Square Dancing’s Traditional Roots. Square dancing has a rich history in the US with ties to European dances in the 15th-18th centuries. It is most likely a marriage of the various forms of folk dances that came over with people when they moved across the ocean. The taproots go back to English and French ancestors as well traces of Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian, Spanish and others.
Gradually the various folk dances blended as people moved around and left their tightly knit cultural communities. It became a community form of dance and was danced in a proper square or in contra style of facing lines although often moves were introduced in a circular mixer. Sometimes there was no music, so a rythm was establish by clapping and stomping or beating on a tub or drum of some kind.
There are ties to the vigorous English Morris dancing that was done only by six very strong and athletic men in two lines of three using many move most square dancers would clearly recognize. There was no caller although cues might be given by the head Morris dancer.
Later English country dances became popular. These were line dances done with couples and may have been the start of “contra” (a mispronunciation of “country”) dances done in two opposing lines. Other dances included French quadrilles and cotillions. Rounds also became popular and some resembled choral dances done in the naves of English churches. In New England, the rounds or couples dances tended to favor ballroom dances such as the waltz, schottichess, varouviannas, and even polkas.
The French Quadrille probably had some influence on the American square dance as well. A quadrille was a very precise and measured dance. Most dancers were probably trained by a dance master so this wasn’t really a general public form of dance although it was fairly popular with the wealthier classes in early American communities.
It was danced in a formal square and the dance was often prompted or cued just ahead of the steps so dancers would be able to step into the move on the proper beat and count. Some were actually sung and other just said much like is done for contras today. Couples, however were numbered one, three, two, and four to the right starting with the head couple so that opposite couples were one and two, and three and four.
Probably much of what came west and more closely resembles modern square dancing orginated with dances that developed in the Appalachians often called the Running Set, which has close ties to the English country dance. It was a more vigorous and freeform dance compared to the quadrille. Unlike the quadrille, couples were numbered one, two, three, four around the circle to the right just as with today’s modern square dance.
Although early versions tended to done in large circles, they used many figures and steps that resemble moves common in modern square dancing today. Unlike the New England dances there usually was a prompter, as the caller was called, to tell people what to do. Other times, the dances were memorized.
Early squares were done in a visitation style one couple vists the other three couples one couple at a time, followed by some moves by the entire square, then the next couple completes the vistation pattern, then entire square pattern is repeated, the next vistation pattern, etc. until all four couples had completed the visitations and the last square pattern was completed. It could be a very long set before it was all done. And it was often done at a very quick pace of continuous and even furious dancing.
People often memorized the patterns so one just had to be told this dance or set will be such and such patterns and off they’d go. If one didn’t know the patterns, then the repetition of the visitations would ensure that the people in the third or fourth couple positions would have learned the pattern by the time it was their turn.
Often set patterns were associated with particular songs, although many times the pairings varied by locale. Calls included moves such as Duck for the Oyster and Dive for the Clam, Birdie in the Cage, and Lady ’round the Lady, and everyone knew what they were.
Gradually square dancing and other folk dances became unfashionable in urban areas and were found only in rural areas of New England, Appalachia and the American West. The eastern and southern square dance styles tended to become more and more localized and often a bit different from other regions as time passed.
However, as people moved west they took their dances with them and the dances began to blend again. Squares became the prefered format oftem because dancing was done in homes or with smaller groups that favored the square over long pairs of opposing contra lines. Western square dances tended to have callers to cue dancers as to the moves, which was a contribution from it’s Running Set heritage.
Many of the new or modified dances when brought back to New England, New York or even Appalachia were not appreciated at first because they were regarded with contempt for having been modified. Gradually they got accepted because the local young people found the modified dances fun to do. A reintegration and blending began to occur but this time from west to east.
Where Was Dancing Done? In many community square dances took place in barns, taverns, town halls, schools, and even churches where there were large rooms that could be cleared to make enough room for people to dance. They might even just make do with dancing out under the stars by lantern light, street lights or later on by the light of automobiles. Sometimes they even built dance halls right into their houses if they were wealthy enough or designed a large living room that could accomodate a dance gathering of a couple of squares if the furniture were moved out.
Dances were held whenever people gathered at community functions like husking bees, barn or roof raisings, sheep shearings, or on market days.
Often people invited a few people over to their homes to dance in their kitchens with the fiddler sitting in the kitchen sink or standing in the doorway so the floor was free for dancing. Out west, sometimes, the dancing was done inside a one-room cabin with all the belongings shoved to one side or hauled up to a loft or outside. This required that squares were danced rather than long contra style lines due to the tighter spaces.
Generally the ladies brought basket lunches to share, which were eaten on the kitchen furniture had been moved out of the kitchen or cabin into the yard to make room for dancing. The entire gathering was quite a neighborly and friendly celebration, very typical of today’s modern square dance gatherings.
Often community dances didn’t last very long. Part of it was because it was hard to get all the musicians together to play for a dance for any length of time because they were generally working men and farmers too. And a caller, if used, had to be available at the same time as well as a dance hall of some kind.
Additionally, the caller had to be able to call loud enough to be heard over the band by using his hands or a megaphone to amplify his voice. Although the calling was often done in a monotone or chanting style or perhaps sung to the tune of the music so the people could understand the calls, callers could only call so long before they went hoarse. All these factors tended to keep a dance somewhat short.