Thursday, January 26, 2012


By Caroline Clemmons

When I was growing up in Lubbock, Texas, dancing in school was strictly forbidden. We could, however, learn "folk games" in physical education class. That was the only part of Phys Ed that I liked. I am soooo not a jock. Think shy, klutzy, asthmatic nerd. 

After high school graduation, I became a student at Texas Tech. My first semester there, a guy asked me to the western dance held each Friday night, and I accepted. Woohoo! I didn’t think I knew how to dance western style, but I had this great skirt that would be perfect. (Yes, I was pretty shallow, but I was 17, so give me a break.) Imagine my surprise when the dances were the folk games I’d learned in public school!

According to the Mid Atlantic Challenge Association, the square dance is an American institution. It began in New England when the first settlers to New England (probably not counting the Puritans) and the immigrant groups that followed brought with them their various national dances: the schottische, the quadrille, the jigs and reels, and the minuet. I’m including one of my favorite videos below, in which Queen Elizabeth II is shown dancing what greatly resembles a square dance (but formal). That’s Prince Charles dancing with his grandmother, the Queen Mother. Thanks to Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott for including the video on their blog, "Two Nerdy History Girls."

Lacking the organized recreation of today, hardworking New England pioneers felt a need for activity that provided recreation as well as social contact with neighbors. Settlers gathered in the community center, a barn, or wherever there was room on Saturday evening and enjoyed dancing their old-world favorites. Communities grew and people of different backgrounds intermingled, and so did their dances. As the repertoire increased, it became increasingly difficult for the average person to remember the various movements.

In almost any group there would be at least one extrovert with a knack for remembering the dance figures. Dancers let this person cue or prompt them in case they happened to forget what came next. In due course, the prompter (or caller) acquired a repertoire of patter that he could intersperse with the cues. Initially, each square consisting of four couples had its own caller who stood in the center of the four couples. Must have resulted in a lot of noise! With the introduction of better dance conditions, microphones, etc. only one caller was needed.

In the early 1930's, Henry Ford became interested in the revival of square dancing as a part of his early New England restoration project. Mr. Ford used to vacation at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. There he became interested in the dance program conducted by Benjamin Lovett. (I can’t help but wonder if he was an ancestor of Lyle Lovett.) The program included the gavotte, mazurkas, 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. Ford simply bought the Inn and Mr. Lovett's contract and took Mr. Lovett back to Detroit with him. Isn’t money grand? At least...I think it would be.

In the Detroit area, Mr. Ford established a broad program for teaching squares and rounds, including radio broadcasts and programs for schools. He built a hall in Greenfield Village and named it Lovett Hall, and it is still in use. His efforts captured the interest of other individuals who then modernized the activity so that it would appeal to contemporary America while retaining its basic flavor. Square dancing groups began to form all over the country.

1945 Victor Keppler Photo
By 1948, square dancing had reached the level of a fad and there was some concern that interest would be short-lived. Not so.

Folk dancing also received a major boost in the 1920's when the New York City public schools, the first major school system to do so, made folk dancing a required activity. But Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw should received primary credit for square dancing's modern revival. Shaw was superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado during the 1930's. Shaw shared his enthusiasm with his students and offered summer classes for dancers, callers, and national folk dance leaders. Returning to their respective homes and communities, the square dance revival began. In 1938, Shaw organized a student demonstration team that performed exhibition dances in Los Angeles, Boston, New York and New Orleans.

Morris Dancers in England
According to many scholars, the English ancestor of our modern square dance was the great Morris dance. It was an exhibition dance done by trained teams of costumed Morris dancers wearing bells - six men (women did not participate) in two rows of three. Later on, in the 17th century, country dances became all the rage in England. At the same time, people did "rounds for as many as will", some of which resembled the choral dances often danced in the naves of English churches.

As shown below, basic steps ground the square dance, with fancier steps added as dancers gain expertise. Great way to exercise while having fun!

The French adopted and modified the English country dance and called in the Contredanse Anglais. They also produced the form of dance known as the Quadrille (a term which originally referred to a card game). Many people believe the Quadrille is the grand-daddy of our modern square dance. However, "Dull Sir John" and "Faine I Would" were square dances popular in England over 300 years ago. The French also developed the Contredanse Francais or Cotilion (later changed to Cotillion), a dance done in a square formation with eight dancers. The video is from Erika Joy Ordonez's Graduation/Birthday Cotillion at the Waikiki Beach Hotel, Waikiki, Hawaii on July 14, 2007. Love it, but all I can add is Erika's dad must be very wealthy! I wonder if Erika paid for all the dresses. $orry, I lost my train of thought for a moment.

As I mentioned, dancing masters came to this country with our forefathers and brought with them the dances of their homeland. One of the earliest records and one of few of these dances is contained in the works of John Playford, a musician and dancing master. His book, "The English Dancing Master - Plaine and Easy Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with Tunes to Each Dance" was published in seventeen editions between 1650 and 1728 and contained 918 dances.

Meanwhile, couple dancing was keeping pace. The French had a round dance called the branle, and there was the gavotte and the minuet. The most daring of all dances, the waltz (Sigh, I love to waltz!), created quite a stir when it was introduced, for it permitted the gentleman to hold his partner in close embrace as they moved about the floor. Not so shocking now, but scandalous at the time. Regency readers will recall that special permission had to be given musicians to play that dance at a ball. That dance position, which we now call closed dance position, was known for many years as the waltz position.

President Ronald Reagan made square dancing the National Folk Dance 1982-1983 and many states also have adopted it as the state dance. Here's square dancing the way it's supposed to look, performed by the Traveling Hoedowners dance group at Whirl & Twirl in Orlando FL. Paul Place is the caller.

Wherever you live, somewhere nearby square dance lessons are offered. Do you ever go square dancing?

By the way, the recipient of Lyn Horner's books, DARLING DRUID and DASHING DRUID from January 20-21 was Ruby. Thanks for commenting, Ruby.  


  1. Caroline, I remember square dancing for P.E. in school from grade school up through high school. My parents were part of a square dancing group when they lived in California. I loved playing in her dresses when I was a little girl.

    Fun post.

  2. Carolyn,
    Enjoyed reading about the history of square dancing and watching the videos. :-) I square danced in school and loved it, and after I was married joined a group for a while. I made my square dancing dress and had lots of fun with that. It's a challenging and fun dance activity. Good to know my ancestors in New England were having some fun too. :-)

  3. Oh,my, goodness! You have brought back some wonderful memories. When we retired--early--the first thing we did was join the square dance classes here in San Marcos, called Wheels and Deals--you have to know square dancing to understand this.
    I had outfits like those in the last video, with the full petticoats and ruffled "sissy pants" that showed when a partner twirled. I NEVER THOUGHT I'D DO SUCH A THING! We became full-fledged members and traveled with the group.
    But as all good things must come to an end, various events occurred that cause us to drop out..we weren't too upset, because it got a little tiresome after a while.
    Still, "Bow to your partner, yellow rock your corner, do-si-do, swing your partner, all circle round!"

  4. I loved to square dance when I was young. It also included the polka where I learned. My parents joined a group and they had the traditional dance clothes. My hubby doesn't care for dancing so that went to the wayside for me. Our bachelor neighbor has met several nice ladies at his square dancing events. I agree that it is a fun way of making friends and just look at all that exercise. :)

  5. I've been square dancing for more than 30 years. My sister met her husband square dancing and that's where I met my fiance'.

    And I know several kids whose parents met square dancing. :D

    Lovely article - with your permission, I'd like to print it out and bring it along to - you guessed it - a square dance.

  6. Very interesting post, Caroline. I loved the videos, especially of the Queen and the Quadrille. We don't realize today how big a part 'dancing' played in social life long ago. I remember while at Mount Vernon years ago learning that George Washington LOVED to dance the Minuet. And, of course, Thomas Jefferson played the violin with skill. The steps of country dances and Quadrilles prevalent in Assembly Rooms of 18th and 19th century England were often intricate and it was an indication of breeding and status that both men and women excelled at it.

    Anyway, I loved your post! haha


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.