An Introduction to the Various Styles of American Square Dancing
First and foremost, square dancing is about people - socializing, dancing, playing music, and connecting with each other Square dancing as we know it began in Europe in the 1600s. Over the centuries it has spread to many countries and has experienced quite an evolution. This evolution tells a fascinating story and points to a bright future for this flexible social dance form.
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. Note from Nils Fredland: "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." We encourage you to develop your own understanding of this fascinating journey! To get you started, we offer the following overview of six categories of American squares. We have also included a very brief introduction to the rich history of Canadian square dancing.
May 2020 Update: Radiolab recently produced an interesting podcast about Square Dancing in the United States. You can listen to it here.
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.
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.
- 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"
- 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.
- The Lancers: Some Historical Notes by Ralph Page — Five-part series documenting more information on the Lancers
- Quadrilles and Cotillions — Interesting discussion of the differences between Cotillions and Quadrilles, from the FIDDLE-L discussion group
|Plain Jane||Adam Boyce||Ed Larkin Dancers, Tunbridge, VT|
|Reuben, Reuben||Adam Boyce||Ed Larkin Dancers, Tunbridge, VT|
|Honest John||Adam Boyce||Ed Larkin Dancers, Tunbridge, VT|
|Excerpt of figure no. 1 from Duval's Lancers||Dance Through Time video|
|Duval's Lancers, Nos. 1, 2, & 3||Quadrille Club video|
|Duval's Lancers, Nos. 4 & 5||Quadrille Club video|