Thursday, April 26, 2018


Recently on Facebook, I saw a discussion on square dancing. This is something I used to believe was totally Southwestern American. In fact, it's a blend of national dances from Western Europe and the United Kingdom. 

When I was growing up in Lubbock, Texas, dancing in school was not allowed. We could, however, learn “folk games” in physical education class. I loved them and looked forward to that six weeks each year. After high school graduation, I became a student at Texas Tech. First semester there, a guy asked me to the western dance held each Friday, and I accepted. 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 school.

The Traveling Hoedowners
Whirl and Twirl in Orlando, 
Florida. Paul Place, caller

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 (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 show dancing a round dance that greatly resembles a square dance. 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.”

Queen Elizabeth Dancing at Balmoral Castle, Scotland

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, however, there would be at least one extrovert, the hail-fellow-well-met, the life-of-the-party type, with a knack for remembering the dance figures. With typical Yankee ingenuity, the settlers let this person cue or prompt them in case they happened to forget what came next. In due course, the prompter (or figure caller, as he became known) acquired a repertoire of various colorful sayings or patter that he could intersperse with the cues. This is the manner in which square dancing and its director (or caller) developed. Initially, each square consisting of four couples had its own caller. With the introduction of microphones, 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 a dancing master named 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. This posed no problem for multi-millionaire Ford, who simply bought the Inn and Mr. Lovett's contract and took Mr. Lovett back to Detroit with him. Isn’t money grand?

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 beautiful dance hall in Greenfield Village and named it Lovett Hall. 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 hither and yon. By 1948, square dancing had reached the level of a fad and there was some concern that interest would be short-lived.

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. Shaw's enthusiasm could not be contained in Colorado. In 1938, he organized a student demonstration team that performed exhibition dances in Los Angeles, Boston, New York and New Orleans.

Saint George's Day Dancers in Sheffield, England

The English ancestor of our modern square dance was the great Morris dance. There are several variations of this dance, but the one shown above matches the one my husband and I saw when visiting England. Originally, it was an exhibition dance done by trained teams of Morris dancers - 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. Many were longways or 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 resembled the choral dances often danced in the naves of English churches.

Michael Martin Murphy and the
Schottishe at the Cowboy's 
Christmas Ball, Anson, Texas

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). It is the Quadrille that most people point to as the grand-daddy of our modern square dance. However, history shows that "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 Quadrille as it would
have been danced in 1815

The vital link to this past was the dancing masters that came to this country with our forefathers and brought with them the dances of their homeland. One of the earliest records (and there are not many) 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. It was that most daring of all dances, the waltz, that 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. That 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.

Wherever you live, nearby square dance lessons are offered. They're a fun way to get exercise. Do you ever go square dancing?


  1. Caroline,

    I learned those old folk dances in elementary school physical education class, too. That was the only time I didn't dread going to gym class. *wink* The Virginal Reel was my favorite. We did square dancing, too. When I was in my twenties, I joined a square dancing group, and we had a great time, but I haven't square danced in decades. I always had to write an L on my left hand and an R on my right to I could remember which way to allemande left and right correctly. lol

  2. Loved this, Caroline. I'm late getting over here, but wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this blog. I really miss those "old days" but back then, I would never have thought I'd ever say that! LOL

  3. I thought callers just made up dance moves as they went along. LOL I was amazed by how they actually came about--the one guy who remembered the moves to the dance.

    I also had no idea of Mr. Ford's involvement in taking square dancing to the west and giving exhibitions. Nice that he could buy a whole hotel to do it.

    But the most astounding thing I found in your article was that Texas didn't allow dancing in the schools. Why was that? The only time I ever did a square dance was in elementary school when they taught us how to dance back in the early 1950's.

    Great article, Caroline.

  4. I'm very late to the ball but loved this contribution to our writing resources. So much great history and story. Amazed by Henry Ford's dedication to obtain Lovett's services!


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