SQUARE DANCE HISTORY
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MODERN WESTERN SQUARE DANCE ACTIVITY
Square Dancing - The American Folk Dance
Like the United States itself, the Square Dance activity is a metling
pot of the dances which our ancestors brought with them when they settled this nation.
It is flavored by the enthusiasm and spirit which flowed from the young, untamed
country. At first immigrants to America settled in concentrated areas keeping their
dances and other customs in a pure form. As they and their descendants began to
spread and "melt" into American society so did their dances. The eventual result
was an "American Folk Dance" which includes many of the best featuresof several
other dance forms including:
Mountain Dances: The circle dances of the Appalachain mountains in the
eastern United States including Kentucky Running Sets, Tennessee Mountain Dances
and Appalachian Circles where the caller was one of the dancers.
Quadrilles: A precise French dance, starting in a square formation, from
the18th and 19th century. One of the most famous quadrilles is called the "Lancers."
Contras & Reels: Dances in facing lines (thought to originally represent
military lines of battle) based on English Country dances. Contras were popularized
in New England during the 19th century. Reels were more popular in southern states
including the famous "Virginia Reel".
Mixers: Dances interjected into old-time programs where partners changed
during the dance. Famous mixers include "Soldier's Joy", Sicilian Circle" and the
Couple Dances: Free-style dances sometimes progressing in a circle (called
Round Dancing) done by couples including the polka, waltz, schotisches and varsouvienne.
Grand March: A parade into the dance hall or ballroom marking the "official"
start of a night of dancing. Marches varied reflecting the traditions of each area
and the imaginarion of the leader.
As America's population moved westward, dances began to mix. Gradually from the
square formation of the quadrille, the visiting couples patterns of the running
sets and the movements of the contras, a form of western dancing developed. This
form of dance was referred to by several names including Cowboy dance, Miner's dance,
West Texas, Clodhopper ofr Farmer's dance.The calling was shared by many of the
dancers and often was done from the floor. Styles and terminology varied by region.
By the end of the 19th century square dancing had blended into a dance with definite
characteristics. However, in the early 1900's square dancing began to fade out but
it refused to die.
After little activity for 25 years, Henry Ford along with Benjamin Lovett (a dancemaster)
revived the square dance, assembled a book of dances and music and began a weekly
dance program. Then in the mid-1930's Dr. Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw, the headmaster of
Cheyenne Mountain School in Colorado, collected the dances that told the tradition
of dance in America in his book "Cowboy Dances". Shaw taught these dances to students,
developed an exhibition team and started touring, awakening a fresh interest in
this truly American dance.
In the years that followed World War II, square dancing made a great resurgence.
This western style square dance became an ideal family activity. Callers and leaders
were developed with the aid of Lloyd Shaw who each summer taught callers at the
Cheyenne School. Modern transportation and sound equipment enabled callers to bring
square dancing to ever larger numbers of dancers. These technical advancements enabled
the square dance to develop to the activity that we know today.
As a Square Dancer you are part of this on going history. Be proud of the heritage.
Remember, just as it took much work and sacrifice to build this great country, it
also took much work and sacrifice to build the square dance movement. You help is
needed to keep it a thriving activity for all to enjoy.
Gordon Goss, Editor
National Square Dance Directory