Square Dancing: An American Tradition

by Rick Roberts
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The square dance is practically an American institution. We’ve heard stories of our grandparents square dancing as teens, and we’ve met the senior citizens who are still dancing decades later. Many of us tried square dancing in school, and it gave us a bit of connection to those hard-working Old West pioneers who joined their communities for barn dances.

So where did square dancing come from, and how has the tradition survived all this time?

Square dancing has roots in European dances from centuries past. A number of French and English dances share similarities with the American square dance, and it makes sense that dancing styles from Europe would have traveled to America with the earliest settlers. The English country dance, the French quadrille and cotillion, and other European folk dance styles have elements that seem to have influenced the American square dance.

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In the 1600s and 1700s, many European dances were group-based ballroom dances, while other dances took place on village greens. Usually, these dances required memorizing complicated steps and patterns in order to weave and circle through the entire dance without missing a step. Some of the dances began with lines of dancers, and others positioned specific numbers of dancers in squares.

The square dance caller is an element of the dance that sets American square dancing apart from its European predecessors. The caller announces dance moves in time to the music, and the cues keep everybody dancing in sync. Square dancers learn to perform short, basic patterns and routines and follow the caller’s cues, rather than memorizing full-length dances. Good callers have a way of keeping variety, routine, and humor in the dance.

Even within American square dancing, there are a variety of dance styles, including more-standardized (Western) and less-regulated (Traditional) styles. The differences depend somewhat on the regions of the country that influenced them.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the waltz, the polka, and the jazz swing dance were growing in popularity, and the square dance was falling out of fashion. In the 1920s, Henry Ford spent time and effort to keep the American square dance tradition alive. He arranged square dance classes for the workers in his factories, and provided venues for dances.

Ford is credited with hiring Benjamin Lovett to create a national program and develop radio classes to teach square dancing in schools. During the 1930s, folk dance teacher Lloyd Shaw produced books and seminars to keep square dance traditions alive. In the decades that followed, microphones and records made square dancing easier than ever. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Not surprisingly, two dozen American states list Square Dance as an official state dance. And it’s no wonder! When we imagine going to a square dance, we picture colorful dresses and happy music, but most of all, good times and great company!

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