61st National Square Dance Convention, which begins at the Convention Center today and runs through Saturday, sharing one day with Hoopfest.

"We get quite a number of late registrations, so we may make it to 6,000 dancers," said Don Pruitt, general chairman of the convention together with his wife, Cheryl Pruitt. The convention is organized by the Washington Square and Folk Dance Federation and features square dancing, round dancing, line dancing, clogging and some folk dancing.

"It's a very active group," said Pruitt.

And it's the second-largest convention ever to hit Spokane. Only the BMW Motorcycles of America convention in 2004 drew a bigger crowd, with 6,200 attendees, according to the Spokane Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Keith Backsen, vice president of sales for the bureau, said the square dance convention is expected to bring $14.19 million to the Spokane area.

The group will be spending time and money throughout the county, said Backsen, adding that attendees are staying at 16 hotels from Mirabeau Park Hotel in the Valley to Northern Quest Resort and Casino on the West Plains, as well as in 150 dorm rooms at Gonzaga University and in 200 RV parking spaces at the fairgrounds. Shuttles are set up for transportation downtown.

Early in the planning process there was some concern about having a huge convention at the same time as Hoopfest.

"But these groups complement each other," said Backsen. "The Convention Center during Hoopfest has always been empty, and Hoopfest is not all over downtown or all over the park. This is a good match."

Pruitt and the other volunteer organizers behind the square dance convention are not worried about sharing Spokane with a 27,000-player, three-on-three basketball tournament.

"We have worked on planning this for six years," said Pruitt. "It's going to be just fine."

The last National Square Dance Convention to come to Washington was in 1981 in Seattle.

Watch reporter Pia Hallenberg discuss the square dance convention on KHQ


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When Spokane was proposed six years ago, it quickly became a popular destination.

"We had lots of people tell us they'd love to go to the Inland Northwest," said Scott Marriner, a media coordinator for the convention. Conventioneers also can take part in activities off the dance floor, such as tours to Green Bluff, the Silver Valley and Wallace and several boat cruises on Lake Coeur d'Alene.

And this is an alcohol-free event.

"You are not supposed to come to a dance if you've had even one drink," said Marriner. "It ruins your coordination."

The dancers who are traveling the farthest come from Australia.

Marriner said the convention is not focused on competition.

"Some of the younger dancers will compete, but us older folks, we just go to dance," Marriner said with a smile.

The youngest participants are barely school-age, and the oldest participant is honorary publicity chair Genevieve Churchill, who is 101 years old.

"That's what square dance does for you; it's cardio so it's good for the body and for the heart," said Neva Reid, publicity chair of the convention, "and it's good for the soul because it makes you feel good."