A BRIEF HISTORY OF SQUARE AND ROUND DANCING

BY  

MARLAN SORENSON
 

BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA 

 

    Dancing is the oldest of the arts. Only one other art, the art of architecture, goes back nearly so far into man's past; and dancing is probably older than his attempt to build a shelter for his family, for we know that primitive tribes have become expert dancers long before they have bothered to build what we would call houses.

    Dancing was a fine art before it was a folk art, and a religious and ritualistic performance long before it became a recreational art. It is only quite recently in the history of mankind that all of the people, if they chose, could join in the dance; and, as for women, there was a vast majority of dances in which they might not join at all, and there were some that they might not even see.  

    In a study like this one, we cannot take time nor space to go back very far into the past. Let us decide that we shall travel back to the year of 1450. And let us prune out, before we start, the many tiny twigs that clutter the remote branches of any family tree.  

    It is difficult to trace exactly the roots of our modern square and round dancing, for they are deep and varied. Certainly, the taproots go back to our English & French ancestors, but there are traces of Scottish, Scandinavian, Spanish and others.  

    Lets think of our square and round dancing having come from two (2) great trees (England & France) growing side by side, so closely that the topmost branches interlaced so thoroughly that it was sometimes impossible to tell which branches grew upon which tree.  

    Unquestionably, the English ancestor of our modern square dance was the great MORRIS DANCE. It was an exhibition dance done by trained teams of Morris dancers. Morris dances were danced by six men (women did not participate) in two rows of three. Each wore a leather pad of bells fastened around each calf, and because the purpose of the bells was to ring, the steps had to be vigorous enough to ring them. Try to imagine yourself dancing in a shortened set (lacking one couple) and visualize all the square dance figures that you could do. You could do forward and back, you could open out into a circle and weave the ring, or form a star. All of these things they did. But all the time you would need to be ringing those bells, so you would jump straight into the air as high as you could whenever the pattern permitted and you would do a sort of a polka step in which, instead of hopping on the last beat, you kicked that foot vigorously straight forward until the bells rang like mad. There was no caller, and whatever cues were necessary were given by the leader of the six dancers. It took a strong man to be a MORRIS MAN - a real athlete. Later on, in the 17th century, The English Country Dances became all the rage in England. Many were line dances and some believe that the contra got its name either from a mispronunciation of "country" or from the fact that the dances were done in two, opposing lines. At the same time, people did "rounds for as many as will", some of which resemble the choral dances often danced in the naves of English churches.  

    This country has been referred to as the melting pot of the world. People from virtually every European country immigrated to the "new land" during America's first 200 years. They brought with them their customs, languages, skills and their dances. At first, grouped into ethnic concentrations in different parts of the country, they enjoyed their dances in the pure form of their homelands. As people spread across the land, migrated west and moved from one city to another, the various forms of dance became more and more integrated. Here is a brief look at some of these dance forms that influenced the emergence of the American Square Dance into the activity we enjoy today.  

    It was danced in a proper square. After an introductory circle left, similar to the introduction of the western dance, the first couple moves to the second couple and executes a special figure, then on to the next couple and repeats the figure. As they go on to the fourth couple, the second couple follows up and executes the same figure with the third couple, and repeats the figure with each couple in the set. As soon as possible, the third and fourth couple follows. This goes on until every couple has followed in a sort of looping of continuous and furious dancing. If we are to be invited to dance some running sets, we have a few things to learn. There may be no music and we must feel the rhythm in the floor beneath our feet. The step is a light, bounding run and the body should be held erect, motionless, with every limb loose and relaxed. All of the movement is in the feet and ankles. The arms hang straight and loose and swing comfortably in rhythm with the motion of the body. This is necessary because the dance is so long, sometimes an hour or so, as it consists really of a tip of four to a dozen dances.  

    It is unlikely that you have the stamina to dance it at 128 steps per minute, but, if you think you are as tough as your Great-Grand-Dad, try dancing at 140 steps per minute.
 

THE NEW ENGLAND DANCE  

    It is difficult to get anyone to say how much of The NEW ENGLAND Dance came from the now declining English Country Dance and how much from the ballrooms of London and Paris. During Revolutionary times, evidence favors the ballroom. Even General Washington, dressed elegantly in fitted black, with a powdered pigtail and white silk stockings, danced a very acceptable minuet, a courtly quadrille, and a dignified contra.    

    The French produced the form of dance known as the Quadrille. It is the Quadrille that most people point to as the granddaddy of our modern square dance. A Quadrille is a square dance. It's a square of four couples. In square dance terminology, a Quadrille is a square that is prompted. This means that the calls are given just ahead of the phrase so the dancers can take their first step on the count one. One of our great adaptations was the singing quadrille. which seems to belong in this period. And there were plain quadrille danced to the same type of old Scottish or English or even Irish music that was used for the contras.  

    During the half century that bracketed the American Revolution and the War of 1812, this was a more dancing nation than it is today.  

    Where did they dance? In taverns, in town halls, in barns, at husking bees, roof -raising, sheep-shearing. They built dance halls right onto their houses. If they didn't have anything better, they danced in the kitchen with the fiddler sitting in the kitchen sink in order to leave room for the dancers on the floor.  

KITCHEN JUNKETS  

    The New England brand of friendliness in the mid 1800's was accurately expressed in the KITCHEN JUNKET. Not every home was big enough in which to hold a dance for a few sets of dancers, but many were, and here in the late fall and early spring would be held these "junkets". They were not public dances in any sense of the word and no admission charge was ever made or thought of. Fifteen or twenty "friends of the family" would be invited, a fiddler donated his services, a "prompter", as the callers were known then, came to call a quadrille or two and get the contras started off correctly. The ladies brought a basket lunch which was served around 11 o'clock. Then more dancing until perhaps 1:30 or 2 o'clock, when the party would break up, promising to "come again when we can stay longer"!  

    The Kitchen Junket was a pure American form and is an excellent example of the friendliness and neighborliness that is the tradition of American Square Dancing. It was at such events that neighbors became re-acquainted with each other, met members of the families and found the dancing to be, not only the center of their social life, but a joyful means of communicating with each other.

THE PAUL JONES 

    Because of the social aspects of dancing, different forms of mixers were frequently interjected into the old time programs. For pure early American dancing fun, you just couldn't beat a PAUL JONES mixer. Looking at square dancing in the past, no square dances was considered complete without one of the partner changing, mixer-type interludes.  

THE COUPLE DANCES  

    From our earliest accounts of dancing in America, ROUNDS or COUPLE DANCES were customarily an integral part of the square dance picture. The early minuets led into other dances, such as the schottisches, polkas, varsouviannas and waltzes. There were free style, do-your-own-thing, dances that were a joy to dance or to watch.  

    As the pioneers moved westward, the dances went with them. Many of the dances were lost or forgotten, but many were preserved, particularly in the southern Appalachians. There the running set established itself as one of the deep taproots of our western square dance. The running set even had a caller - America's only uniquecontribution to the square dance. In the first part of the 20th century, American dancing suffered a great decline. Quadrille and contras died. People two-stepped the waltz and forgot the polka and the schottische. A rowdy form of dancing called the "Barn Dance" set a precedent square dancers long have fought to overcome. It took a great industrialist and a superintendent from a small school in Colorado to lift the great American folk activity out of the doldrums.  

    Mr. Henry Ford used to vacation at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. There he became interested in the dance program conducted by a dancing master named, Benjamin Lovett. The program included the schottische, the minuet, the Virginia reel, and other squares and rounds. Mr. Ford tried to hire Mr. Lovett, who declined, pointing out that he had a firm contract with the Inn. This posed no problem for multi­millionaire Ford, who simply bought the Inn and Mr. Lovett's contract and took Mr. Lovett back to Detroit with him. In the Detroit area, Mr. Ford established a program for teaching squares and rounds, including radio broadcasts and programs for schools. He built a beautiful dance hall and named it "Lovett Hall". It is still in use today. In 1926, Mr. Ford and Mr. Lovett published a book which proved inspirational and material for many people who had wanted such reference. The book was entitled "Good Morning". One of the people who pounced on and devoured the book was a young school superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colorado, named Lloyd Shaw. Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw realized that Ford's book supplied only a part of the information on the American dance and that the rest of it was under his nose in the small towns and farming and mining communities of his own West. He went to work painstakingly interviewing old-timers, collecting dances and music and researching. In 1939, he published the first really definitive work on western square dancing - "COWBOY DANCES". Later, in 1948, he published "The Round Dance Book". He trained teams of dancers in his Cheyenne Mountain School and took them around the country exhibiting and teaching. In the summer he conducted classes for new leaders. And western square dancing began to grow like wildfire. Of course, in those days, one did not ask if there would be rounds. It was taken for granted that one would do the varsouvianna, a schottische, the Black Hawk Waltz. There might be a cue word here and there for the new people, but no cuer. Dancers knew the dances, just as they knew the figures of many of the square dance calls. Such as, Birdie in the Cage, Dive for the Oyster or Take a Little Peek.  

    Two significant factors entered the picture at this point. Combined they marked the passing of one era and the emergence of another. Modern highways and the automobile made traveling to square dances fairly simple. This was step one. Even more important was the development of the public address system and the use of phonograph records. No longer did the caller need to stand on a kitchen chair and shout his calls or have a caller in each square. No longer was the size of the dance limited to the number who could hear the un-amplified caller. Square dance records, particularly, the small, easy to manage 45 RPM discs, eliminated the need for live music, with all its attendant problems, and allowed much greater musical variety and flexibility.  

    The significance of all of this was overwhelming. No longer did the calls have to be simple, basic commands that could be heard over the surface noise of the floor. The way was clear for callers to create on-the-spot interesting dance patterns, to develop styles and techniques of calling and to be clearly understood. The way was open for a contemporary American Square Dance.  

    Square dancing began its transition from the traditional, visiting couple type of dancing into all-four-couple working kind of dancing in the 1950's. Callers discovered that they could move everyone at the same time and create more interest. The SquareThru (which had been danced in contras for hundreds of years) was "invented" and introduced in 1955, and other movements followed quickly. Soon we had 16 basics, and then 20, and the 32 and etc. Similarly people began to write more couple dances, and the round dance picture changed. At first, the dancers memorized the dances, and only an occasional cue was necessary. Then dances became more numerous and complex, new rhythms and terms were added, and a cuer became a must for many dancers who had neither the time, nor the interest to memorize large quantities of material.  

    "No liquor before or during dancing" became the bywords of the newly awakened program and, as a result, American square dancing was welcomed into public halls and church recreation facilities, pride in where we danced became as important as what we danced.  

    The Costume: Up to the Shaw era - square dancers paid little attention to any special clothes they wore for square dancing. Lloyd Shaw's Cheyenne Mountain Dancers were, perhaps, the greatest influence for the new look in costuming. The girls with full-skirted dresses and pantaloons and the boys in colorful western shirts and western-cut pants and cowboy boots sold this image to the public. Dressing for square dancing became part of the fun and the costume did its share in attracting others to join in.  

    The square dance costume became a "badge" for the new square dancer. Pride in the activity was reflected in the way people dressed and, while the first costuming may at times have been overly elaborate, it emphasized the fact that square dancers wanted to be recognized as very special people.  

    Being aware that the appeal of square dancing lay strongly in its friendliness and neighborliness, it was presented as a recreation rather than as a competitive sport. Men and women from all walks of life, of every size, shape and age took part and quite naturally some appeared more graceful than others. Even people in wheel chairs have square danced. This mattered little. What did matter was they could dance together.  

    In 1972, an organization named CALLERLAB, The International Association of Square Dance Callers, held its first convention. CALLERLAB'S aim is to promote the principles of fun and friendship established by early leaders like "Pappy" Shaw and to standardize square dance terms, timing, and styling. ROUNDALAB, The International Association of Round Dance Teachers, works toward the same goals for round dancing.  

    Through many, many years it has been the pleasure of dancing smoothly to good music and sharing a fun activity with wonderful people that have made square and round dancing attractive and long-lived. It would be a shame to lose that which has been passed down through so many caring generations.  

BIBLIOGRAPHY  

There are many books available, however the following sources of information were found to be most useful in this study.  

            The Sets in Order - AMERICAN SQUARE DANCE SOCIETY -
                        The Story of Square Dancing "A Family Tree"
                        by Dorothy Shaw - April 1967  

            The Sets in Order - AMERICAN SQUARE DANCE SOCIETY -
                        The Square Dance Indoctrination Handbook (Revised)
                        Square Dancing - Some Roots - 1980

            The Sets in Order - AMERICAN SQUARE DANCE SOCIETY -
                        A History of Square Dancing
                        by Ralph Page - Keene, New Hampshire - September 1985

            A Brief History of Square And Round Dancing
                        by Herb Egender - Aurora, Colorado