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of American Square Dancing Clubs e.V.

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EAASDC-Bulletin November 2011

Square Dance History


History and Heritage of Modern American Square Dancing
Kenny Reese 

This article is a reprint from Bulletin 1995/96 and not available at the archive of our EAASDC website. This reprint wants to appreciate the efforts of Kenny for our community. [Editor]


Dancing probably began as an imitative act, i.e., early man initiating some of the ritualistic dances of the animals. Historically, dance seems to have reached its low point during the days of the classical Greece. Then it was looked upon as an ignoble activity. Aristotle was supposed to have said, "No citizen should pursue these arts (music and dance) so far that he approaches professional status," and relegated such activities to slaves, freedmen and foreigners. The great Roman, Cicero, said, "Nobody dances unless he is drunk or unbalanced mentally." Italy saw the return of dancing during the 15th century, but France may be said to be the Mother of the modern art. Many of our dance terms show this French connection, including the call dos-a-dos, which means back-to-back.


English Heritage

Unquestionably, the English ancestor of our modern square dance was the great Morris dance. It was an exhibition dance done by trained teams of Morris dancers - six men (women did not participate) in two rows of three. Later on, in the 17th century, country dances became all the rage in England. Many were longways or line dances, and some believe that the contra got its name either from a mispronunciation of "country" or from the fact that the dances were done in two, opposing lines. At the same time, people did "rounds for as many as will", some of which resembled the choral dances often danced in the naves of English churches.

French Development

The French adopted and modified the English country dance and called it the “Contredanse Anglais”. They also produced the form of dance known as the Quadrille (a term which originally referred to a card game). lt is the Quadrille that most people point to as the grand-daddy of our modern square dance. However, history shows that "Dull Sir John" and "Faine I Would" were square dance routines popular in England over 300 years ago. The French also developed the Contredanse Francais or Cotilion, a dance done in a square formation with eight dancers.

Early Dance Masters

The vital link to this past was the dancing masters that came to the new land called America with the first settlers and brought with them the dances of their homeland. One of the earliest records (and there are not many) of these dances is contained in the works of John Playford, 1623 - 1686, a musician and dancing master. His book, "The English Dancing Master - Plain and Easy Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with Tunes to Each Dance" was published in seventeen editions between 1650 and 1728 and contained 918 dances. Meanwhile, couple dancing was keeping pace. The French had a round dance called the Branle, and there was the Gavotte and the Minuet. It was that most daring of all dances, waltz, that created quite a stir when it was introduced, for it permitted the gentleman to hold his partner in close embrace as they moved about the floor. That position, which we now call closed dance position, was known for many years as the waltz position.

Early American Forms

As the pioneers moved westward, the dances went with them. Many of the dances were lost or forgotten, but many were preserved, particularly in the southern Appalachians. There the running set established itself as one of the deep taproots of our western square dance. The running set even had a caller -- America's only unique contribution to the square dance. In the first part of the 20th century, American dancing suffered a great decline. Quadrilles and Contras died. People two-stepped the waltz and forgot the polka and the schottische. A rowdy form of dancing called the "barn dance" set a precedent square dancers long have fought to overcome. It took a great industrialist and superintendent from a small school in Colorado to lift the great American folk activity out of the doldrums.

Henry Ford

Mr. Henry Ford used to vacation at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. There he became interested in the dance program conducted by a dancing master named Benjamin Lovett. The program included the Gavotte, Mazurkas, the Schottische, the Minuet, the Virginia Reel, and other squares and rounds. Mr. Ford tried to hire Mr. Lovett, who declined, pointing out that he had a firm contract with the Inn. This posed no problem for multimillionaire Ford, who simply bought the Inn and Mr. Lovett’s contract and took Mr. Lovett back to Detroit with him. In the Detroit area, Mr. Ford established a broad program for teaching squares and rounds, including radio broadcasts and programs for schools. He built a beautiful dance hall in Greenfield Village and named it Lovett Hall. It is still in use. In 1926 Mr. Ford and Mr. Lovett published a book which provided inspiration and material for many people who had wanted such a reference. That book was entitled "Good Morning". One of the people who pounced on and devoured the book was a young school superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colorado, named Lloyd Shaw.

Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw

Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw realized that Fords book supplied only a part of the information on the American dance, and that the rest of it was under his nose in the small towns and farming and mining communities of his own West. He went to work painstakingly interviewing old-timers, collecting dances and music, researching. In 1939 he published the first really definitive work on western square dancing - "Cowboy Dances". Later he published a round dance book. He trained teams of dancers in his Cheyenne Mountain School and took them around the country exhibiting and teaching. In the summer, he conducted classes for new leaders, and western square dancing began to grow like wildfire. Of course, in those days, one did not ask if there would be rounds. It was taken for granted that one would do the Varsouvianna, a schottische, the Black Hawk Waltz, and perhaps, Blue Pacific Waltz. There might be a cue word here and there for the new people, but no cuer. Dancers knew the dances, just as they knew the figures of many of the square dance calls such as Birdie In The Cage, Lady Round The Lady and Dive For The Oyster.

Modern Square Dancing

Choreography Transition

Square dancing began its transition from the traditional, visiting couple type of dancing into all-four-couple-working kind of dancing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. One of the first to use this type of dance pattern was Ed Gilmore who travelled widely and conducted some of the earliest training programs for callers. Callers discovered they could move everyone at the same time and create more interest.

Electronics and Recordings

Meanwhile, the development of the electronic amplifier aided the transition, since it permitted the caller to manage large crowds. It was no longer necessary to shout, use a megaphone, or have a caller in each square. The improved public address equipment allowed the caller to be heard well enough so that the dance routine could be invented as it was called. No the dance pattern that went with a particular tune as was common in traditional dancing. Square dance records, particularly, the small, easy to manage 45 RPM discs, eliminated the need for live music, with all its attendant problems and allowed much greater musical variety and flexibility. The modern square dance activity owes much to the record companies who put out first, the 10" and 12" records that ran a 78 RPM and then an abundant supply of good music for square dancing on the much more easily handled 45 RPM 7" records. Some of the pioneering labels have been around since the 1950s. These include Sets In Order, MacGregor and Blue Star. Dozens of other labels have been added since then and without all of them modern square dancing could not have spread throughout the world as it has.

New Calls

In the late 1950s what had been a slow trickle of new call ideas and names began to turn in a flood. Square Thru (which had been danced without a name in contras for a couple of centuries) was given a name and introduced in 1957. Other new movements were created and named in quick succession and the nature of square dancing was changed. Soon we were teaching 16 calls in classes, then 20, and then 32, and then -- you know the rest of the story.

New Calls Programming

In the early 1960s another caller who travelled widely, Les Gotcher, began to use a programming technique that became very widespread. With a seemingly endless flood of new calls being created, callers found that by teaching new calls in several tips during an evening dance, the effect of experience differences between dancers could be limited. Since the calls were new to everyone the less experienced dancers had nearly equal chance to dance them successfully.

The Standard Lists

Eventually dancers became frustrated because they could never stop trying to learn the new calls. Attempts were made to develop a standard list. The national magazine, Sets In Order, with the help of a Gold Ribbon Committee, developed a list of 50 calls that everyone should know. Soon it became clear that some new calls, not on the 50 Basic list, were gaining wide acceptance and a supplemental list of 25 more calls was developed. The creators of these lists had hoped to provide a stable, unchanging body of calls that could serve as an entry point for new dancers but the square dance activity would not stand still. Newer calls kept winning favor from dancers and callers and could not be left off of any standard list.


In 1974, an organization named CALLERLAB, The International Association of Square Dance Callers, held its first convention. It has met every year since. CALLERLAB's first goals were to promote square dance terms, timing and styling and to look for ways to promote the activity to insure continued growth. In the years since that first convention several of the early goals have been accomplished. One challenge that the new organization had not expected was the need to provide some order in the chaos of new calls. The Programs of square dancing - Mainstream, Plus, and Advanced - were developed and are now widely accepted by dancers who no longer must learn several new calls each time they dance. The calls that make up these programs have been defined along with their timing and styling and these are also accepted world-wide. CALLERLAB has also established the CALLERLAB Foundation for the Preservation and Promotion of Square Dancing, a non-profit foundation that has as a primary task the development of promotional materials for recruiting new square dance students. CALLERLAB is also developing teaching materials both for teaching dancers and for teaching callers.


Square Dancing has been around for centuries. It began in England and France and came to America early in the history of the new world. As the population spread westward so also did square dancing taking different forms as it went. The uniquely American contribution to this development was the caller, sometimes called the prompter because he prompted the dancer’s memory of patterns they had learned. Modern square dancing began with the advent of public address equipment good enough to allow changing dance patterns and the use of recorded music. In the next 20 years hundreds of new calls were created. By the mid-1970s the new organization CALLERLAB was able to bring order to the new-call confusion by establishing standard dancing programs - Mainstream, Plus, etc. CALLERLAB also provided standard call definitions, timing and styling

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