The History of Square Dancing

The Early Years: 1500s to Early 1800s

When immigrants came to America from Europe, they brought their native folk dances with them. From England, Scotland and Ireland came Contras, Lances, Irish Jigs and Morris Dances. France gave us the Quadrille and the Minuet. From Germany and Holland came various circle dances and mixers. None of these were actually called square dances, but many dances were performed in a square formation. The dancers would learn them from instructors referred to as dance masters, but once learned they were danced from memory with no prompting or cueing. As these groups began socializing together in the early 1800s, they shared their dances and often combined elements from each others' routines to create entirely new dances. Gradually they evolved into what became known as Square Dancing. As the repertoires became larger and more complex it became difficult for dancers to remember the routines, and the dance master would often prompt or "call" the dances. Thus the caller came into existence.

The First Wave of Popularity: 1840s Through the 1890s

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century Square Dancing became a regular part of America's social scene. Nearly every community began hosting square dances as part of their civic celebrations; churches and social groups began having square dances on a regular basis. When neighbors got together to help each other build a new barn or home, the climax would be a square dance in the evening. By the 1890s, however, couple dances were coming to America from Europe and Square Dancing fell out of favor with the population.

Decline and Near Extinction: 1890s to Early 1930s

As the population became more urban it also became more cosmopolitan. Booming trade brought to our shores new fashions, new music and new dances from other continents. Adding to the decline of Square Dancing was the popularity of the uniquely American music forms Ragtime and Jazz. With the Ragtime Era came the Quickstep dances, and with the Jazz period came Swing dancing. Few people were Square Dancing and the callers were growing older and passing away, and the dances were dying with them.

Saving Square Dancing / Second Wave of Popularity: 1930s to Early 1960s

The second wave of popularity came from a very unlikely source in the early 1930s. While vacationing at a resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York, millionaire industrialist Henry Ford was exposed to Square Dancing by Benjamin Lovette, a New York City schoolteacher who was employed for the summer as a social director. Being somewhat a prude, Ford believed that dancing was vulgar and sinful, but Square Dancing appealed to him since it was a social dance where one interacted with a group rather than as a couple. Ford hired Lovette and brought him to his estate in Detroit. He financed a project to have Lovette travel to New England, Appalachia and the Eastern part of America contacting old callers and writing down the square dances from the past. These were compiled into a book co-authored by Ford and Lovette entitled "Good Morning."

Meanwhile another educator from Denver, Lloyd Shaw, was so inspired by the book that he began documenting old square dances from the western states, publishing them in a book entitled "Cowboy Dances." Through the efforts of these three men, Square Dancing was poised for its next resurgence. There were three things that catapulted Square Dancing over the next two decades. First was a new invention, the radio. Many stations around the nation began airing shows that featured square dance callers, and people would invite friends over and dance in their parlors to these shows. Secondly, Square Dancing became a part of the curriculum of schools across the country, spearheaded by Benjamin Lovette, who got it introduced into the New York City school system. Finally, World War II introduced servicemen to the Square Dance and it was a regular part of the activities offered in service clubs here and abroad.

Decline and Innovation: 1960s Through 1980s

During the decades of the 50s and 60s, the Rock & Roll generation turned away from Square Dancing. Unlike the first decline, however, it didn't completely disappear. Instead of communities, churches and social organizations hosting dances, actual Square Dance clubs had sprung up across America. This assured that even though the number of dancers had declined, there were now groups dedicated to preserving the dance form. There was also a new form of Square Dancing that began evolving during the 1950s and 1960s. This "modern" Square Dancing differed from the traditional square dance by having the dancers learn specific calls rather than routines. Callers of this new Square Dance form could now create figures randomly instead of calling a specific pattern. Clubs continued to do both types of dancing with one or two "hash tips" each night using the modern style. As the number of basic calls grew from just a dozen or so in the 1950s to fifty calls by 1965, and then 75 calls by 1970, the two forms of Square Dancing grew farther and farther apart. The final and deciding split occurred in 1974 with the formation of Callerlab. From that time forward, Square Dancing has been defined as either "Traditional" (predetermined routine known by the dancers) or as "Modern Western" (series of calls determined by the caller).

Third Wave of Popularity: 1974 Through Mid-1990s

With the creation of Callerlab, square dance callers became more professional and more of the stars of the dances rather than just the leaders of the dance. As more and more callers developed a following of fans, and with Square Dancing being very affordable during the poor economy of the 1970s, people began flocking to classes and dances. The number of clubs and dancers swelled to unheard-of numbers over these two and a half decades. One of the National Square Dance Conventions boasted of having 62,000 dancers in attendance and every annual convention had numbers well over 20,000. There were over one hundred producers of square dance records and every top caller became a recording artist on one of them. Many callers became full-time and actually made a living from calling, traveling year-round calling club dances and festivals, settling into square dance resorts or both.

Square Dancing Today

Today 37 states including Missouri have designated Square Dancing as their state folk dance. This wholesome recreation is enjoyed by millions of dancers throughout the world. A dancer can travel all over the world and find the dance familiar. Globally, Square Dancing is always called in English because the calls don't translate into other languages. Square dancers are friendly and social, and often greet one another with a "Yellow Rock" which is a hug. Square Dancing today is called "Friendship Set to Music."