History of Square Dance

The details of the story of the North American square dance invite a great deal of speculation, and a fair amount of disagreement among the many people who care deeply about the activity. While I don’t presume to be a scholar and expert on square dance history, I have developed my own understanding of square dancing’s journey through time.

Early History & the Quadrille

Square dancing is a social dance form with English, French, and Scots-Irish roots. Early four couple dances in square and round formation can be found in John Playford’s 17th-century English dance text The Dancing Master. Another four couple square formation developed in 18th-century France, probably independent of English squares and rounds. This French invention, named the quadrille, is arguably the main predecessor to the North American square dance as we know it today. The quadrille, and quadrille-inspired forms, developed over the course of a hundred years or so, and by the mid-19th century had swept both Europe and the Americas.

External Links

  • Quadrille Wikipedia entry — Overview on the development of the quadrille
  • Some Notes on the Lancers, by Ralph Page — Discussion of a popular 19th-century quadrille form called "The Lancers"
  • The New England Dance, by Dorothy Shaw — Brief discussion of early American square dancing in New England
  • Edson H. Cole: Fiddler, Caller, and Dancing Master — Listen to several early 20th century examples of quadrille prompting by New Hampshire fiddler, caller, and dancing master Edson H. Cole. The site also includes brief historical background; Cole calling contras and other non-square formations, in addition to the quadrilles; and an interview with Kenneth Libby (conducted by Dudley Laufman), who attended some of Cole’s dancing classes as a young man.

Appalachian Squares

As the quadrille was gaining popularity in American cities and urban areas, a unique style of square dancing and fiddle music was developing in more isolated communities across the Appalachian Mountains of the American East. This style of dancing has many different names, including "Southern," "Appalachian," "mountain," "Running Set," and "old-time." Depending on whom you ask, Appalachian square dancing and old-time fiddle music have English, Scots-Irish, African, or other ethnic origins.

External Links

Traditional Western Squares

The quadrille and Appalachian mountain-style square dance forms traveled with the settlers of the American West, and a new style of square dancing slowly developed combining elements of both forms. This new form of Western square dance (now named, by some, "traditional Western") eventually captured the attention of the American public, through the efforts of a young educator in Colorado named Lloyd Shaw. Motivated in part by Henry Ford's book, Good Morning — which was written to help revive the "old-fashioned" American quadrilles, contras, and couple dances that had been, by the early 20th century, largely replaced by the jazz-inspired fashions of the ballroom — Shaw set out to publish a book of traditional American square dances with a particular focus on collecting and documenting dances found in the American West. The book, Cowboy Dances, gave rise to Shaw's popular caller training classes, as well as his nationally-traveling teenage dance demonstration team, the Cheyenne Mountain Dancers. All of this energy and exposure led to a square dance craze in the mid-20th century, with millions of Americans participating in the activity on a regular basis.

External Links

Modern Western Squares

This extraordinary interest in square dancing gave birth to the branch of the activity now named "modern Western." Many callers learned from Lloyd Shaw, then took their newly acquired skills and interpreted them for use in their own local communities. The 1960s and early 1970s saw a flood of new calls appearing as callers tried to outdo each other in creativity. It became difficult for dancers (and for other callers) to keep up with the vast number of new figures that were being invented; clearly, some effort at standardization was essential to support the continuing widespread growth of square dancing. As a result, the governing organization for modern Western square dance leaders, CALLERLAB, was founded in 1974. The original stated goals of the charter were: "To put the dance back into square dancing; establish standardization for calls; and provide adequate training for callers."

External Links

  • History of CALLERLAB — More information about the transition from the Lloyd Shaw era to modern Western square dancing, from the organization's website
  • Square Dance Foundation of New England 1960's Era Recordings — Listen to audio examples of popular callers from the early days of MWSD. Five of the callers included were charter members of CALLERLAB. These recordings made available through the meticulous work of Jim Mayo for the Square Dance Foundation of New England.

Traditional Squares Today

In the midst of the growth of modern Western square dance, traditional dancing continues to exist in many areas. Traditional squares have lately been experiencing a surge of interest as part of contra dance programs across the country, as well as in dance series devoted to old-time mountain style and traditional Western square dance. Traditional square dancing also happens spontaneously at gatherings with a music jam, eight willing dancers, and a caller to facilitate the action on the dance floor.

External Links

There is a constant stream of new square dances being written, taking inspiration from both the modern Western style and traditional forms. In the contra and traditional square dance worlds, there is a blossoming group of young and talented callers and musicians, as well as a large population of young dancers for whom this activity seems to resonate. There is commitment on both the modern Western and traditional sides in supporting the growing interest in square dancing. With continued persistence, patience, strong leadership, and knowledge and respect for the roots of the North American square dance, there may be another square dance heyday on the horizon.

Additional Links

General History

Personal Histories

Quadrille

Appalachian

Modern Western Square Dance

Other