Let’s Talk about Square Dancing

The early European settlers brought their dances (which were often the dances of the English and French royal courts) to the New World. The most popular dances before the 19th century were group dances. English Country Dance (a group dance for couples in various formations — square, circles, lines) traveled to France, the French created a new dance form called Contradanse based on English Country Dance. The French also created a similar dance form called the Cotillon based on a French peasant dance. Contradanse and Cotillon sometimes were confused for one another, because it was common to do both types of dances in square formations.

The Contradanse and Cotillon were combined to produce the Quadrille, a direct ancestor of American Square Dance. The Quadrille was popular in American ballrooms in the 19th century, along with closed-position (and sometimes highly controversial) couple dances such as the Waltz, Polka, Schottische, Varsouvienne, etc. Americans in cities generally followed the European dance fads, as taught by dancing masters and documented in dancing manuals. These dancing masters and dancing manuals did not always reach the remote and rural parts of America, so people in remote and rural areas relied on their own dance knowledge and improved using the resources that they had. They did not have full orchestras, like in the city ballrooms, so they often relied on a solo fiddler. European group dances did not have a caller, but Americans adopted a caller for their group dances by the early 19th century.

The rural community dances in America took place in barns, kitchens, schoolhouses, firehouses, and other places. They were known by a variety of names, and sometimes they were simply known as “the dance” or the “square dance,” where dances in square formations were very popular. Square dance events also could have circle dances or line dances, and they could still be called square dance events. People went to these dances to socialize and for entertainment, and to meet potential spouses. They didn’t have television in those days. Unmarried men and women were not supposed to be seen in public together, so the dancing gave young people an opportunity to flirt and court. Adults brought their babies and young children to these dances, and they often put the youngsters to sleep on beds pushed together, and then the adults danced the entire night. The dance culture differed in each part of the U.S. In some parts, people farmed year-round and didn’t have time for dancing except during the winter holiday season. In other parts, people danced on a more regular basis. Circle style dances were popular in Appalachia, long line dances and Quadrilles were popular in New England, and Visiting Couple style square dances and couple dances (Round Dance) were popular in many parts of the West. As rural people moved into cities, and as new forms of entertainment (namely the cinema and television) swept over America, rural community dances began to decline.

In the early 20th century, a folk dance movement swept over North America and England. It originated in response to urban anxieties. Folk dancing was a “cure” for children, the urban poor, and new immigrant groups — for their health, social betterment, and assimilation. These early folk dances were European social dances, selected for qualities recognized by leading educators and social reformers — health virtues, to promote democratic values, and so on. English dance enthusiasts visited the U.S. in the early 20th century and launched and English dance movement. Around the time of World War I, Americans wondered whether there were any valuable American dance forms that could be incorporated into the quickly growing folk dance movement. American educators and folklorists began to collect songs and dances in remote and rural regions. Also, importantly but indirectly related, in the 1920s, Henry Ford launched an old-fashioned dance revival to bring back the old Quadrilles that were popular in the 19th century. He helped renew interest in refined group dances, so it was a short leap for Americans in cities to latch onto similar rural dance forms.

In the 1920s and 1930s, city people generally believed that rural dance forms were rowdy and unrefined. But then people like Herb Greggerson and Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw created square dance exhibition groups that demonstrated American Square Dance. Such callers and exhibition groups promoted a smooth style of rural dancing, and showed city people that rural dance forms did not have to be rowdy and rough. City people began to form recreational square dance groups and clubs. At first, they borrowed the dances from their own regions. Texans did Texas dances, New Englanders did New England dances, and so on. In each region, there were only about 20 calls, and the main parts of the dances could be memorized. In other words, the dancers knew what to expect. Then callers began to travel. They met for workshops and shared knowledge with each other. Herb Greggerson and Pappy Shaw organized some of the first caller workshops. Pappy Shaw promoted the “cowboy” dances of the remote west, and callers in all regions began to teach these dances. Because many of Shaw’s dances were the Visiting Couple dances that inspired the Modern Square Dance movement, Square Dance historians generally trace the beginning of square dancing as a recreational activity to Pappy Shaw.

The recreational square dance movement took off after WWII, largely related to the growth of the record industry. Young men were home from war, and square dancing was one activity they could do to meet women, or share with their sweethearts. Square dancing was recognized as a patriotic activity, as well, and this was significant in the Cold War era. Square dance clubs sprouted up across the country, and people began to get tired of the original dances. Callers and dancers experimented with choreography. PA systems and microphones enabled large groups of dancers to clearly hear the caller, and the choreography continued to evolve so that dancers had to listen to the caller in order to know the next figure. This is the main factor that differentiates Modern Western Square Dance from other square dance forms — dancers must actually listen to the caller! They do not know the dance ahead of time. It is important to remember that this is a modern type of dancing that really became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The bicentennial in 1976 inspired public interest in square dance, and Modern Western Square Dance was a new, exciting dance form based on tradition that was there to fulfill this need. The Country Western and Line Dancing movement also introduced many people to square dancing in the 1990s.

In the past, many MWSD clubs did not welcome gay dancers, so gay dancers began to form their own MWSD clubs starting in the 1970s. Surveys from the 2009 IAGSDC (International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs) convention show that many GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) people joined the MWSD movement in the 1990s. A lot of them encountered MWSD through Country Western and Line Dancing. Some gay MMSD clubs actually had their weekly events at gay Country Western and Line Dancing bars, because they could not find space elsewhere. The surveys also show that over 75% of IAGSDC convention attendees were male. But not everyone who participates in the gay MWSD scene is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. A lot of heterosexual people (singles and couples) also participate. The gay clubs tend to attract younger people, they do not enforce a dress code, and they encourage partner-swapping during a dance event. The gay MWSD clubs also add “flourishes” or “fluff” to preexisting square dance calls. This includes extra spins, handclaps, and verbal responses. The gay MWSD culture tends to be more liberal than the dominant MWSD culture, and it is common to hear sexual innuendos and playful commentary on gender roles. The first time a caller calls for a gay square dance group, he or she may feel awkward calling “Ladies Chain” for a square comprised entirely of men, but the dancers understand that that’s the name for the call, and that “ladies” refers to specific positions within the set, not necessarily one’s own gender. The author’s conversations with dancers who have traveled to Europe indicate that European clubs have been more welcoming of gay dancers, so separate gay MWSD clubs are not common in Europe.

The MWSD movement has been declining since the 1980s, and if dancers want to continue to enjoy fun recreational dancing, they must reach out to other communities and consider other ways of dancing. There is no single best way to experience square dance, and all dance communities have something valuable to offer. In the past, MWSD dancers generally preferred to dance with people who were like themselves — mostly married couples. Today, increasingly heterosexual and gay dancers are attending each other’s events. Barb Klein, who participates in both types of groups, explained:

When the gay group first started trying to dance with the straight groups, particularly men were a little uncomfortable with two men dancing together . . . which is funny because men touch men in straight groups too, because that’s what the calls do. When they start realizing that—first of all, that the gay guys or women are just regular people; and often they’re the better dancers—not always, but lots of times they’re really strong dancers—it became very desired to have them, because you need enough dancers to make squares. You want enough people. (interview by author, January 10, 2009)

The Modern Western Square Dance movement has a Contra Dance component, as affiliated with CONTRALAB. This is different than the type of Contra Dance popularized and shaped by the counterculture and young activists in New England, which then spread throughout the nation. Contra Dance is New England Square Dance. It traditionally included squares, circles, and dances in parallel lines (known as longways). Nowadays, the longways dances are the most popular, and a contra dance event will typically feature all longways dances and perhaps a Waltz before intermission and at the end of the evening. The (non-CONTRALAB) Contra Dance community almost always uses live music, and the music has strong ties to the British Isles and French Canada. Contra dance bands have a range of styles, and some of them even incorporate popular tunes into their songs. A major difference between the Modern Western Square Dance and Contra Dance communities is that whereas MWSD is not repetitive, Contra Dance repeats the same 64-count movement sequence over and over. The dancers get variety by constantly dancing with new people within the set, and by improvising within the choreographic structure. It is a different type of dancing, and it is as modern as MWSD, even though it is considered to be more “traditional.” Modern people do it, and the choreography is very different than the Contra Dance choreography from the early 20th century — and very different from even the 1970s choreography!

Contra Dance is a type of square dance. Modern Western Square Dance is a type of square dance. And there are other recreational groups that meet to do other types of square dance, such as the Visiting Couple variety! So when we talk about square dance, it’s useful to clarify what kind of square dance we mean. It is also important to remember that Modern Square Dance is relevant to a particular time in American history and it appeals to a particular group of people. Just like anything else, social dancing is tied to social, cultural, political, and economic trends. Dance forms must continue to adapt if they are to remain relevant. It is perhaps an oversimplification to say that folk dancing died out when school dance programs were cut. The statement carries some truth, and many people who call themselves folk dances and square dancers will say that the end of school dance programs contributed to the decline of their activity. But the lifecycle of a dance community is extremely complex, inseparable from larger cultural and social trends. My book includes a more detailed history of square dancing, vetted by expert historians, so please check it out if you’re interested!

CLICK HERE to pre-order Folk Dancing from Amazon.com!

List of Chapters:

1. Native American Dances

2. African American Dances

3. European Dances

4. Origins of the Folk Dance Movement

5. American Folk Dance Activities

6. International Folk Dance

7. Modern Western Square Dance

8. Contra Dance


June 22, 2011. Tags: , , , . Square Dance.

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