History of Square Dance

Modern Square Dance grew mainly from two roots: the English Country Dances and the Appalachian Big Circle Dance.

Country Dance is mainly a figure dance, where two or more couples form figures as e.g. circles, stars, waves ... or dance on interwoven paths. The movements are synchronized to the structure of the music. We know practically nothing about the roots of this dance form. The following idea is pure speculation: If you look at the art works of the Vikings with their interwoven ornaments, you might think, that a people who could devise, understand and enjoy such patterns, could as well devise, understand and enjoy dance pattern which later became Country Dance. When in 1651 John Playford published the first known book about Country Dance, he described a dance form in full blossom, with fixed terminology and standardized, but widely varied sequences. In the first edition of Playford's book there are dances in many different formations. In most cases, men stand on one side, women on the other. but there are also some dances where four couples stand on the sides of a square. (And they were named, as a matter of fact: "Square Dance".)

In the Rococo era, the English dances became popular in France too. French dancing masters traveled to England to study this kind of dancing, and then spread it throughout Europe. They adapted the word "Country Dance" into "Contre Danse", i.e. dances of opposition.

In England they danced more and more "Longways", dances in long lanes where the men stood in one long line opposite their partners in a second line. Here, the couples change places regularly, so that each couple has a chance to be "on top" in the place of honor. In France, the high society preferred to dance in the Quadrille- (i.e. Square-) formation, where each couple retains its place, and the gentleman has his lady beside him.

In the American colonies, dancing was not much different from the motherland. But when the colonies fought for their independence, and were helped by France, it became "bon ton" to prefer the French style to the English.

Appalachian Big Circle Dance also comes from England. But it was a pure folk dance and was first described in a book in 1917 by Cecil J. Sharp. Here, within a big circle, always two couples dance together. The movements are not so much geometrical figures but little pantomimes: "Birdie in the cage and three hands around" (a girl steps into the center, the other three circle around her); "Around that couple and take a peek" (the active couple tries to look at each other behind the backs of of the inactives, who try to hinder them); "Chase a rabbit, chase a squirrel, chase a pretty girl around the world" (the man pursues his partner around the other couple); to name just a few. Each figure ends with a swing with the other girl, then a swing with the partner, and the active couple moves on one place to dance with the next couple. The figures are not bound to the structure of the music and can be danced with more or fewer steps according to the whim of the dance leader.

The tempo is much faster than in Contredanse or Quadrille. (C. J. Sharp described it as "breakneck speed".) The swing, the fast revolving as couples on the spot, came from the Appalachian Dancing to New England's Contra Dancing. When the quadrille and the contredanse were pushed out of the European ballrooms by the waltz and the polka, these dance forms could hold their place in America thanks to the swing.

In the United States, traveling or moving was more usual than in Europe. At every ball you could expect guests who had not learned from the local dancing master, and did not know his arrangement of the figures. Therefore the "Ballroom Prompter" who shouted the directions for the next movement to the dancers became an indispensable institution, as necessary as the orchestra. And as the Swing from the South influenced the style in the North, the Prompter or Caller was integrated into the Appalachian Dance and its offspring.

At the end of the 18th century hunters and settlers came over the mountains into the Ohio valley and founded Kentucky. They brought their dances with them, but could not dance them in a big circle on the Green for fear of hostile Indians. They were restricted to their log cabins. Therefore they danced with four couples in a square formation. And since not all could remember how the dance went, the couple next to the fiddler started out with the couple on the right, then danced the same sequence with the opposite couple, and finally with the couple on the left. Then the couple to the right of the fiddler danced in the same manner around the square, and the next two couples as well.

This scheme is known as "Single Visiting Couple Square". It is the reason why in square dancing couples are numbered counterclockwise, while in the quadrille the head couples are #1 and #2, the side couples are #3 and #4. It has the advantage that an inexperienced couple could simply dance in the fourth position. By the time it was their turn to lead out, they had learned the figure.

This dance form came with the cowboys and the farmers across the Mississippi into Texas and to the Rocky Mountains, while contras and quadrilles were danced in New England and around the Big Lakes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in Europe and in America the style of life changed in a way, that group dancing became obsolete and was only done in remote rural areas, until some men made an effort to collect and revitalize these dances.

In America, the first attempt to revive "Old-Fashioned Dancing" was undertaken by the Automobile King Henry Ford. In 1923, he brought the dancing master Benjamin B. Lovett from rural New Hampshire to Dearborn, Michigan. He provided a ballroom at the Ford Factory, organized an orchestra, published the book "Good Morning" with dance descriptions (1926) and promoted recordings and radio shows. These dances were mainly the quadrilles and contra dances from the previous century.

Lloyd Shaw, a young school principal in Colorado Springs, danced in the 1930es with his pupils European folk dances and the quadrilles published by Henry Ford. By and by he became aware that there were other kinds of square dancing, a tradition which had survived right in his home country. He started to collect them. In 1939 he published the book "Cowboy Dances" and began to hold summer schools for callers. The time was ripe, those dances were taken up by the public with enthusiasm. World War II slowed this down for a while, but in the '50es, square dancing became "the thing to do".

Western Style Square Dancing was the name Lloyd Shaw gave this kind of dancing, and soon it developed into a form of its own right. In accordance with its development from two different musical traditions, it became customary to bind two pieces of different musical and calling style into one "tip". In the "Patter Call" which derived from the Appalachian Dancing, the caller chants his commands to a more rhythmic than melodious music. The dance sequences are no longer repeated twelve times but varied spontaneously. The caller does not need to pay attention to the structure of the music. The "Singing Call" which usually follows immediately, is more related to the quadrille. Here the dance figure follows the structure of the music, and is repeated four times. A new feature is that you changed partners with every sequence.

This new style of dancing was made possible by three technical inventions: The loudspeaker, phonograph records, and the microphone. With loudspeakers, it became possible to let any number of people dance together. With records, it became possible to dance as often as you want, even in small groups. With the microphone, the caller could now give even unusual and surprising commands and nevertheless expect to be understood.

Moreover, since 1946 there were square dance magazines available which published new calls every month. At first, the old sequences were split up into their elements (basics), and these basics combined to new variations. Soon some callers began to invent new basics, to stand out from other callers. In the '60th, some square dancer complained that they really must dance with the club regularly. If they missed even three weeks, there were that many new basics, they could hardly hope to cope with them all.

In 1972, a group of eminent callers founded the CALLERLAB association with the goal of leading the flood of basics into orderly channels. In 1975, a list of about 120 basics * was agreed upon and considered as "Mainstream". If someone had learned these basics (which took a learning period of about one year), then this person should be able to dance at any square dance event, if there was not an additional list given.

At the moment there are two opposing trends: Some callers try to make square dancing a thrilling puzzle-solving sport with musical accompaniment, with even more new basics, which mainly require the exact perception of the required starting and end position. Others try to promote socializing, and keep the dancing restricted to well known sequences.

Which trend will win above the other, will be seen in the future. It depends on the callers. And the callers depend on applause. The most important applause is, dancers returning to the next evening.

(German version first published in 1987. Heiner Fischle)
Translated 2002 by the author, with help from Carol David-Blackman.

* The 120 basics of the Mainstream program are better known as 70 basic families. But if you count all the members of those families, it sums up to about 120.

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Published 2003-01-01   /   Heiner Fischle, Hannover, Germany