The 2012 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association in Boston

The Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) conference attracts a wide range of presentations, from critical analyses of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to panels about body image, dance, masculinity, or religion. It also brings several publishers who set up displays and sell an assortment of books. When I was a graduate student, I presented my Bulgarian dance research at the PCA/ACA conferences in 2004 and 2005. Natalie King-Crews and I presented original research about new classroom technologies and electronic resources for dance education at the PCA/ACA conference in 2008. It was through the 2008 conference that I learned about the opportunity to become an author for Greenwood Press and I applied to write the “Folk Dancing” book. Therefore, I felt it would be appropriate to return to the PCA/ACA conference in 2012 to do a presentation about my recently published work.

April 11, 2012
After a sleepless redeye flight, Nick and I arrived in Boston at 6:17 a.m. on Wednesday, April 11 at the Copley Marriott. We checked into the conference at 8 a.m., left our luggage behind the desk, and wondered what to do until the activities started. We contemplated booking a room at the hotel to rest, but the rate was around $500/night due to the upcoming Boston Marathon. To pass time, we walked up and down Newbury Street feeling like zombies, looking for the building which formerly housed the e-publisher Xplana Learning, where I worked in 2006-2008. We saw the company’s original location above Sonsie Restaurant and then walked across the street to Trident Booksellers and Cafe for brunch. We returned to the hotel at noon and rested in a friend’s room until my panel time. With 12 people in the audience, I gave the following presentation, including a 5-minute video consisting of short dance clips from our book tour. The notes in brackets provide some additional information and were not part of the presentation.

Honor Your Partner: Square Dance and Community Values in America

Hello, my name is Erica Okamura. My presentation today is about square dancing: Honor Your Partner: Square Dance and Community Values in America. My research on this topic began in 2008, when I received a book contract from Greenwood Press/ABC-Clio to create a reference book about the history of folk dancing, to include square dancing. I learned about this opportunity through the 2008 PCA/ACA conference, so it’s a great honor for me to present here today and bring my project full-circle. If you would like additional information about my book, please see me after the Q&A.

How many people had square dancing in PE class? [6 people raised their hands] How many people have done square dancing recreationally? [6 people raised their hands] No matter what your experience has been — whether you really enjoyed it, or whether you thought it was completely hokey — one thing is for certain: Square dancing is an important part of American culture. You can go virtually anywhere in the U.S. and find a regularly scheduled square dance that meets weekly or monthly, and you might even come across a special dance weekend, festival, or convention that attracts enthusiasts from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

In the Boston area, you can find square dance almost every night of the week, including a type of square dance unique to New England known as contra dance. If you have time, I encourage you to investigate the local contra dance scene. The music is always live, and in Boston you’ll get to hear some of the best contra dance bands in the nation.

Just to give you a sense of what square dancing is like today, and the variety that exists, I’d like to show you a short video of square dances. This footage was taken when my husband, Nick, and I went on an East Coast book tour last fall.

See the Square Dance Video on YouTube

Where did square dancing come from? American square dance, in its many regional forms, predominantly evolved from the European group dances that were popular in the English and French courts before the 19th century. These group dances were designed for male-female couples, and they were done in square, circle, or parallel line formations. Each group of dancers is called a “set.” There could be multiple sets on the dance floor at the same time. People knew the dances ahead of time because they had taken lessons from a dancing master.

The earliest known publication about these group dances is John Playford’s “English Dancing Master,” originally published in 1651, with more than a dozen editions to follow.

These images were adapted from the 1651 publication, and they represent the different group formations for couples, each gender represented by a symbol, the ladies to the right of the gents. The parallel line set was known as longways. When Playford wrote “longways for as many as will,” this meant that any number of couples could join the set. These type of dances became increasingly popular in the 18th century, because if a couple wanted to dance, they did not have to sit out if all the positions in the sets were already taken. The next wave of popular group dances were in square formation, and the most popular was the Quadrille, which reined ballrooms in the 19th century. France especially influenced dance fashion throughout Europe, and European immigrants brought their popular dances with them to North America.

In American cities, the dances were done in ballrooms with full orchestras. As people traveled, the dances spread out to rural areas and had to evolve. The most common rural instrument was a fiddle, and sometimes people made their own instruments. As the dances continued to Americanize, a caller was added. It’s possible that some of the first callers may have been African American slave fiddlers who played in the Big House and observed the dances, then taught the dances in the slave quarters by calling out the movements as the dance was happening. People danced in kitchens and barns, wherever they could find space. In farming communities, adults pushed the beds together and put the children to sleep, and they ate and drank together and danced until sunrise. In the rugged West, cowboys were known to hold dances where, in the absence of women, men played both genders’ dance positions.

These community celebrations with music and dancing took on different names in different regions. In New England, for example, a common name for a dance was a junket. Popular terms were “country dance,” “barn dance,” and “square dance.” In New England, people went to a square dance and did all kinds of group dances and possibly even some couples dances like the Waltz, Polka, or other couples dance forms that had gained popularity in the 19th century. At this time, Americans still followed European dance fads. It was not until the 20th century that Americans began to realize the value of their own dance forms.

By the 20th century, group dances were no longer popular in trendy city ballrooms, and a craze known as the Animal Dances — such as the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear — swept the nation. Moralists considered these dances to be scandalous, because they were highly improvisational, with sharp and angular movements, and they allowed men and women to dangerously close to one another. These dances also were linked to African American identity, which, for some racist people, might have been enough cause to dislike these dances. Around the same time, a folk dance movement was blossoming in American public schools. Schoolteachers believed that carefully selected European peasant dances would be good physical exercise, particularly for girls who were not supposed to engage in competitive sports. Theoretically, these folk dances also would teach American values such as cooperation and democracy.

Around the time of World War I, Americans began to wonder if they had any original folk dances. They began to recognize their own rural community dance forms as valuable for both education and recreation, for children and adults alike. In the 1920s, a few schoolteachers and researchers traveled to remote areas to document the dance traditions that still existed. Around the same time, Henry Ford launched an “old fashioned dance revival.” It was not about promoting rural dance forms, but rather the elegant ballroom dances that had been popular the previous century, and Ford was particularly fond of the Quadrille. Ford’s extensive outreach, through school programs, a radio show, and even the first Quadrille records, helped to repopularize dancing in a square formation. In a way, his old-fashioned dance revival was a bridge to the recreational square dance scene, based on traditional rural dance forms, that would take off shortly thereafter.

In the 1920s and 1930s, city people generally believed that rural dance forms were rowdy and unrefined. However, callers such as Herb Greggerson and Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw created square dance exhibition groups that demonstrated 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 create 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 at most, 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, and soon a standardized type of recreational square dancing began to develop. This nationwide recreational movement was started by Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw, and then it was driven by Bob Osgood of Southern California. In the 1960s, this dance movement became known as Modern Western Square Dance.

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 dance clubs sprouted up across the country, but within a few years people began to get tired of the memorized dances. Callers and dancers began to experiment with choreography. PA systems and microphones enabled large groups of dancers to clearly hear the caller, and eventually there was no need for memorization; instead, dancers had to listen to the caller in order to know the next figure. Callers developed many ways to visualize and manage choreography in order to give Modern Western Square Dancers what they wanted: fun, spontaneity, and challenge. Over time, dance leaders also established organizations and levels, so that dancers had to graduate from one level or program before moving onto the next. This way, people who shared similar knowledge were able to dance together.

Another type of square dance culture evolved in New England, apart from the Modern Western Square Dance movement. In the Boston area, caller Ralph Page was largely responsible for keeping the traditional New England dances alive in the first part of the 20th century. In the mid-century, another caller joined the scene named Dudley Laufman, a young charismatic man who lived in a cabin with a dirt floor and grew his own food. He attracted young people like himself and set in motion a traditional square dance movement directly tied to the Back to the Land movement. The Dudley dances, as they were called, featured a loosely organized orchestra known as the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. These dances grew in popularity and inspired many people to learn how to call and play instruments, and people began to adapt the choreography to make it more energetic as well. Longways dances became the preferred type of formation, and the dance events became known as “contra dances.” New England contra dance spread across the nation in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Contra dance enthusiasts do not organize like Modern Western Square Dancers in terms of lessons and levels. Anyone can go to a contra dance, take a brief lesson before the dance, and know enough to participate in the dance that same evening. It is a different type of culture that prides itself on being homegrown and inclusive. Contra dancers generally change partners after every dance, whereas most Modern Western Square Dance clubs have been for married couples and people stay with the same partners for the entire evening. By nature, the contra dance community also has been more welcome of people with alternative lifestyles, which has not always been the case in the Modern Western Square Dance world.

In the past, many Modern Western Square Dance clubs did not welcome GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) dancers, so these dancers began to form their own clubs. The first gay clubs were founded in the 1970s. But not everyone who participates in the gay Modern Western Square Dance scene is gay. A lot of heterosexual people also participate. The gay Modern Western Square Dance clubs tend to attract younger people, they do not enforce a dress code, and they encourage partner-swapping during a dance event. The gay Modern Western Square Dance clubs also add “flourishes” to preexisting square dance calls. This includes extra spins, handclaps, and verbal responses. Gay Modern Western Square Dance culture tends to be more liberal than the dominant Modern Western Square Dance culture, and it is common to hear sexual innuendos and playful commentary on gender roles.  

There is no single best way to experience square dance, and all dance communities have something valuable to offer. In the past, Modern Western Square 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. The crossover between Modern Western Square Dance and contra dance is less common, however. The cultures attract different types of people with different movement preferences, expectations, and values. In the 1980s, a group of Modern Western Square Dancers wanted Congress to pass a bill that declared square dancing the national dance of the United States. But many people opposed this idea, including several leaders in the contra dance community. They believed that Modern Western Square Dancers’ idea of square dance was limited to a particular square dance culture. Furthermore, does square dancing truly represent all Americans? To declare a dance form with such strong European heritage as a “national” dance form, in a nation where people come from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, can be problematic.

In summary, when we talk about square dance, it’s useful to clarify what kind of square dance we mean. Today, square dance is still taught in some PE classes, and it is a great activity to teach students about American history and culture. Interestingly enough, though, it seems like most people who despise or even ridicule square dance had a negative experience with it in school. This is because they are forced to do the movement without getting the community essence and understanding what square dancing is really about.

How can schoolteachers foster appreciation for square dancing? I asked several square dance callers this question in Arizona, where I live. [Note that this is the opinion of a handful of Modern Western Square Dance callers and does not represent everyone who participates in square dancing.] The responded as follows: The biggest mistake teachers make is playing old, hokey records with a scratchy fiddle. Square dancing can be done to any music with a strong beat, preferably 4/4, because dancers step to the beat. Have students bring in their own music and preview it beforehand.  

Secondly, it’s best if an actual caller comes in to do the lesson, because he or she understands the fine nuances of calling. It is an art form that requires engagement with the dancers, whereas teachers sometimes bury their nose in a book and try to keep up with the calls. A simple Internet search will easily help you find callers in your area, and most of them are very willing to do outreach with kids because they want to see their activity continue into the future.

Finally, whoever is leading the dance session, have fun and don’t worry about messing up. The students will take their cues from the leader, so if the leader is intimidated by the material or pokes fun at the material, the students will follow along. If the leader knows the material and appreciates it, on the other hand, the students will understand why it is important.

To conclude, important elements of a good square dance experience are as follows: good, relevant music [note that some callers have much success using traditional square dance records; it’s all about how the caller presents it]; an experienced leader who knows how to engage the dancers; and creating an experience that’s low-pressure and fun. If these elements are in place, students are more likely to have a positive square dance experience. That concludes my presentation today. I’ll be happy to answer any questions during the Q&A.

Only one other person showed up for the dance panel (of four total), so there was plenty of time for discussion. One question for me was about traditional gender roles in contra dancing, which ended in a summary about the gender-free contra dance movement. I was planning to attend a gender-free contra dance in Jamaica Plain on Saturday night and invited everyone to join (one attendee came with her boyfriend, and they had a wonderful time). Another question was about techno contras, to which I replied that they were more of a novelty and didn’t threaten to replace the tradition of live music that is so prevalent in contra dance culture. Since I hadn’t mentioned anything about techno contras in my presentation, I figured I was speaking with a knowledgeable contra dancer. I inquired, and she replied that she was missing what would be her first techno contra in New York by attending the PCA/ACA conference. Another question was about the video segment that showed contra dancers adding swing dance movements to the choreography, which currently is a trend in North Carolina.

After the presentation, Nick and I went to see our hosts for the week, Elif (my friend from Xplana days) and her husband, Doug, in Sommerville. We ate dinner at their house, homemade chicken nuggets and spaghetti with spinach, split a bottle of red wine, and turned in for the evening.

April 12-14, 2012
Nick and I didn’t leave the house until noon the following day. We had sandwiches for lunch and got the conference just in time to see an interview with George Takei. Some people in the audience were wearing Star Trek pendants and shirts. We took seats in the third row, almost in line with center stage. People were taking photos with their cameras, iPads, and even laptops.

Takei was a dynamic, sincere, and inspirational speaker, tracing his life from youth in an Arkansas Japanese internment camp through his television career and his gradual process of coming out. The overarching message that Takei left the audience with was one of activism and human rights; that our nation is only as democratic as people make it. Just as Japanese Americans were discriminated against during World War II, certain groups continue to face discrimination today. Takei has been actively promoting human rights, from his humorous campaign to say “Takei” instead of “gay,” when the word “gay” was banned from some schools (“Because Takei rhymes with gay,” he smiled) to his brand new Broadway musical about Japanese internment camps (to paraphrase him, “What better way to address this serious subject than musical comedy?”)

We hoped to get Takei’s autograph at the evening reception, but the line was a mile long. We struck up a conversation with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer enthusiast who invited us to a Buffy sing-a-long (I was not aware that Buffy was the first television show to do an all-musical episode). Nick and I had only seen one episode of Buffy, so we didn’t have much to add to the conversation. We wished the young woman luck in getting Takei’s autograph on the back of her notebook, and we left the event to have dinner with our friends Silvia and Venko at an Indian restaurant near Davis Square.

Nick and I attended a few panels on Friday and Saturday, but the only memorable one was about representations of masculinity in popular culture. The presenters were well-prepared with lots of visual examples for people who were not familiar with movies or television shows. One man even did his presentation on “truck nuts” and brought a prop to hang from the desk. Crude as truck nuts may seem, the presentation was incredibly insightful and well-formulated, examining whether truck nuts should be viewed as lewd or freedom of expression. The manner in which he wrote his paper had the audience in stitches. An elderly woman remarked that she hadn’t laughed that hard in years and that the presentation was excellent, but any truck nuts on her grandkids’ vehicles would magically disappear overnight. It’s not that presenters need a controversial topic to be interesting; the other panelists (covering topics of baldness, cross-dressing, and the evolution of male role models in the movies) also did an excellent job.

In comparison, the dance panel we attended was disappointing, filled with technical jargon, rambling, outdated research, and lack of sufficient visual examples. Perhaps not all the dance panels were like this, but for a particular panel I was confused, bored, and even embarrassed as a member of the dance community. It is hard enough to get the larger academic community to consider dance research anything but trivial. It doesn’t help our cause when dance educators at a national conference give half-assed, hurried presentations filled with big words to give the semblance of professional research. I can’t help but wonder if some people go to PCA/ACA only to check a box for faculty research requirements.

I’m glad we attended the conference. It was important for me to go there, because PCA/ACA was how I found out about the call for authors in 2008. After this year’s conference, Nick is even inspired to create a presentation for the conference next year. However, as an independent scholar trying to promote a book that would be an excellent resource for dance educators, it was probably not the best venue for me. The dance panels had low attendance and no dancers showed interest in my book. We left some copies of the CDSS book review and some informational postcards on the brochure table outside the conference rooms, but every time we walked past the table my resources were covered up with other papers. We have had much more success reaching out to dancers, whether selling books or simply talking about the book, at social dance events.


May 5, 2012. Uncategorized.


  1. Ryan replied:

    As an avid contra dancer, it makes me really happy that there are people researching this stuff. This entry is a neat, succinct summary of the scene and the current state of the art.

    I find it interesting that techno contras got brought up. There’s a whole host of interesting things that come up with those, especially as they’ve spread (and yet, interestingly, largely attract a subset of the same groups that are coming to the traditional contras with live acoustic music). There seems to be room for both in addition to the other really fun dance traditions you’ve mentioned. 🙂

  2. Erica replied:

    Thanks Ryan! I was surprised by the techno contra comment too. It was fun to discuss the contra community with a bunch of people who have background in modern dance, ballet, bell dance, etc. I hope that some of them get inspired to check out contras in person 🙂 What’s there not to love, right?

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