Swing your partner!
Have you ever wondered how the slow, measured, graceful steps of the English country dances portrayed in Pride and Prejudice morphed into the raucous, stomping, ya-hooing square dances of the American West?
The English ancestor of the modern square dance was probably the Morris dance, an exhibition dance by teams of six men in two rows of three. In fact, country (contra) dancing became popular in 17th century England; some believe the word “contra” derived from a mispronunciation of “country”. Dances were done in two opposing lines, facing each other.
The French modified the English country dance and introduced the quadrille - which is the likely source of modern square dancing, done in a square formation with eight dancers (4 couples). “Dull Sir John” and “Faine I Would” were popular, and John Playford’s “The English Dancing Master - Plaine and Easy Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with Tunes to Each Dance” enjoyed 17 editions between 1650 and
Square dancing grew out of English and French country dance, which was transported to the colonies and combined with various other national dances - folk dances - popular in the countries of immigrants’ origin, including Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Bohemia (Czechoslovakia). The schottisches, jigs, reels, quadrilles, and minuets were decidedly “country” dances, and as the new nation of America grew and expanded, the dances rolled westward and southward to Appalachia right along with the wagons. In Appalachia, the “running set,” complete with a caller to shout out the steps, established itself as a direct forerunner of old-time square dancing.
Particularly in the west, hardworking pioneers hungered for recreation and social contact with neighbors who might sometimes by 30 miles away. As people intermingled, so did their dances.
Western square dancing took off. Requirements were a wooden floor, music, and a caller. A barn, the town hall, a large living room, or the grange hall provided the place. The rest was Yankee ingenuity. Dancers who lived and grew up in the West learned the dances and knew the figures of many square dance calls: Birdie in the Cage, Lady Round the Lady, Dive for the Oyster.
When the quadrilles and contras began to fade and the polka, the varsouvienne, and the schottische were being forgotten, western dances got an additional kick-start from an unexpected source. The “barn dance,” a rowdy event favored in the Old West eventually spurred Henry Ford in 1923 to import a dancing master, one Benjamin Lovett, to teach dancing: gavotte, mazurkas, schottische, minuet, Virginia Reel, and others. Ford established a program for teaching squares and rounds in schools and published an instruction book, “Good Morning.”
One devotee, Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw, began to research the dances by interviewing old-timers in farming and mining communities in the West, collecting dances and music along the way. In 1939 he published “Cowboy Dances,” and later a round dance book. Then he began exhibiting trained teams of dancers and conducting classes.
Square dance callers. A “call” is the name of a dance movement and is used to cue the dancers. Most calls take between 4 and 32 counts (a count equals roughly one step). And traditional square dance calls draw from a repertoire of between 10 and 30 dance figures. Very rarely are two modern Western square dances ever like.
Originally, square dances had a caller for each square, the only way to hear the calls over the music. With microphones (or callers with loud, penetrating voices), dancers settled for just one caller. With dozens of possible dance figures to choose from, larger dances employed a “caller” to come up with dance sequences with good timing, surprises for dancers, and still end up with the original partners. The best callers are inventive and quite often roughly poetic: “Swing your partner to the right, And do-si-do - don’t take all night!”
Square dance music. Traditional square dance is danced to traditional “country dance” music: Irish jigs and reels, folk music from Quebec, England, Scotland, and wherever else a musician haled from. Almost always the instruments included a fiddle or two, banjo, guitar, and double bass. Maybe an accordian, as well.
Square dancing expanded after 1939 and took another huge leap in the decade after World War II. California and Colorado led the evolution of modern square dancing, and today there are thousands of square dance clubs in almost every American community.