Henry Ford and Square Dancing

Modern square dancing actually has ties to Henry Ford. Henry Ford is best remembered for his development of the automobile and the production line, new things for his time. However, Ford actually was passionate about historic things including old-time country dances of his youth.

Henry Ford had met his wife Clara at a grange hall dance and they married in 1888. But within about 20 years, they had virtually stopped dancing as his automobile empire consumed his time and interest. Eventually his wife reminded him that they’d not danced much since they were married. So they attempted to recall their favorite dances and failed. Hating failure, Henry went in search of a dancing master.

While vacationing in Massachusetts, possibly at the Wayside Inn, an historic inn, he had purchased and restored, he became interested in a dance program run by dancing master named Benjamin Lovett. Mr. Lovett and his wife, Clara, had been teaching traditional New England social dancing for some 20 years.

Ford realized that the Lovetts, like himself, also believed that old-fashioned New England style dances could help provide a vehicle for social training for young people. Ford invited the Lovetts to Michigan to organize a series of dances for him. They ended up staying for more than 20 years.

The first dances were held in a Dearborn engineering laboratory. But the dances were basically a review of dance sequences and while Ford, his executives, and their wives tried their best, the first few attempts were mostly a mess of confusion. Ford insisted all participate in lessons every night until they got it right.

Lovett’s instruction became compulsory and everyone’s dance moves improved over the next two weeks. Friday dances became compulsary too, including any company his executives might have visiting or dining at their homes. The dances included square dances (quadrilles), contras, and round dances such as the varsovienne, the waltz and the polka. He refused to allow any of the newfangled jazz dances of twenties to be included.

Ford was concerned that traditional forms of American dance would be lost with increasing interest in new forms of ragtime and jazz dancing such as the Charleston. Ford and Lovett sought out and collected masses of information about old dance steps and figures and the songs that traditionally accompanied them.

A large portion of the book that they published in 1926 called “Good Morning” focused on detailed step-by-step descriptions of the Quadrille, as square dancing was known then, and contras as well as the waltz and other old-time round dances. Other portions covered style and deportment.

Ford organized a dancing school for young people shortly after the first dance class in the laboratory with Lovett as the instructor. It quickly grew into a large group. At one time there were as many as 22,000 students from Dearborn public schools in these classes. Ford developed a manual for physical education teachers to teach country dancing in Detroit public schools that was used for many years.

Traditional American dancing became a popular physical education class in colleges and universities as well. The Lovetts, with sponsorship from Ford, taught in as many as 31 different colleges and universities. Even with these programs, square dancing was seemingly dying out as a public form of dance across the United States except for small isolated pockets such as Ford’s Greenfield Village.

Ford built a beautiful ballroom with Burmese teak floors, chandelieres, and huge matching fireplaces in Greenfield Village in 1937. Friday night dances were held there and the music and calls were broadcast. The dances continued until America entered World War II. Lovett Hall is still in use today for special events along with a monthly dance although the dances are most likely less formal than those held when Ford was there.