Square Dance Styles

People have different opinions about how square dancing evolved to end up where it is today. I encourage you to develop your own understanding of this fascinating journey! To get you started, I offer the following overview of the six categories of American squares that are represented in this selection of web resources.

Quadrille Style

A style of dancing rooted in the French courts and English high-society. Most traditional New England squares are in this style. The quadrille (upon which today’s American quadrille style squares are based) was an 18th century French invention, but by the early 19th century these dances had swept both Europe and the Americas. The early quadrilles were five- or six-part, carefully choreographed sequences danced in four-couple square sets.

Some characteristics of American quadrille style squares:

  • Danced in four-couple square sets.
  • Typically danced in connection to the phrases of the music.
  • Led by a caller providing prompts, as in a contra dance.
  • Choreography includes courtesy moves (bows and honors), in addition to some standard quadrille figures like ladies chains, rights and lefts, half promenade, half right and left, etc.
  • Long swings: 8 to 16 beats.
  • Danced to a wide variety of music: tunes from England, Scotland, Ireland, New England, and French Canada.

Old-Time Mountain Style

Sometimes referred to as "Southern," this style appears to have developed in rural communities in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Englishman Cecil Sharp came across old-time mountain style in Kentucky during the last of several trips to America between 1915-1918. In The Country Dance Book, part 5 (1918), Sharp published a description of old-time mountain style, and named it "Kentucky Running Set." There is no evidence that the locals referred to the dance this way; more likely, Sharp misunderstood someone talking about "running a set." Sharp asserted that the dances were English in origin, and pre-dated the quadrille. There are compelling arguments developed more recently (notably a 1969 article called "Appalachian Square Dancing" by Hugh Thurston in Northern Junket vol. 9 nos. 11 and 12, and by Lee Ellen Friedland in her article, "Square Dance," in The International Encyclopedia of Dance) that indicate Scotch-Irish origins, and also leave the door open for other possible ethnicities.

Some characteristics of old-time mountain style squares:

  • Danced in four-couple square sets, or in a large circle of couples, depending on community: North and West of the Blue Ridge, the tendency is four-couple square sets; South and East, the tendency is a big circle of couples.
  • Danced to the beat of the music, not necessarily connected to the phrase.
  • A caller typically leads the dance. The timing of the calls is consistent from one dance event to the next, and is usually not affected by what is happening on the floor. The caller in old-time mountain style provides: the overall timing (including length of the figure, the swings, transitions on to the next, etc.); starting the dance and ending the dance; and entertainment (calls are expected and are as much a part of the dance as the music).
  • Many figures have associated rhyming calls that have been passed down over generations of callers, musicians, and dancers.
  • No honors, and no quadrille figures.
  • Short swings: 4 to 8 beats.
  • Danced to hoedowns (reels) played in the Appalachian style.

Traditional Western Style

A style of dancing that developed in the Midwest and Southwest from the 19th century up through the mid-20th century. Figures in this style of square dancing bear a resemblance to old-time mountain style, because many of the early settlers of the American West came from Appalachia and brought their dance and music traditions with them. As more settlers moved West, a "new" Western square dance tradition slowly developed, combining elements of quadrille style and old-time mountain style square dance.

Some characteristics of traditional Western style:

  • Danced in four-couple square sets.
  • Sometimes danced in connection to the phrases of the music (as in quadrille style), sometimes danced to the beat rather than the phrase (as in old-time mountain style).
  • A caller provides the directions for the figures of the dance, using the traditional old-time mountain style described above, but also incorporating quadrille style prompts and "sight timing" (watching the dancers, and delivering the next call just as the dancers are completing the previous move) to keep the dancers moving smoothly through the figures.
  • The caller uses extra language to fill in the spaces between directions (often colorful rhyming language, not necessarily directive), commonly referred to as "patter."
  • Choreography combines honors, some quadrille figures, and figures from old-time mountain style, as well as new choreography developed during the heyday of traditional Western style square dance (1935-1955).
  • Short swings: 4 to 8 beats.
  • Danced primarily to hoedowns (reels) played in the Appalachian style.

Modern Western Square Dance (MWSD)

Modern Western square dancing began in the 1940s, and overlapped in a twenty-year period of transition with traditional Western squares. During this transitional time, the hybrid style of traditional Western dance began to develop, characterized by all four couples in a square moving simultaneously. This resulted in the potential for more complex patterns; since the 1960s, the modern Western square dance movement has realized the full potential of that complexity by creating many new choreographic building blocks, and training callers and dancers, by way of a hierarchy of classes, to gain the knowledge necessary to navigate the ever-changing MWSD landscape.

Some characteristics of modern Western square dance:

  • Danced in four-couple square sets.
  • The role of the caller is more prominent than in the traditional styles described above. The caller creates the dance as it is called, and must match it to the skills of the dancers; a particular sequence of dance figures is not taught beforehand, nor can dancers anticipate the next calls.
  • To help callers manage the increasing complexity in MWSD, a governing organization named CALLERLAB was founded in 1974.
  • Dancers belong to clubs offering classes that allow them to progress through the various levels. Clubs also host dances that are for members only, as well as hosting larger events that are open to the public.
  • In the last century a dress code was widespread, but has become less common recently. The most formal dress is known as "traditional square dance attire." For men, this used to call for western style shirts with string ties or bolos, and often cowboy boots. For women, the dress code has changed substantially over the years, but even now usually has a wide skirt, often with a full petticoat. The longer prairie skirt is becoming more popular today.
  • Danced to recorded music, including both hoedowns and accompaniment for singing squares.

Singing Squares

A relatively modern form of square dance, found all over the United States and Canada (except where old-time mountain style predominates) from the 1930s to the present. Singing squares use figures from quadrille, old-time mountain, and traditional Western styles; a figure is paired with a popular song, and the original lyrics are rewritten as directions for the dancers. This style has roots in 18th century European and American quadrilles, some of which were danced to the popular music of the day.

Some characteristics of singing squares:

  • Danced in four-couple square sets.
  • Danced to the phrases of the music.
  • A caller provides the directions for the figures of the dance, sung as lyrics to the tune of the associated song. Depending on the local tradition, the caller might use prompting, sight timing, patter (within the structure of the melody of the song), or some combination of those three skills, to keep the dancers moving smoothly through the figures. It is common in traditional communities, where dancers know most of the figures by heart, for callers to simply sing the rewritten lyrics without regard to what is happening on the floor, and let the dancers adjust as necessary to keep the calls and the dancing in sync.
  • Timing of swings vary: Northeastern singing squares tend towards longer swings of 8 to 16 beats; singing squares in the traditional Western style tend towards shorter swings of 4 to 8 beats; swings in modern Western singing squares tend to be only once around.
  • Danced to popular songs from the late 19th century to the present.

"Traditional Style" Modern Squares

Ever since modern Western square dance established itself as a unique entity in square dance culture in the mid-20th century, there has been a separate category of squares developing across the United States. "Traditional style" modern squares use choreographic elements and calling skills from quadrille, old-time mountain, traditional Western, modern Western, and singing square styles. In today's community dance culture, this style is often found at dances with a mixed program of contras and squares, and can range in complexity from very simple to very challenging. Thanks to groundbreaking callers and dance writers such as Ralph Page, Ted Sannella, and Gene Hubert, and the many others who are still living and actively writing new square dances influenced by traditional styles, there will be a supply of excellent material to add to the vast and rich repertoire provided by the square dancing's long history in this country.

Enjoy, and keep dancing squares!