European Association
of American Square Dancing Clubs e.V.

Friendship is Square Dancing's greatest reward


EAASDC-Bulletin March 2011

Square Dance Historie

The Evolution of modern Square Dancing

Old Time Square Dancing
Reprint from EAASDC Bulletin Februar 1983

The ancestors of the modern square dancing in America are better known under the name of “Old Heritage and Barn Dances". In Europe these dances are mostly unknown and therefore this article information shall give the reader some background

The modern square dance, as we know it today is nothing but a blend of the European dances brought to America by the earliest immigrants. The two strongest influences were "The English Country Dances" and "The French Quadrille". The oldest evidence of this influence is found in the book "English Dancing Master" written by J. Playford in 1651

The English Country Dance probably originated from the “Morece Dawnses" as they were danced in English churches until the late 16 century. These dances were driven out of the episcopal life by the puritans and brought to America by the pilgrims, who danced in long lines out of which the "Longways" and "Contras" were later on developed. The music mostly came from one single pipe.

With the beginning of the 18th century the "French Quadrille" came into fashion and with it came the "Cotillon", which is a sort of a petticoat and the square formation with 4 couples dancing together.

However the French Quadrille (figuratively also called "Cotillon") was sentenced to become extinct because of its monotony -there were just very few figures which were repeated again and again during each dance. It disappeared from the American ballrooms for half a century. Revived as "The Great Quadrille" only is square formation reappeared. At first people still danced to English and Scottish Tunes but soon these tunes were superseded by semiclassical dance music and tunes especially composed for these Quadrilles.

We are now in the middle of the 19th century, since when one can speak of “Olde Tyme Square Dancing". Of course, people could no longer dance the "Great Quadrille" on the village greens as the ladies ' skirts were ruffled and puffed over hoops so that they did look like huge walking lampshades. The gentlemen wore tight trousers, shirts with linen ruffles and elaborate waistcoats. Dancing was done in large ballrooms lighted up by hundreds of candles in crystal chandeliers, and for the first time in the history of the square dance these was a "Prompter" who did "call" the figures. A few musicians, sitting on a platform, played the tunes on strings and woodwinds.

At the same time the "Couple Dance" (later Round Dance) originated from waltzes and polkas. People danced in groups of couples, moving with the same steps to the same beat of the music in the same direction just like nowadays.

Let's come back to the Square Dance. With the winning of the West the pioneers couldn't dance in the usual ballrooms any longer. Therefore the evolution was divided. In the East everything did remain the same, with the exception of some trifles. The "New England Country Dance" out of which the "Eastern Square Dance" was developed later on was born. In the West however, the evolution lead to the "Appalachian Mountain Dance" [Remark Editor: aren’t Appalachians located East?…] and later to the "Western Square Dance". The clothing was simplified; more suited to the life of the West. Most of the time people danced dressed the same way as they did go to church. There were no special ballrooms existent.

The dances were held mostly in barns. So the “Barn Dance” was born. People eagerly grabbed every possibility to arrange a public dance, since such an event offered the rare opportunity to even meet far distant living neighbors.

In addition to the different evolution soon every country developed own figures and different styling. This was the situation when Henry Ford in 1923 engaged the caller Benjamin B. Lovett to Dearborn, Mich., had the Lovett Hall build and revived the "Old Fashioned Square Dance" after 25 years of decadency by means of his book "Good Morning" (1926).

During the following years many famous men, like Lloyd Shaw, Ed Durlacher and Richard Kraus tried to unify the square dance figures and to write them down. This is how the Modern Square Dance was born.

Before closing I'd like to mention the "Old Style" activities in Munich. Independent from any clubs a group with twelve dancers was formed whose interests are the American Dances of the last century. I 'm trying to teach two evenings every month and thereby to learn myself. The material necessary, however, is very hard to get by and dancers as well as the caller have to work hard for their program. So, "Olde Tyme Square Dancing" has to be performed by idealists since a lot of work, time and money are invested in costumes and programs and can by no way recovered through demos. Nevertheless - all participants have a lot of fun and "to have fun" is one of the basic rules of square dancing.

Hoedown Heritage by Martin Rossoff (American Squaredance Magazine 1977)
The Story Of Square Dancing by Doroth Shaw (Set in Order 1967)

Editor: the author is not mentioned in the original article, but the text is manually signed looking like Karl Kohl jun.

To top