With national days for just about everything including dances like ballet, hip-hop, and National dance day, it should come as no surprise to have a national day for a dance that is as old as the thirteen North American colonies, and is the official dance of 19 US states today. National Square Dancing Day, observed on November 29th of each year, was established to celebrate one of America’s first dances originating from colonists and their European ancestors.
First displayed in 1600’s England by six trained performers, the men presented a choreographed sequenced of moves called morris dance. Though once consider a fad, the dance is believed to have inspired early English partner dancing where couples would lineup and move around each other in patterns reminiscent of modern-day square dancing. Along with English dances, the early folk dances of Scotland, Scandinavia, Ireland, France, Spain, and other European nations also helped contribute to present-day Square dance. While French couples social danced in moving squares and patterns for the quadrille and cotillions, their kin who were settling in England’s thirteen North American colonies brought their early European folk dances and traditions along with them.
While keeping some of the traditions from its early European predecessors, Square dancing began to evolve upon its arrival in the so called “new world.” As America began to diversify and new innovations and traditions began to take the place of what once preceded, Square dance became less visible and seemed relegated to small, rural towns such at the Appalachian mountain range. A type of Square dance known as the “running set” grew in popularity in 19th-century Appalachia. One change that occurred at the time was rather than memorizing long lists of calls and steps, one person known simply as the caller was delegated with the task of prompting the dancers to follow a series of steps (to the music). While callers can partake in the dance, there are typically found outside of the dance square, yelling out commands near the band.
The mid to uptempo ranging live music that accompanies most Square dance is typically led by fiddles, accordions, guitars and bagpipes. African-American musicians often made up the live Music bands that accompanied early American Square dances. In fact, many African-American artists contributed not only music, but dance steps and songs as well. The dancers would generally form lines, circles, squares and other patterns as they moved around and between each other according to the callers instructions. The couples who consist of male/female, male/male, female/female take a turn every role.
Beginners Square Dance Demo by Garland Smith.
Square dance is often romanticized as part of the old west and western cowboy culture. Featured in old Hollywood Western films and mentioned in historical accounts from that era, this dance conjures up images reminiscent of the days when cowboys and other settlers would woo Southern belles at saloons and other dances.
As the US began to grow and diversify, later generations ceased practicing this centuries old cultural tradition brought along on ships with their ancestors. The late 19th century ushered in a new wave of partner dance with styles that allowed couples to get closer like the waltz and polka. These began replacing less intimate group square dances in urban ballrooms across the country. Square dancing began to seem dated even in some of its traditional Western settings. This disinterest only increased after the turn-of-the-century with the swing and jazz crazes spreading across the world like wildfire.
Surprise to many, it was iconic automaker Henry Ford who swooped in to the rescue of the colonists first official dance. Ford was on a mission to keep Square dance alive and relevant because of its impact in his life. Ford proclaimed that Square dancing was a good way to acquire genteel manners and get exercise. So he hired dance master Benjamin Lovett to create a national Square dance program. He went even further by opening ballrooms around the county, requiring his employees to take dance classes, and producing instructive radio broadcasts for schools throughout the US. In the 1930’s folk dance teacher Lloyd Shaw carried on the cause by writing books about “the rescued art of” square dance and hosting special seminars for up-and-coming Square dance callers.
While square dancing has experienced waves in its popularity over the years, following a declined presence during the World Wars, it experienced a resurgence in popularity during the American folk music revival of the 1950’s. This was a time when dancers began learning interchangeable patterns and routines, and callers began developing standards for Square dance across the United States. Modern innovations like recorded music and microphones made the dance more accessible to more people, as it no longer required the physical presence of a highly experienced caller. While standardized/western Square dancing, along with unregulated/traditional Square dancing continue to thrive in certain regions, an overall decline in participation (in recent decades) has been noted, according to the United Square dancers of America.
Enthusiasts can celebrate national square dance day by learning it, first and foremost; then sharing it with others online and in their local community. Keeping in mind that it is an easy dance to learn with no memorization of complex choreography required, and a caller instructing you on what to do, when. With a relaxed atmosphere and interactive, social setting, making it a beginner friendly environment. Those interested in Square dance day can take a class, watch online video tutorials, or even films like Wynona Ryder’s “Square dance.” Whether a veteran or novice dancer with two left feet, gather a group and give this European – American hybrid centuries old tradition a try!