American Square Dance

At one time, the square dance was omnipresent in rural America; but its golden age, if ever there was one, has passed. Today, it is noteworthy when a folklorist discovers a community with an unbroken tradition of square dancing, if only because it piques our interest as to why such practices endure in one place and not in another. Contemporary contexts for traditional square dance are, in fact, quite plentiful; but they persevere as isolated phenomena, largely hidden from the consciousness of the mainsream.

The American square dance is the subject of a huge body of choreographic data, most of which was generated by dance educators and recreational specialists whose concerns lay apart from those of folklorists or ethnographers. Some of this descriptive material, especially some works published before World War II, are collections of regional repertoires and even, in a few cases, of localized traditions. Much of the dynamism of square dancing comes from turning motions, including rotations around a vertical axis and revolutions around the floor.

In square dancing many rotations are energetic turns executed by two dancers together (not always opposite sex couples), but there are also more languid arcs circumscribed by enclosed circles of between three and eight dancers. In square dancing, women are often asked to make singular rotations or twirls, according to, on the one hand, traditional embellishments or, on the other hand, set variations taught by the local polka instructors. Most of the time, square dancers only step forward or stand in place.
In a few instances, walking backward is called for, and a dancer will occasionally have to take a sideways step to the right or left. To accomplish this dizzying variety of spins and turns requires the manipulation of other parts of the body. The entire trunk is usually kept aligned with the line of gravity (and for all couple dances in general). It should also be noted that in the square dance walk, the dancer’s center of gravity is moved slightly forward over the balls of the feet when compared to the ordinary walk.
The kinesthetic sensation for the dancer is to feel as if his chest is leading the rest of his body. Arm movements in square dancing are important, but only in the context of reaching out to and grasping another dancer. The dancer reaches forward to join hands in one of three ways with another dancer, reaches to the side to hook elbows or put an arm around the waist of an adjacent dancer, or uses both hands or arms to grasp a dancer of the opposite sex in one of several stylized holds. These are known as the “swing” or “ballroom”, “courtesy turn” and “promenade” positions.
Robert Bethke discusses square dancing in contemporary commercial or public settings in the Northeast, while offering very little movement data except to note the infrequency of square dances on the program in proportion to couple dances performed to popular or country music. What Bethke attends to is the dress and decorum of the dancers, their general age, the instrumental makeup of the band and the musical styles performed the participants’ levels of intoxication and the dancers’ incompetence relative to the past.
Bethke goes into great detail on the repartee between the band leader and the audience, providing texts of some of the leader’s jokes. The inquiry on the history of square dance was first motivated in 1977 by the puzzle of why the German community around Hoagland took as its own an Anglo-American dance form. The cultural choices a folk group makes are historically conditioned. In the year previous to the first appearance of The English Dancing Master, the English and the Dutch had agreed on the borders of their North American colonies.
Besides the Confederation of New England to the north and New Amsterdam in the Hudson Valley, the New World also had settlements of Swedes on the Delaware River and growing English colonies in Maryland and Virginia. In another thirty years, the first German immigrants would arrive, and, as the French consolidated their hold on the West, the first European settlement would be established at the headwaters of the Maumee River, near the Miami Indian village of Kekionga, the present site of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In the mid-eighteenth century, when the longways English country dance form was firmly established as the most popular form in European ballrooms, English emigration to the thirteen American colonies was in full sway. Along with the immigrants, and as a part of the continuing trade with the mother country, came terpsichorean skills, repertoire and paraphernalia. Not even the American Revolution disrupted these choreographic connections. Square dancing became a vital activity in nearly every rural nook and cranny through the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1926, Henry Ford published “Good Morning”: After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-fashioned is Being Revived, adding to a growing revival of interest in square dancing and other related forms of traditional American dance. In the twenties in New England, with an assist from the open air museum at Old Sturbridge, there was a growing awareness of that region’s vital and unique repertoire of country dances or contras (as cited by Tolman and Page).
Indeed, Grace Ryan, a physical education instructor at Michigan’s Central State Teachers College, pioneered with an instructional manual on Dances of Our Pioneers, featuring the “quadrilles or square dances” which she collected at community dances and from local callers (Ryan). These efforts helped spark a square dance boom that was well underway in the late thirties when Lloyd Shaw, a Colorado high school principal, began to collect western figures that he taught to his students in place of the international folk dances promoted by other educators.
Shaw’s performing square dancers from the Cheyenne Mountain School garnered a great deal of renown for their exhibitions; and Shaw’s fame spread farther when he published these figures in 1939 in Cowboy Dances, an oft-reprinted volume. Besides the considerable impact wielded by his clear representation of seventy-plus figures, Shaw also sketched for Americans his view of the path traveled by this widespread variegated dance form: that the western square dance, one of three regional types, derived from an intermingling of the New England Quadrille and the running set from the southern highlands.
Due to the prevalence of visiting couple figures in both the southeastern and western traditions, Shaw asserted that “the mainstream, I believe, heads in the Kentucky Mountains” (Shaw 27-31). This became the standard account of square dance history that would preface a multitude of instruction manuals published in the forties and fifties. Shaw was not alone, in those early days of the revival, in granting special status to the Southeastern square dance. J. Olcutt Sanders prepared a “Finding List of Southeastern Square Dance Figures” in 1942.
He regarded the Southeastern square dance as a separate genre, referring to it variously as “the running set” and “the big set”, which could be characterized on the basis of internal evidence (Sanders 266). A decade later Elizabeth Burchenal extended this interpretation by crediting the supposed isolation of the southern highlands for the development of “our most indigenous dances,” including figures which “cannot be identified as transplantations” (Burchenal 20). By contrast, the Northeastern square dance, also called the New England quadrille, smacked of Gesunkenes Kulturgut.
This was a cultural form that had trickled down to the folk from the cotillions and quadrilles of polite society in Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then, as the twentieth century dawned, the Western square dance emerged as a composite of movements and calls from both the Southeastern and Northeastern traditions blended with newly invented figures. Springing from America’s pervasive frontier experience, the Western idiom embodied the traits of practicality and inventiveness that historian Turner offered as keys to the American character (Turner 61).
Thus the Western square dance was too new and too recreational to be regarded by folklorists as a survival of the archaic rituals hypothesized as the ultimate source of folk dance. The social symbolism school of interpretation takes in a much narrower scope, focusing on the local community rather than on national culture. David Winslow (1972) argued that the square dance is a set of “highly ritualized behavior patterns and mental processes” that help maintain social solidarity.
Drawing heavily on sociologist Emile Durkheim, Winslow showed that the square dance served three social functions: (1) a cohesive function that imparts a group consciousness or sense of community, (2) a revitalizing function that “helps the group to renew the sentiment it has of itself and of its unity,” and (3) a euphoric function that provides “a pleasant feeling of social well-being” (Winslow 252-261). Not only the social interaction that takes place at a dance event, but also the square dance itself helps maintain and revitalize the interpersonal networks that constitute a rural community.
For each category of the social structure represented at an event-couples, genders and the entire assembly, the “dancing behavior can be seen as expressive of the solidarity of that social unity. ” The pervasive circle motif found at all structural levels of the square dance is a choreographic expression of the basic principles of equality of participation and social unity that are cultural ideals for this dancing. The basic square dance form found in New York, Pennsylvania and Hoagland, Indiana alike requires four couples for each square set. With each couple forming one side of the square.
Each dance comprises two alternating parts: the break and a distinctive figure. In the break, a formulaic combination repeated from dance to dance, all eight dancers in the set participate simultaneously in equivalent and complementary roles: “circle left all eight,” “allemande left your corner,” “grand right and left around the ring,” and “meet your partner and promenade home. ” The distinctive figure, unique to each discrete dance, is led by every couple in turn as they visit around the set and dance a series of formulaic moves with each of the other couples.
At the end of each couple’s performance of the figure, and at the end of each repeat of the break, couples end up in their “home” or starting position. This structure, as it is danced in Pennsylvania, encapsulates well the comfortable fit between cultural form and social organization. Bert Feintuch discovered that the same basic form was used in domestic square dance events in south central Kentucky before the 1930s. According to his interpretative model, the stylized movements in the four-couple square dance affirmed both the pragmatic primacy of the couple in the dance and the symbolic primacy of the couple in the community.
Thus he concluded that neighbors “symbolically acted out their norms of community” through dances “in which couples were the basic unit and their social networks – their neighborhoods – were represented as a bound unit, the square” (Feintuch 65). Square dancing, which emphasizes equality and reciprocity, is a local tradition actively treasured by many. The square dance has a long history as the symbolic action of choice (a sign) strategically called on to encompass (an interpretant) the emergent community (an object). Works Cited: Bethke, Robert D. “Old-Time Fiddling and Social Dance in Central St. Lawrence County.
” New York Folklore Quarterly 30 (1974): 163-83. Burchenal, Elizabeth. “Folk Dances of the United States: Regional Types and Origins. ” International Folk Music Journal 3 (1951): 18-21. Damon, Stephen Foster. The History of Square Dancing. Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1955. Feintuch, Burt. “Dancing to the Music: Domestic Square Dances and Community in Southcentral Kentucky (1880-1940). ” Journal of the Folklore Institute 18 (1981): 49-68. Jackson, Frederick. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History. ” Frontier and Sectino: Selected Essays of Frederick Jackson Turner. Ed. Ray Allen Billington.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961. 37-62. Ryan, Grace L. Dances of Our Pioneers. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co. , 1926. Sanders, J. Olcutt. “Finding List of Southeastern Square Dance Figures. ” Southern Folklore Quarterly 6 (1942): 263-75. Shaw, Lloyd. Cowboy Dances: A Collection of Western Square Dances. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1939. Tolman, Beth, and Ralph Page. The Country Dance Book: The Best of the Early Contras and Squares. Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Greene Press, 1976. Winslow, David John. “The Rural Square Dance in the Northeastern United States: A Continuity of Tradition. ” University of Pennsylvania, 1972.

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