HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF SQUARE DANCING
The nationwide popularity of square dancing is once
again on the increase as a pleasant hobby, and as a social media
for both individuals and couples to enjoy a common interest.
With this popularity, there is astonishingly little information
available that connects current dance activities with past
practices and the origin of some of the fundamental movements.
We often think of square dancing as a uniquely American form of
folk dance. While it is true that in the United States this is
a particularly popular form of recreational dance, and that
specifically traditional customs have been developed, i.e., a
caller sing-songing dance figures to music, with the dancers
obeying his cues as commands, it is also true that the square
dance formation has a long history in other parts of the world.
Training of young men for military service in ancient
Greece, included drill actions performed in the square forma-
tion and following the commands of a drill master. The square
symbol was considered by many of the ancient religious orders
to have fertility significance and, therefore, was included
in many of the ritual and folk dances. However, it is more
probable that the line and square formation provided a better
measure of precision in executing specific movements, and
also easier for the dancers to guage their movements.
Square dancing or dancing in a square was highlighted
in the French court ballet, earty in the eighteenth century.
At that time the dances were called “Quadrilles”. As the
name implies, these are precision “dril1” type dances, per-
formed by couples in a “quadrangular” formation. A “prompter”,
or “caller” as he is known today, was used to provide the cues
essential to maintaining a flowing pattern of steps executed
with perfect timing. The dance steps were fixed and memorized
by the dancers,.and were carefully taught by the dance masters
to be smooth, flowing and decorously performed. Continuously
flowing patterns, that were graceful to perform and enjoyable
to watch from an elevated position, distinguished the masters
from the teachers.
Quadrilles were originally divided into five parts,
each with the characteristic steps and music, and four brief
intermissions, each just long enough to catch one’s breath
and perhaps flirt a little. An evenings program included
from six to ten of these five part quadrilles. Many of the
quadrilles were characterized by specific music or melodies
often borrowed from operatic or other classical sources. In
many instances, the music defined the dance and the sequence
of steps, a characteristic of traditional folk dances. To
provide an element of challenge or variety in an evening’s
dancing, the specific dance patterns and combinations of step
movements were left to the promptet’s discretion and his
judgment of the capabilities of the dancers on the floor.
Many of the good prompters could go a full, evening without
repeating a particular pattern of basic calls.
The music used for the original quadrilles allowed
two counts, or steps, to each measure, and eight measures
for each dance figure. The tempo ranged between what is
known today as the two-step and the polka. Four and sixteen
measures for a figure were less often used, and generally
reserved for the more experienced dancers or professional.
troupes. All of the music carried a distinct rhythm, and
it was difficult to keep from tapping out the beat provided.
Through the years there were many variations to the original.
quadriles. With the introduction of the different round
dances like the waltz, the polka, the mazurkas and the
schottische, the quadrilles took on some of the round dance
figures and adopted some of the associated styling.
The quadrilles so fascinated everyone who watched
them, that their acceptance was immediate and their popularity
spread like ice cream at a child’s birthday party. These
dances quickly spread across the channel, and after becoming
well established in the British Isles, they found their way
to America • With basic changes in the French government, as
a result of the French Revolution, the formation and rapid
growth of the United States, and the industrial growth of the
major world countries, only the basic or plain quadrilles
remained. The “Contras” or Longways dances are an offspring
from the square dance, developed to utilize the same basic
dance steps, but allow more couples to dance in a given floor
As the United States grew, many of the French and
English dance masters migrated to gain or regain their fortunes.
However, the ruggedness of the new country and its people
offered the dance masters little opportunity to teach fancy
ballroom dancing. Quite a few joined traveling theatrical
troupes that wandered about the country. As a sideline, these
men gave dancing instructions as the opportunities presented
themselves. Others became farmers, shopkeepers and traders,
and teaching dance figures was more for entertainment than
for any monetary return.
In the large cities, like Boston, New York and Phila-
delphia, the fancy ballroom dancing in all of its grandeur
was retained. However, as the years passed, the traditional
quadrilles were replaced by the minuets and mazurkas, later
by the polkas, schottische and the waltz, on into the foxtrot,
rhumba, tango and cha-cha, etc. In the urban areas, the old-
time dances were seldom seen, save for a few scattered clubs
and societies which kept up their practice.
The old-time dancing, primarily square dancing, has
remained a popular social outlet in many rural sections through
out the country. In church halls, barns and fire-houses the
weekly square dances, usually held on a Saturday night, was
the time for the whole family to drive many miles to get
together with their friends and neighbors to gossip and have
fun. With the advent of radio and television, the presence
of children has dropped off noticeably. However, an evening
of dancing with liquid refreshments to maintain the energy
level, followed by a coffee, cake and gossip period to wind
up the evening is still the way-of-life. At many of these
affairs, long tables are set up after the dancing, and large
platters of sandwiches, cakes and cookies with gallons of
cof fee and coke are served to facilitate the gossip talk.
Most of the couples attending the rural dances, not
having any formal dancing instructions, danced their own
versions of quadrilles, which, doing away with the French
terms, they called square dances. They replaced the prompters
by “callers” who were not professionals, but the ‘man next door’
who had a strong yet pleasing voice. The local callers, them-
selves not having any formal dancing instructions, lead the
dancers to the tune of a lone fiddle or accordion player,
commanding specific figures to be danced. The music was
generally the tunes popular at that time and had a distinct
cadence rhythm. To make up for deficiencies in the music,
and to lighten the drill type tenor of the dancing, the caller
would keep up a continuous patter as the dance went on.
Frequently, he would interrupt his patter to poke fun at some-
one on the floor.
The square dances of New England and some of the souther
states differ in several respects from the square dances of the
southwestern and western states. In many instances the dances
bear the same title, the calls are similar, and the same basic
step patterns and figures are used. The primary differences lie
in the style of performance and in the manner in which the calls
for the various steps and figures are given. These differences
are attributed to regional influences. The New England square
dance retains the quiet, smooth and somewhat uniform style of
performance which characterizes the English country quadrilles.
This style also reflects the reserved and conservative temper-
ment associated with individuals in the particular section of
the country. The calls are generally short, simple and concise
to the minimum degree necessary to acquaint the dancers with
what movements they are to perform.
The southwestern and western square dances, on the
other hand, are vigorous and hardy in style, permitting a
great deal of movement on the part of individual dancers.
This style is considered by many to reflect the rugged individual.
which characterized the pioneers who settled this section of the
country. Today the dances are divided into two main types, patter
or hash and the singing calls. In the patter calls, the caller
acquaints the dancer with the specific movements to be followed,
and fills in the call, itself with a “patter” of words which
usually rhyme, following the music almost count for count
with relatively few pauses interspersed throughout the dance.
Ingenious callers often make up their own “patter” or “hash”
thus injecting a great deal. of humor and many colloquial
expressions into the calls themselves. Hash calling generally
does not follow any repeating pattern of steps, although the
caller may have established a specific sequence of steps in
advance to provide a smooth flowing choreography to the dance.
Singing calls have an element of repeating dance patterns,
generally formulated by the caller. The singing call dances
are a bridge between the vigorous patter or hash dances and
the reserve New England style dances.
Along with American styling of these square dances,
any names of specific dance steps and figures were Americanized
or changed. “Alemande” is a French dance term adapted from
the German hand holding type dancing, but the callers said
it in an American pronunciation. The callers did the same
with “chassez” (foot—chasing) which became “sashay” and “dos-
a-dos” (back to back) which he pronounced “do-si-do”. Names
were changed to facilitate directing the dancers and to f it
the sing-song patter of the caller.
Simplifying the dancing from the well organized
quadrilles with their many intricate flowing figures to the
free style of the American version, but retaining the funda-
mental steps provided the commonality that allowed callers
and couples to be guests at dances in other parts of the
country. Many of the tunes popular fifty to one hundred years
ago, like Golden Slippers, Captain Jinks, Arkansas Traveler,
Red River Valley and many others, with their catchy toe-tapping
rhythm added to this commonality.
The plain “Eastern style square dances were popular
on Long Island through the 1940’s, During the 1950’s square
dancing gained tremendously in popularity, and at the same
time created a big demand for callers. In this area, the new
callers, in general, leaned toward the western style dancing,
and the dancers as a whole favored this style since it added
both more life and challenge to the dance. The calls described
herein are those used at western club-level. dances in~the