What do the words “square dance” mean to you? For most they bring on images of red barns full of men in cowboy hats and women in gingham dresses skipping along as a fiddler plays and the cows and horses look on. These dances are often thought of as a thing of the 1930’s or something we see in movies such as Oklahoma. However, the form we know of today has far outgrown that stigma. Square dancing is popular across the world and is performed by all ages.
Square dance groups attend conferences, clinics, and competitions year round. There are also many magazines and newsletters devoted to the people addicted to this dance.The square dance, “four couples in a set who are led by a caller through a variety of maneuvers and formations”1 , has gone through many changes over the past centuries. Originally, it is believed to have come from the longways, or contra, dance. Performed as two parallel lines of dancers it was shortened later to form what is now known as square dancing. The contra dance can be found in seventeenth century Spanish dances that consist of the crossing of two columns and early English country-dance, two circles that return to their original lines. These dances were passed down through the generations and were merely memorized, but in 1650, the steps were written out.
However, the body formations were not entirely explained, so many past steps are not known. The tradition of “calling” the dances did not come until later.During the eighteenth century, religious groups rallied against dance, calling it devilish. Early Puritans, however, showed evidence of loving it. One English author, John Bunyon, said ” ‘all good people dance, from the angels down.’ “.2 The acceptance of dancing varied from preacher to preacher and upon acceptance a “dance master” would announce to the town that dance classes would be held for the people for the next couple of days.
Dance masters traveled the country fostering the growth of the dance, reaching out to people that would have never been exposed to such things. Upon a military alliance with France following the Revolution, French dance masters came to America introducing variations of their contra dance that had been shortened to line dances with four couples. These became known as quadrilles- a “forerunner of American Square Dance”.3 An anti-British sentiment caused the quadrilles to grow in popularity due to the Americans’ insistence on not supporting any English dances. In 1848, the West brought forth another new type of dance called a cotillion. These consisted of a square formation that was led by a fiddler who “called”, or gave a series of directions, to the dancers. So began the start of what we now know to be modern square dancing.
The breakdown of the modern square dance begins with the four major subdivisions: the introduction, the main figure, breaks, and the final terminating movement. In the introduction, the dancers in each set all move at the same time and these moves are interchangeable for almost any square dance. The second part, the main figure, consists of the bulk of the dance- a series of maneuvers. Dancers may have one couple perform a figure or the females may dance in unison and then the males. These are usually done four times. The breaks, or trimmings, are put in between each main figure and like the introduction, are often interchangeable. The breaks allow the dancers a slight break before continuing.
For the final part of the dance, known as the terminating movement, the dancers perform together and the caller usually decides upon its content. The formation of a square dance is “composed of four couples standing on the sides of a hollow square, facing toward the center”.4 Each of the couples stand on one side of the square.
The man stands to the left of the female. Some basic terms that are used when referring to the formation are couple, set, station, head and side. A couple means “two persons who are partners in the dance”.5 A set is a group of four couples that dance together. The station is each couple’s position in the set. Couples that stand at first and third are known as the head whereas those at second and fourth are the side couples. From these basic formations, the dance becomes more complex as other techniques are introduced. In order to participate in square dances of today, dancers must learn a set of basic movements and techniques.
These movements are one or two word commands such as the “ladies chain” or “wheel around” 6 that are the basics for the dance. By knowing these maneuvers the dancers will be in the positions necessary for the next call. Each step compliments the other so that the dance will go smoothly and without error. There are five skill levels attached to square dancers depending on the movements and techniques they know. The first, the Basic Plateau, covers the first forty-nine basic movements and is estimated to take ten two and a half-hour lessons to achieve.
Extended basics come next, followed by Mainstream, which has eighty-five basics. The fourth level, Plus Movements, is a step above Mainstream. Some dancers reach the Advanced Plateau or Challenge Plateau, the highest accomplishment. To make a square dance complete a good caller must lead the group. There are many different techniques to calling.
Each one helps the dancers through the different figures and patterns allowing the dance to run perfectly. The easiest call is known as the command call, where the caller simply calls out each command and then waits until the next one. This type often accompanies hoedowns due to the type of music used.
Patter calls are command calls with an extra excitement to them. Between the commands, meaningless, funny words are added in to spice it up. Another type of call is the singing calls. A well-known song is used with the calls substituted in for the original words.
This type of technique limits the flexibility of the caller’s phrasing because only certain words can be inserted into each song. Hash calling changes the methods of patter calling by switching the commands where the dancers do not anticipate it. This requires an experienced caller as well as experienced dancers who can keep up with the constant changes in the routine.In addition to the different techniques, callers must be aware of their other duties as well. Each caller is expected to know the experience level of the dancers attending their square dance and to exhibit an exuberant, outgoing personality that will allow everyone to feel at ease and secure. Rules for callers are not to lose patience with the dancers, always be tactful, do not go too fast and use familiar language. A good caller who pays attention to these rules can make for an enjoyable, entertaining square dance.
Just like callers, dancers are given guidelines as well. Each dancer is expected to have “proper posture, a smooth gliding step and a gentle touch or firm grip”.7 At the beginning of a dance the man bows from the waist and the woman curtsies. The curtsy is conducted by pointing forward with the left toe touching the floor and the right leg bent while she holds her skirt. While standing in their positions, the couples’ inside hands are joined, the man’s palm up and the woman’s palm down. Both person’s arms are bent and the hands are held just higher than the elbow. Torsos are not supposed to twist as the couples circle the floor.
Figures are never rushed but are expected to be done with the beat and as smoothly as possible. In order to keep up with the etiquette of square dancing, dancers do not sing along with the caller as to be able to concentrate on the caller’s commands. Today there are many square dance organizations and groups.
Many institutions, from elementary to high schools, teach the basic steps to students in an attempt to introduce them to the dance and to help settle their insecurities. The American Square Dance Magazine publishes a monthly issue offering new dances, information on conferences around the country, tips for the novel and the expert and entertaining editorials. Web sites devoted to square dances have lists of callers and dance clubs all over the world. Dance studios also offer classes for those interested in learning the art of square dancing. In order to enable anybody to participate in square dancing, groups such as LARO have been established. LARO, oral spelled backwards, is a square dancing club designed for the deaf or the seriously hearing impaired.
Started by Hank Greene, the caller teaches the dancers hand and body signals for the moves, such as “circle”, “swing”, “promenade” as well as others. They then dance to these signals and although they cannot hear the music they could sense the beat of the drum and they move in unison. These types of clubs allow for all types of people of different abilities and stages in life to enjoy the dance.The square dance has come a long way over the past hundreds of years. Evolved from the old contra dances, it has grown throughout the world and proves to have great popularity among all ages. The different styles and difficulties appeals to everyone’s needs and allows people to progress in the dance. Because of its fun and entertainment, square dancing provides most all people enjoy this dance and keep coming back for more. Even the most timid person comes alive when given the chance to square dance.
By participating in square dance people can make new friends, get some exercise, enjoy some good music and enjoy a piece of our heritage, dating back to the eighteenth century.1. Greene, Hank.
Square and Folk Dancing: A Complete Guide for Students, Teachers, and Callers. New York: Harper and Row, 2. Greene, Hank. Square and Folk Dancing: A Complete Guide forStudents, Teachers, and Callers.
New York: Harper and Row,3. Greene, Hank. Square and Folk Dancing: A Complete Guide for Students, Teachers, and Callers. New York: Harper and Row, 4.
Kraus, Richard G., Square Dances of Today. New York: A.
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