What’s Square Dance?

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Square dancing originated from the quadrille and Morris Dance in the 17th century. Western square dance uses a caller and is popular in the US. Traditional square dance involves clogging and is performed to Irish or Scottish music. The popularity of square dancing peaked in the 1950s-70s and is now governed by CALLERLAB. It emphasizes social interaction and is still taught in elementary schools.

Square dancing today is often thought of as a vigorous and exciting dance alongside classic country and western, Americana music. The modern square dance shares with its origins a group of four pairs, each pair forming one of the sides. Western square dance depends on cooperation as the caller, usually using a microphone, calls out moves that required various steps, twists, turns and changes with partners.

The square dance has its origins in the 17th century dance, the quadrille, as well as incorporating movements from Morris Dance from the same period. Additional steps were added to the square dance from various regions of the United States, and some form of square dance has often been linked to the pioneers as they moved west.

The traditional square dance can also be called a quadrille. It does not always use a call and its forms are often referred to as traditional folk dances. Most popular in Appalachia, the traditional form often involves the clogging, where the feet perform, as in tap, to provide kickback to the music. Both clogging, whether in quadrille form or not, and traditional square dancing, are typically performed to music of Irish or Scottish origin.

18th century Celtic and British music is the basis for most modern bluegrass, which is now typically jammed. While clogging is often thought of as uniquely American, it is based on the step dancing of Scotland and Ireland, where passionate clogs still exist.

The Western Square dance also has intricate footwork, but is most defined by the use of a caller, although early dances may not include one. Much of this type of dance was performed informally during the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States. Steps varied by region, and often no caller was present at the earliest barn dances where variations of the square dance might have been performed.

Interest in defining what constituted this folk dance led Henry Ford to commission Benjamin Lovett to define the various steps of the square dance in the 1930s. He did it through radio shows and through a nightclub in Detroit. Inspired by Lovett, Lloyd Shaw extensively researched the pitch variations of different regions and published the book Cowboy Dancing in 1939.
Shaw’s book is still considered by many to be the definitive work and model for Western Square Dancing. His work includes definitions of over 40 different passages. He trained dancers and toured the United States with his he square dance teams which brought great popularity and interest to Western square dance.

Within fifteen years of the publication of Shaw’s book, the square dance enjoyed significant popularity. Early dances often did not require much advanced practice in footwork as the caller directed the steps and explained or demonstrated how each step was to be performed. This differs markedly from the modern square dance forms practiced today.
Since the 1970s, square dance has been danced at proficiency levels and dancers must have knowledge of how to execute the steps before joining. In some ways this is a bit of a sad transition, as some mistakes in the first square dances were to be expected and that was all part of the fun. Today’s steps are part of a “program,” and the more steps a couple is familiar with, the more advanced the program they can participate in.

New moves are often developed and now most square dance is governed and judged by CALLERLAB, the International Square Dance Association. CALLERLAB insists on clarifying the definition of the steps so that everyone with similar knowledge can dance well. This is significant because a square can only be as good as its weakest member(s). Even if some errors are still tolerated, they can destabilize the whole square.
Although square dancing is not as popular now as it was in the 1950s-70s, it is still a fun dance form to learn that emphasizes social interaction. It has, in part, been replaced by Country group dances, which do not require a partner. Simple forms of square dance are often taught in elementary schools as a way to foster good relationships between children and teach cooperation. Additionally, square dancers in organized clubs throughout the United States frequently gather for society dances and dance competitions, a continuing expression of this delightful dance form.

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