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What is Square Dancing?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Square dancing today is often thought of as a vigorous and exciting dance set to classic Country and Western, American music. Modern square dancing shares in common with its origins a group of four couples, with each couple forming one of the sides. Western square dancing depends upon cooperation as the caller, usually using a microphone, calls out moves which required varied steps, spins, turns, and changes with partners.

Square dancing has its origins in the 17th century dance, the quadrille, as well as incorporates moves from the Morris Dance of the same time period. Further steps were added into square dancing from various regions through the US, and some form of square dancing has often been connected to the pioneers as they moved westward.

Traditional square dancing may be referred to as the quadrille, as well. It does not always use a caller and its forms are often defined as traditional folk dancing. Most popular in the Appalachians, the traditional form often involves clogging, where the feet perform, as in tap, to provide counterbeats to music. Both clogging, whether it be in quadrille form or not, and traditional square dancing, are typically performed to music of Irish or Scottish origin.

Celtic and UK music of the 18th century is the basis for most modern bluegrass, to which clogging is now typically performed. Though one often thinks of clogging as uniquely American, it is based on step dancing of Scotland and Ireland, where there still exists passionate cloggers.

Western Square dancing has intricate footwork as well, but is more defined by the use of a caller, although early dances may not have included one. Much of this type of dancing was done informally throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the US. Steps varied as to region, and often no caller was present at early barn dances where variants of the square dance might have been performed.

Interest in defining what constituted this folk based dance led Henry Ford to commission Benjamin Lovett to define the various steps of square dancing in the 1930s. He did so through radio shows and through a dancing club in Detroit. Inspired by Lovett, Lloyd Shaw thoroughly researched the step variations of different regions and published the book Cowboy Dancing in 1939.

Shaw’s book is still considered by many to be the definitive work and model for Western Square Dancing. His work includes definitions of over 40 different steps. He trained dancers and toured the US with his square dancing teams that brought great popularity and interest to Western square dancing.

Within fifteen years of the publication of Shaw’s book, Square dancing enjoyed significant popularity. Early dances often did not require much advanced practice in footwork as the caller directed the steps, and explained or demonstrated how each step should be performed. This differs greatly from modern forms of square dancing practiced today.

Since the 1970s, square dancing has been danced at levels of proficiency, and dancers must have knowledge of how to do the steps before joining. In some ways this is a little bit of a sad transition, as a few mistakes in earlier square dances were expected and part of the fun. Today’s steps are part of a “program,” and the greater number of steps with which a couple is familiar, the more advanced the program in which they can take part.

New steps are often developed and now most square dancing is governed and judged by CALLERLAB, the International Association of Square Dancing. CALLERLAB insists on clarifying the definition of steps so that all with similar knowledge can dance well. This is significant because a square can only be as good as its weakest member/s. While a few mistakes are still tolerated, they can throw off the entire square.

Though square dancing does not now enjoy the popularity it did in the 50s-70s, it is still a fun form of dance to learn, emphasizing social interaction. It has, in part, been replaced by Country line dancing, which does not require a partner. Simple forms of square dancing are often taught in elementary schools as a way of promoting good relationships among children, and teaching cooperation. Further, square dancers in organized clubs throughout the US gather frequently for social dances and for dancing competitions, a continued expression of this delightful dance form.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Sports n' Hobbies contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Denha — On Jan 05, 2011

@Catapult, the other big difference of course comes from the difference, sort of alluded to in this article but not really clarified, between "country" music and "bluegrass".

Especially in modern popular country music, the primary instruments have been guitars, basses, and even drums. In bluegrass, the focus has always been on banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and other stringed instruments; while guitars are often present, they are not always the leaders as they are in country music.

The lyrical styles of the two are also greatly different. Modern country singers have, to a great extent, adopted many of the same song styles of pop music; bluegrass, meanwhile, often focuses on the retellings of ballads and other old stories. Bluegrass music also has a strong religious tradition, as well as the influence of old UK traditions, as this article also points out.

By Catapult — On Jan 04, 2011

There are actually many differences between country square dancing and the sort of dancing done in Appalachia to bluegrass music.

The Appalachian dance, referred to in this article as clogging, is also called flat-footing. It is different from square dancing in many ways, particularly in its lack of a caller or of the typical square formation; some moves in flat-footing might call for everyone in the group to form a line or a circle, but generally everyone in flat-footing is doing their own thing, either in solo moves or with partners.

By anon119789 — On Oct 19, 2010

Enthusiasm is missing from our club. It is also difficult to get officers. Any suggestions to help us survive would be appreciated.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Sports n' Hobbies contributor, Tricia...
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