Square Dance Calling: An Old Art for a New Century
By Tony Parkes
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taken its toll on my life, with dancing and calling opportunities on hold and other in-person gatherings curtailed. But, like several other music and dance people, I’ve found that it has given me things as well: I now have three hours a day, which I used to spend commuting, available for pursuits of my choice.
For the last two years I’ve been using that gift of time to finish my book, Square Dance Calling: An Old Art for a New Century, which I’ve been writing, off and on, since we reissued my contra calling book in 2010. My wife, Beth, had been telling me, only half in jest, that if I didn’t finish it soon the subtitle would look silly, as the century would no longer be new.
The book was a home-grown project, using Beth’s experience with computers and mine with editing and publishing; the work was tedious at times, but very fulfilling, taken as a whole. Except for the cover art, we did everything ourselves: page design, formatting, copy-editing, proofreading, indexing, final file creation. With today’s print-on-demand technology, there is no need to manufacture hundreds of copies in order to keep costs reasonable.
I’ve been feeling that the time is ripe for a comprehensive book on squares. The animosity of some contra dancers toward squares, which I noticed most acutely in the 1980s, seems to have abated. Influential contra callers like Nils Fredland and Lisa Greenleaf include squares in their programs; Bob Isaacs has practically made a career out of presenting grid squares. Workshops on squares at camps and festivals often draw enthusiastic crowds.
Many dancers have told me, “I thought I didn’t like squares, but I love yours.” Other callers on the contra circuit have reported identical feedback. This leads me to believe that what some contra dancers object to is not squares per se, but ill-chosen and poorly taught squares. It’s a vicious cycle: many contra callers don’t handle squares well because they don’t have as many role models as I did 50 years ago. (I learned from some of the top callers of the mid-20th-century square dance boom.)
My primary goal in writing my new book is to improve the breed: to coach newer callers on how to choose and present squares to many different groups, including contra dancers. In addition, I decided to include much more actual dance material than I had in my contra book. Many good books on squares are out of print, and even with access to a book, callers may not know how to choose dances from it.
By my reckoning there are three broad types of square dance events in the US and Canada today (aside from modern “western” square dancing, which is a world unto itself). One has been growing for several decades within the old-time string band music community; it draws largely, though not exclusively, from the southern dance repertoire. Some of its events are advertised under the Dare To Be Square banner, originally a reference to articles by Phil Jamison in the Old-Time Herald.
Another type is what I call the survival dance: a series that appears always to have been there, that exists outside networks like CDSS and Dare To Be Square. There seem to be fewer of these every year, but (aside from COVID) some are hanging in there. The details differ from one region to the next; what these events share is their use of squares and other dances as a vehicle for bringing people together, rather than a skill to be pursued as a hobby.
Finally, there is the resurgence of squares in the urban contra scene. The squares done in conjunction with today’s contras are eclectic in style, incorporating features of northeastern, southern, and western traditions as well as modern square dance. This is the type of square I deal with in the book; for lack of a better name I call it “neo-traditional.”
I hasten to add that I am not trying to standardize or codify anything. To me, dancing is like cuisine; I would hate to see regional specialties disappear in favor of uniform fast food. I am simply trying to document what I have observed at dance events over roughly the last half century—since around the start of the contra revival.
The book has three main parts. I begin with theory: dance history and musings on philosophy and ethics. A section on delivery deals with the various skills involved in calling and teaching. Dance material includes in-depth discussions of 22 basic movements, followed by call charts for about 50 figures and breaks. Each routine has two charts, one showing how the movements fit the music and one with a suggested set of call words synchronized with the parts of the tune. The book ends with a glossary containing over 600 entries and an annotated list of recommended books, recordings, and other resources.
I encourage callers and would-be callers to learn from as many different sources as possible. Luckily, many books and recordings are readily available, some free of charge online. I particularly recommend browsing at the Square Dance History Project, a virtual museum of audio, video, and print records of traditional and modern square dancing.