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Jacks and Jennys

Square Dance Club

Spokane, Washington


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Square Dancing:
The Historical Geography
of an American Folk Custom

Richard M. MacKinnon
Allan Hancock College
Santa Maria, California

Social customs, explains James Rubenstein, are of two types: popular and folk. Popular customs are related to urban, technological societies. They diffuse rapidly and have universal appeal. Folk customs, on the other hand, are rooted in rural societies. Their origins tend to be anonymous and difficult to trace. Diffusion is generally slow and their appeal is more limited. (chapter 6) One folk custom of interest is American square dancing. To review the origins and diffusion of this dance form, plus note those forces that have shaped its development are purposes of this paper.

Rubenstein further explains that folk customs are noted for their variety. Every region has its folk customs, giving people a special sense of identity. Contrary to the uniform, homogenized, popular customs produced by the mass media, folk customs make people feel unique and special. They convey a sense of belonging to a group. (chapter 6)

Square dancing has been our "official national folk dance" since President Reagan signed an act of Congress in 1982 (U.S. Statutes). Most Americans, however, would likely never be caught dead square dancing -- too embarrassing, they might say. Such is generally true of folk customs -- they are not popular. Thus it remains a dance that few have really tried, particularly as adults. But dedicated square dancers just ignore the negative quips and enthusiastically continue with their Do-si-do's, Spin Chain the Gears, and Ferris Wheels.


The vague, anonymous and rural origins of American square dancing were first explored in Lloyd Shaw's Cowboy Dances, written in 1939:
"Had these Western dances been the dances of scholars, every variant would have been recorded and fully annotated. Chronologies and pedigrees and records would have been kept. But these were the dances of country folk, who kept all their essential knowledge written only on the uncertain pages of memory! They were the dances of laconic folk who didn't tell all they knew even under questioning! They were often the dances of secretive folk who were somewhat jealous of their special talent and special knowledge. ... So all we have to go by in our speculations is the internal evidence presented by the dances themselves." (26)
The origins of square dancing are complex and extensive. In The Complete Book of Square Dancing, Betty Casey writes,
"The square dance is uniquely American. ... The format, many of the folk dances movements, and the terminology incorporated into the square dance were brought by early emigrants from other countries to the United States. Borrowed bits from foreign dances such as French quadrilles, Irish jigs, English reels, and Spanish fandangos have blended with American folkways and customs into the square dance." (4)
Explaining the dual origins of this dance Casey explains, "Settlers in the New England area perpetuated precise measured European court quadrilles danced in a square formation, and contras, or country dances, done from facing lines and following set patterns called out by a prompter" (4). Shaw explains that these formal dances were memorized, and required considerable training by a dancing master, which was quite unavailable on the ranches of the West (4).

Casey also explains the second aspect of square dancing's origin: "The Appalachian mountain region contributed the running set, an exuberant English folk dance formed by one large circle of couples who follow figures freely chosen by a caller" (4). Later, in the western states, dancers fused the square formation of the quadrille and figures from contras (from New England) with the lively freedom of movement in the running set (from Appalachia). From this hybridization came the square dance. Shaw tried to determine the origin of square dancing -- when and where these two dance forms merged. He suggested a midwestern origin but was uncertain. He concluded that, "The waves chop back and forth against each other and confuse us as to the original impulses" (32).

More recently, however, Hank Greene fixes the origin of square dancing in the mining camps of the California gold rush. There, he explains, developed a dance form which blended elements of the New England and Appalachian styles. Known then as the cotillion, it was performed in a square formation. Actually, this was probably an improvised variation of the already popular cotillion of 18th century French origin. Instead of memorized movements, however, the California cotillion was called. Greene adds, "These directions were not preplanned but were made up on the spot; they were the forerunner of today's prompt calls. The Cotillions were danced to traditional music, which included lively jigs and reels from Scotland and Ireland, or to the newer compositions of composers such as Stephen Foster." (10) Greene continues,

"This type of calling spread rapidly throughout the country, and at balls or community dances, the fiddler would call out these prompt calls, telling the dancers what to do next. The ingenious and alert caller would add to the prompt calls by devising humorous fill-in lines, called in time to the music. These fill-ins became the patter calls of today. Later, the call instructions were given in time and in tune with the music, and so the singing call developed. The calling of square dances took the initiative and influence away from the dancing masters, who had stressed formal techniques and memorized sequences; and as new people took over the chore of calling, new steps and step patterns were invented, and square dancing became a more vital and flexible dance form." (10-11)
Early in this century, as America urbanized, square dancing nearly died out. The dance got left behind and was almost forgotten. That only set the stage, however, for its refinement and increased sophistication in the years ahead. There are several important highlights as its revival extended over several decades.

Henry Ford had an early impact. Greene writes that Henry Ford "gave square dancing a new push forward. In his book Good Morning and other writings, he extolled the virtues of square dancing in an attempt to foster a dance form that would counteract what he considered to be the evils of jazz." (12) In 1923 Henry Ford engaged the full-time services of square dance caller Benjamin B. Lovett. Ford brought Lovett to Dearborn, Michigan, where he remained for twenty-six years. At Ford's expense dancing instructors were invited to Dearborn to receive instruction. Ford sponsored a dance dance program for the Dearborn public schools, and soon Mr. Ford was sponsoring square dance programs in many other schools. Square dancing was also brought to numerous college and university campuses at Mr. Ford's expense. Ford sponsored a Sunday radio program that was broadcast nationwide. Over the radio Lovett would call dances that had been printed in the newspaper the previous week. Lovett maintained a "staff" of twelve to fourteen callers, all maintained by Mr. Ford's generosity. Eventually Henry Ford had a new, large dance hall constructed at Greenfield Village to contain the increasing numbers of dancers. Ford's good friend Thomas Edison began to produce 78 RPM square dance records under his Edison label. As Taylor comments, "Old fashioned square dancing became the rage." (Taylor 33-34)

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 receive primary credit for square dancingÕs modern revival. Shaw was superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado during the 1930's. Noting the old cowboy dances were vanishing, he became curious and conducted the first serious research on American country dances. His findings were published in Cowboy Dances (1939) and The Round Dance Book (1948). In Cowboy Dance he wrote, "The time seems ripe for a revival. Seeing these old dances take hold so contagiously makes me hope that they may spread to hundreds of groups all over the country who are eager for good, wholesome, social fun." (33)

Shaw concluded in Cowboy Dances that, "When it comes to finding the origins of the Western square dance ... one simply has to speculate. ... The dances and the calls ... were never written down, but transmitted from caller to caller by the oral route" (25). Shaw was probably the first to explain the two main origins of square dancing: the New England Quadrille and the Kentucky Running Set. He also recognized that these had their origins in a multitude of other European dances (27-33).

Shaw shared his enthusiasm with the 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 which performed exhibition dances in Los Angeles, Boston, New York and New Orleans. Of this Greene writes, "At first the programs included many European dances, but soon, in response to audience enthusiasm, the presentations consisted entirely of Western square dances ..." (12). Thus a lively group of high school students were largely responsible for the reintroduction of square dancing to the American public! Its modern origins were far different from what many now consider a senior citizens' activity.

Technological Changes

Originally square dances usually had a caller in each square, instead of a single caller for the entire hall. That was the only way to hear the calls over the music if the group was very large. The music was always live before record players were invented. Improved public address systems, record players, microphones, and special square dance recordings have allowed for larger, better organized dances. The advent of 45 RPM records was a further benefit (think of lugging around those old 78's!). The modern, compact, and easily transported high-power public address/music system has greatly improved the sound quality of the caller and music. The 45 RPM record is still, in the mid 1990's, the standard delivery vehicle for square dance music.

Modern printing equipment, useful for producing inexpensive flyers and literature have also impacted square dancing. Computers, of course, aid in the distribution of literature and tabulation of subscribers to publications and members of organizations.


Square dancing expanded rapidly after 1939. Large crowds of dancers attended the 1939 San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition and the1940 New York WorldÕs Fair (Kraus 2). The dance especially expanded in the decade following World War II. Many American G.I.'s had been introduced to square dancing at USO cantinas. After the war ended, large numbers of them turned to square dancing in pursuit of wholesome recreational activity (Casey 5). With "Pappy" Shaw in Colorado, and the impact of the returning G.I.'s particularly focusing on California, these two states lead the development and evolution of modern square dancing.

Greene writes, "By 1950 the square dance boom was in full stride. In every corner of the country square dance clubs and associations were formed, spawning hundreds of new callers. Although their popularity was widespread, the greatest concentration of dancers was in Southern California. In July, 1950, Santa Monica [California] celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary with what was probably the world's largest square dance: an unprecedented attendance of 15,200 dancers. Wilshire Boulevard was closed to traffic to accommodate the people who danced through the night to the calls of thirty-five callers." (12-13)

Today there are thousands of square dance clubs located in nearly every community of America. Dancers keep in touch and learn of current happenings through a multitude of flyers, newsletters and directories. They have had many years' experience at perfecting their organizational skills and are effective at getting the word out about upcoming events. Local clubs usually form into regional associations, which then form into state associations.

Aside from weekly club dances there are also special weekend festivals. On a three-day weekend, one can dance almost continuously from Friday evening to Monday afternoon! In California one might locate a weekend festival (or two or three!) almost every weekend of the year. Many dancers arrive in their recreation vehicles. Altogether, attendance at such weekend festivals might be two or three thousands individuals. It is a busy, lively, and colorful affair. Held at county fairgrounds or convention centers, a festival usually occupies several halls, with dances conducted simultaneously at three or four different skill levels.

Also present are many vendors with their wares. The weekend festival becomes a shopping event for many as they browse among the dresses, petticoats, shoes, shirts, pants, and accessories. Some vendors specialize in the sale of records to callers, and others fabricate a variety of name badges on the spot. Square dancing has spawned a "secondary industry" of companies that manufacture a variety of specialized products. More ordinary products might be obtained from western wear retailers, or more traditional clothing stores.

In addition to weekend festivals there also are state square dance festivals, and even a national convention each summer. Some dancers go on square dance tours of foreign countries or book passage on square dance cruises.

Many square dancers like to acquire "fun badges" to pin on their chests. A purple heart badge is for one who has danced in a square with three callers. One wears a rover badge (a little dog) after dancing in a foreign country. Hundreds of other badges signify various so called "achievements." First time visitors to a club usually are presented with a small pin-on badge bearing that club's name.

How do you recognize square dancers heading down the road? It could be from the happy smiles on their faces or the pile of petticoats on the back seat. It may be by the various symbols on the back of their vehicles: the image of a square dancing couple, or interlocking squares and circles (the circle signifies round dancing, which usually alternates with square dancing during a dance event). If you're alert, you'll be surprised how many square dancers you spot on the highway.

Clubs are also found in many other countries, and dancers look forward to visiting clubs in other lands. With a directory in hand, such clubs are easy to locate. Square dancing was usually introduced by American G.I.'s, especially during the 1940's and 50's. In Germany, for example, the International Directory currently lists some 200 clubs. France, on the other hand, lists but one. They even square dance in Japan. And the calls are always in English. Visitors may not understand the announcements, but they will certainly understand the calls.

Another aspect is the callers themselves. Most are part-time callers who work at other regular occupations. Calling supplements their incomes, although expenses for equipment, clothing (including their spouse's), recordings, and royalty fees, are relatively high. There are also many full-time callers. They are especially skilled and immensely popular. Often travelling by motorhome, they travel widely and may call several hundred dances per year, earning relatively high incomes. Many also sell tapes and records on the side. Most full-time callers tend to be well known within a particular region or circuit which they regularly frequent. The most popular ones are fully booked several years in advance.

The Dance Changes and Modernizes

The dance itself has experienced some major changes. For many years there were two basic forms of square dancing, Western and Eastern. After World War II the Western, or smooth, form became dominant. Casey believes this form originated in Colorado and California, then later became known simply as modern American square dancing (4). This style is devoid of nearly all forms of bouncing, hopping, or skipping. The feet must slide across the floor. Modern square dancers are inclined to disapprove of anyone tempted to bounce through a dance, and find this is one of the most difficult techniques to impress on new dancers. In addition to a more sophisticated appearance, the great advantage is that of being far less tiring than a constant up and down motion.

Formerly square dancing was more a "visitation" style dance, as described by and taught Shaw. For example, couple #1 would first visit couple #2. They did a dance figure together while the others waited. Then couple #1 moved on to couple #3 while the others waited, and so on. Dancers were getting impatient for more action! During the late 1950's the dance began evolving into a faster paced style. The movements have become more complex, and now all couples are kept active and involved most of the time. Many of the dance figures used in the '50's and earlier (such as those described by Shaw) are completely unknown to modern dancers. And, of course, the dance still continues to evolve with new calls being added each year. Occasionally, less popular calls are dropped. The typical square dancer today knows at least some 120 different calls.

For a brief time following World War II square dance contests become popular. But this idea died quickly. Square dancing is not a spectator sport, nor is it competitive. There are no winners or losers. It is intended for everyone to have a good time without the stress of competition (Casey 6).

More recently, square dancing has benefitted from transportation improvements. Better highways and more dependable automobiles allow dancers to travel easily between communities. Visiting other clubs has become a major aspect. The modern recreation vehicle adds further convenienceÐone can park the rig right outside the dance hall at the fairgrounds. The fresh water and holding tank capacities are just right for a weekend dance festival.

Several important structural changes occurred during the 1970's, mostly focusing on the establishment of "Callerlab," an international organization of callers formed in 1974. Their first task was to standardize the dance levels. Beginner dancers were often taught different groups of basic moves, so persons from different regions were often unable to dance together. Callerlab solved this problem by creating specific skill levels, each having a certain group of moves to be taught. Those levels have become known as BASIC, MAINSTREAM, PLUS, ADVANCED, and CHALLENGE. Now a couple can attain a certain skill level and know that they can dance successfully at a particular event. Dances always specify the skill level required. Most California clubs dance at the PLUS level, for example, which takes one year of lessons to achieve. Callerlab also publishes materials for callers, and reviews and periodically recommends new calls. They holds an annual convention with training sessions and other activities related to the improvement of their art.

Another problem was that the calls were not standardized. The meaning and definition of calls and movements varied from place to place. Callerlab was able to standardize them. Now, as people travel, they find the calls and movements are always the same.

The total number of square dancers has probably never been fixed. The 1992 National Square Dance Directory lists some 750 clubs in California. Since some of those are other types of clubs, such as contra, clogging or round dancing, the actual number of square dance clubs might be closer to 600. It is also likely that many clubs are not listed. In addition, many dancers are "independents" -- not belonging to any club. They might boost the number of dancers by 25-50 percent. In the end, any accurate accounting of the total number of dancers is nearly impossible.

There are also clubs with specialized memberships. Best known is the "B 'n' B" organization -- Bachelors and Bachelorettes, with many affiliated clubs. There are a few gay clubs, plus clubs for the blind, the "handicapable," trailer clubs, RV clubs and others.


Rubenstein explains that folk customs are increasingly threatened by the "global diffusion of popular customs" (241-244). Veteran square dancers currently express a strong sense of being threatened, reporting that the number of dancers has decreased greatly in recent years. Many theories are suggested, but there is no hard evidence of the cause. They frequently express that square dancers as a group are much older now than in previous decades. Younger people tend to regard it as an "old folks" activity, while the active dancers lament how difficult it is to recruit young people.

Concurrent with this decline, other major social changes have also been occuring. The American population and culture are more diverse than in previous decades. Recent immigrants -- a highly varied group -- tend to be younger, while older citizens are more homogeneous. This seems to at least partially explain square dancing's continued popularity with older citizens.

There is little reason to believe that square dancing will die out. Instead, it will likely exist as one of many alternative activities. Many physical activities now compete for an individual's recreational time, rather than just a few as in former decades. Square dancers must accept this fact, learn to be more competitive, and do a better job of what they know how to do best.


Betty Casey writes, "The American square dance is different from other folk dances. It is the only one always directed by a caller who exercises the prerogative of extemporaneously choosing patterns from known basic movements and terminology, or making up new ones of original combinations for the dancers to follow" (3). Square dancing is much like knitting or crocheting. There are a fixed number of different stitches that might be used. When combined together in various patterns by a multitude of talented craftspersons, an infinite variety of items result. Likewise in square dancing: there's an infinite variety of patterns. Nothing ever happens the same way twice. Even the combination and arrangement of persons in one's square changes with each tip danced.

Casey continues, "Since square dance movements have no set patterns, within the four-couple-caller format, new movements and calls are constantly evolving. There is leeway for great variation in the choice of music, makeup of figures, actual footwork and hand positions used, and in colorful social and regional expressions woven into the calls. ... The constantly changing facade of the square dance keeps it ever contemporary and enjoyable." (3) This is the joy of square dancing: the stimulating variety created from the calls, costumes, the personalities of one's fellow dancers, and the craftspersons -- the callers themselves. The choice of music adds even more variety -- square dances can be choreographed to rock 'n' roll music, Broadway show tunes, Christmas songs, marches, Russian folk music, love songs, minuets, religious songs, or even Western music.

Add to this the involvement in an aerobic exercise activity that is also a social event. The idea of solitary jogging or walking for exercise is perhaps less interesting and fun than a lively Saturday night square dance with a group of happy, fun loving individuals -- and there's usually food, too!

In conclusion, the square dance is an excellent example of an authentic American folk custom. Its rural origins are vague, and its development and diffusion are difficult to trace. Like all folk customs, it is not popular -- even among Americans -- yet those who enjoy it are enthusiastic in their participation. At bottom, it remains a solid and enduring piece of American folk tradition. As the dancers themselves are fond of saying, "Square dancing is friendship set to music."


Casey, Betty, The Complete Book of Square Dancing (and Round Dancing). Doubleday, 1976.

Davis, Bill and Bobbie Davis. "What is Callerlab?," American Square Dance, April 1992, p. 37.

Egender, Herb, "A Brief History of Square and Round Dancing," reprinted from Grapevine (Calgary, Alberta) January 1990 in National Square Dance Directory 1992, Brandon, Mississippi, p. 221.

Ford, Henry. Good Morning. 1926. Mentioned and quoted in numerous other publications.

Goss, Gordon. "America's Best Kept Secret," National Square Dance Directory, 1992. Brandon, Mississippi, pp. 226-227.

Goss, Gordon, "The Baby-BOOM and Square Dancing." National Square Dance Directory, 1992. Brandon, Mississippi, p. 220.

Greene, Hank, Square and Folk Dancing: A Complete Guide for Students, Teachers and Callers. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Hubbell, Sue, " The Old Square Dance, It Ain't What It Used To Be." Smithsonian, vol. 26, no. 11, February 1996, pp. 92-99.

Rubenstein, James M. The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

Shaw, Lloyd, Cowboy Dances: A Collection of Western Square Dances. The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho. 1939.

Shaw, Lloyd, The Round Dance Book: A Century of Waltzing. The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho. 1939.

Taylor, Dave, "Henry Ford and Benjamin Lovett: The Story of Lovett Hall," American Square Dance, January 1993, pp. 33-35.

U.S. Statutes. Public Law 97-118, 96 Stat. 104, June 1, 1982. An act declaring square dancing to be the official national folk dance of the United States.

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