It may surprise many people to learn that traditional square dancing is alive and well in West Virginia. Some think it merely went the way of the horse and buggy while others assume that it has been entirely supplanted by modern club ("western") square dancing with its costumes, complex choreography and reliance on recorded music. But here and there on Saturday nights in fire halls, school houses and community centers, various local styles of old time square dancing continue to be enjoyed by many contemporary West Virginians.
This book is by no means a comprehensive survey
of square dance activity throughout the state. Instead I present
a detailed look at five communities whose dances I happen to have
been able to find and attend while serving as artist-in-residence
for the Randolph County Creative Arts Council in 1977-1978. In
this haphazard sampling there is amazing diversity of form, structure
and terminology. For example, at Glenville and Morgantown the
dances are performed in conventional four-couple square sets while
at New Creek and Dunmore I found the big circle set associated
with the southern Appalachian region. At Helvetia square dancing
represents a unique amalgamation of the two forms.
I should point out that West Virginia dancers
refer to any dancing done in a set of couples as square dancing
regardless of the shape or size of the set. This also serves to
distinguish it from "round dancing," by which they mean
any dance which can be done by a single couple. Round dances include
waltzes, two-steps, polkas and rock and roll. Saturday night dance
programs typically include both round and square dancing in varying
While there are many obvious differences in
the square dance styles of the five communities presented here,
there are some common characteristics also. All the dances have
a distinct southeastern flavor. This is partly evidenced by the
absence of such ballroom formalities as "honor your partner,
honor your corner" at the beginning or end of each dance.
Nor are there any of the typical nineteenth century quadrille
figures like "ladies chain" or "right and left
through." Instead I commonly found figures like "birdie
in the cage," "take a little peek," and "dive
for the oyster" which are still widespread throughout the
southeast and were probably around long before the quadrille came
The swing commonly used in these five communities is performed in the conventional ballroom hold, but instead of facing each other the dancers stand side by side with right hips almost touching. The swing is done with a walking step rather than the pivot step that is so popular among today's revival dancers. I should say a word here to explain the difference between the two swings. The pivot swing is performed with the dancer's weight predominantly on the right foot and only a slight shifting of weight onto the ball of the left foot on the off beat. However, in the walking step swing the dancer steps from right to left to right to left, as when walking, on alternate beats. Perhaps I can illustrate the difference which is mainly one of timing:
The walking step swing is performed quite vigorously
with much the same exchange and counter-balance of weight between
partners as can be found in the skilled pivot swing. The dancers
at New Creek have a particularly long and energetic swing in which
there is a strong drop onto the right foot on the first beat of
Live music is a vital part of traditional square
dancing in West Virginia although the instrumentation and versatility
of the bands vary considerably. Some are predominantly square
dance bands while others specialize in round dance music. But
all the bands can and do play at least some of both kinds of music.
Electric guitars and electric basses are quite commonly used and
many of the fiddlers use either a contact microphone or one of
the newer transducer pick-ups on their violins.
No formal instruction is offered or considered
necessary as a prerequisite to participation in traditional square
dancing. The repertoire of figures is limited (usually less than
twenty as compared with a hundred or more in modern club square
dancing) and the dances are performed the same way from week to
week and month to month. This continuity makes the learning process
considerably easier; the dances are, as they say, "better
caught than taught."
I have tried in each chapter to indicate the
total structure of the dance: introduction, figure, break, ending.
Within this structure only the figure part is likely to change
from one dance to the next. The dancers expect this continuity
and the callers promote it.
Challenge and surprise, which are so prevalent
in the periodic square dance revivals (and typified by the modern
club movement), do not play much of a part in traditional square
dancing. The pleasure of dancing seems to lie in the flow of movement
to live music and in sociability rather than in intellectually
stimulating, highly complex patterns. Variety comes not from the
caller's commands but from improvisation and embellishment by
the dancers upon the familiar basic movements. This may take the
form of extra twirls, fancy footwork or vigorous swings, all within
the established framework of the dance.
The square dances I present here are relatively
uncomplicated but by no means simple, especially to dance well.
The patterns of movement may be learned quickly but the style,
that element which so eludes written description, is mastered
only through years of experience. Skilled square dancing involves
such factors as coordination, rhythm, quick reflexes, peripheral
vision, ability to counterbalance body weight with another dancer
in swings and turns and the ability to coordinate one's own movements
with others in the set and anticipate the movements of other dancers.
West Virginia square dancers, like all folk artists, have honed
and refined their dancing skills over many years.
This book is not meant to be a how-to-square-dance
manual. I have assumed some prior knowledge of square dancing
on the part of the reader and I have made no effort to avoid being
technical in some places. My purpose has been to preserve, as
well as the limitations of the written word allow, my memories
of these dances for those like me who feel there is much to be
learned from this aspect of our culture.
I wish to thank Paul Reisler, Rose Mary Marshall, the Randolph County Creative Arts Council and the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Commission who made my stay in West Virginia possible; the National Endowment for the Arts whose grant allowed me to make several visits to the Morgantown dances; Taylor Runner, Mack Samples, Woody Simmons, Dave Sutton and Bill Wellington who provided important leads and introductions in my search for dances; Marty Taylor who transcribed the tunes in Appendix C; Alice Rodman who proofread the manuscript and offered many valuable suggestions; and editors Jim Morrison and Bertha Hatvary whose knowledge, advice and encouragement have kept me on the right track.
Robert G. Dalsemer