An Introduction to the Various Styles of American Square Dancing
First and foremost, square dancing is about people - socializing, dancing, playing music, and connecting with each other Square dancing as we know it began in Europe in the 1600s. Over the centuries it has spread to many countries and has experienced quite an evolution. This evolution tells a fascinating story and points to a bright future for this flexible social dance form.
The details of the story of the North American square dance invite a great deal of speculation, and a fair amount of disagreement among the many people who care deeply about the activity. Note from Nils Fredland: "While I don't presume to be a scholar and expert on square dance history, I have developed my own understanding of square dancing's journey through time." We encourage you to develop your own understanding of this fascinating journey! To get you started, we offer the following overview of six categories of American squares. We have also included a very brief introduction to the rich history of Canadian square dancing.
May 2020 Update: Radiolab recently produced an interesting podcast about Square Dancing in the United States. You can listen to it here.
Square dancing is a social dance form with English, French, and Scots-Irish roots. Early four couple dances in square and round formation can be found in John Playford's 17th-century English dance text The Dancing Master. Another four couple square formation developed in 18th-century France, probably independent of English squares and rounds. This French invention, named the quadrille, is arguably the main predecessor to the North American square dance as we know it today. The quadrille, and quadrille-inspired forms, developed over the course of a hundred years or so, and by the mid-19th century had swept both Europe and the Americas.
A style of dancing rooted in the French courts and English high-society. Most traditional New England squares are in this style. The quadrille (upon which today's American quadrille style squares are based) was an 18th century French invention, but by the early 19th century these dances had swept both Europe and the Americas. The early quadrilles were five- or six-part, carefully choreographed sequences danced in four-couple square sets.
Some characteristics of American quadrille style squares:
- Danced in four-couple square sets.
- Typically danced in connection to the phrases of the music.
- Led by a caller providing prompts, as in a contra dance.
- Choreography includes courtesy moves (bows and honors), in addition to some standard quadrille figures like ladies chains, rights and lefts, half promenade, half right and left, etc.
- Long swings: 8 to 16 beats.
- Danced to a wide variety of music: tunes from England, Scotland, Ireland, New England, and French Canada.
- Quadrille Wikipedia entry — Overview on the development of the quadrille
- Some Notes on the Lancers, by Ralph Page — Discussion of a popular 19th-century quadrille form called "The Lancers"
- Edson H. Cole: Fiddler, Caller, and Dancing Master — Listen to several early 20th century examples of quadrille prompting by New Hampshire fiddler, caller, and dancing master Edson H. Cole. The site also includes brief historical background; Cole calling contras and other non-square formations, in addition to the quadrilles; and an interview with Kenneth Libby (conducted by Dudley Laufman), who attended some of Cole's dancing classes as a young man.
- The Lancers: Some Historical Notes by Ralph Page — Five-part series documenting more information on the Lancers
- Quadrilles and Cotillions — Interesting discussion of the differences between Cotillions and Quadrilles, from the FIDDLE-L discussion group
|Plain Jane||Adam Boyce||Ed Larkin Dancers, Tunbridge, VT|
|Reuben, Reuben||Adam Boyce||Ed Larkin Dancers, Tunbridge, VT|
|Honest John||Adam Boyce||Ed Larkin Dancers, Tunbridge, VT|
|Excerpt of figure no. 1 from Duval's Lancers||Dance Through Time video|
|Duval's Lancers, Nos. 1, 2, & 3||Quadrille Club video|
|Duval's Lancers, Nos. 4 & 5||Quadrille Club video|
Appalachian / Old-Time Mountain Style
As the quadrille was gaining popularity in American cities and urban areas, a unique style of square dancing and fiddle music was developing in more isolated communities across the Appalachian Mountains of the American East. This style of dancing has many different names, including "Southern," "Appalachian," "mountain," "Running Set," and "old-time." Depending on whom you ask, Appalachian square dancing and old-time fiddle music have English, Scots-Irish, African, or other ethnic origins.
Sometimes referred to as "Southern," this style appears to have developed in rural communities in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Englishman Cecil Sharp came across old-time mountain style in Kentucky during the last of several trips to America between 1915-1918. In The Country Dance Book, part 5 (1918), Sharp published a description of old-time mountain style, and named it "Kentucky Running Set." There is no evidence that the locals referred to the dance this way; more likely, Sharp misunderstood someone talking about "running a set." Sharp asserted that the dances were English in origin, and pre-dated the quadrille. There are compelling arguments developed more recently (notably a 1969 article called "Appalachian Square Dancing" by Hugh Thurston in Northern Junket vol. 9 nos. 11 and 12, and by Lee Ellen Friedland in her article, "Square Dance," in The International Encyclopedia of Dance) that indicate Scotch-Irish origins, and also leave the door open for other possible ethnicities.
Some characteristics of old-time mountain style squares:
- Danced in four-couple square sets, or in a large circle of couples, depending on community: North and West of the Blue Ridge, the tendency is four-couple square sets; South and East, the tendency is a big circle of couples.
- Danced to the beat of the music, not necessarily connected to the phrase.
- A caller typically leads the dance. The timing of the calls is consistent from one dance event to the next, and is usually not affected by what is happening on the floor. The caller in old-time mountain style provides: the overall timing (including length of the figure, the swings, transitions on to the next, etc.); starting the dance and ending the dance; and entertainment (calls are expected and are as much a part of the dance as the music).
- Many figures have associated rhyming calls that have been passed down over generations of callers, musicians, and dancers.
- No honors, and no quadrille figures.
- Short swings: 4 to 8 beats.
- Danced to hoedowns (reels) played in the Appalachian style.
- The Origin of the Appalachian Square Dance, part 1 & part 2, by Hugh Thurston — An interesting and compelling theory arguing the Scots-Irish origin of Appalachian square dancing
- Square Dancing in Haywood County, North Carolina, by Phil Jamison — Fascinating article from the Old-Time Herald about the 19th and 20th century story of Appalachian square dancing
- West Virginia Square Dances, by Bob Dalsemer— From the CDSS E-Library focusing on Appalachian-style squares
- Kentucky Mountain Square Dancing, by Patrick Napier — From the CDSS E-Library focusing on Appalachian-style squares
|Big set||Stars, Birdie in the Cage, Duck for the Oyster, Chase the Rabbit||Bob Dalsemer||Cumberland Dance Week, KY|
|Big set||Stars, Basket, Birdie in the Cage||Falls Creek Falls Park, TN|
|Big set||Stars, Basket||Joe Sam Queen||Waynesville, NC|
|Big set||Stars, Birdie in the Cage||Beth Molaro||Square dance beginners workshop, Clifftop 2010, WV|
|Big set||Georgia Rang Tang (aka Georgia Alabam)||Phil Jamison||John C Campbell Folk School, NC|
|Big set||Georgia Rang Tang||Midway Lake Music Festival, NWT, Canada|
|Big set||Georgia Rang Tang, Dip and Dive||Midway Lake Music Festival, NWT, Canada|
|Little circle||Stars, Georgia Rang Tang||Beth Molaro||Rockbridge Music and Dance Festival 2010, VA|
|Square||Chase the Rabbit, Pokey-o (aka Bouquet Waltz)||Bob Dalsemer||John C Campbell Folk School, NC|
|Square||Chase that Rabbit||Zach Hudson||House party, Portland, OR|
|Square||Duck for the Oyster||Jerry Gallaher||Darrington Grange Hall, WA|
|Square||Duck for the Oyster||Bob Dalsemer||Cumberland Dance Week, KY|
|Square||Birdie in the Cage||Bob Dalsemer||Dare to Be Square, Portland, OR|
|Square||Basket||Matt Cartier||House dance, Fayetteville, AR|
|Square||Old Side Door, Stars, Georgia Rang Tang, Bouquet Waltz||Fred Feild||House dance, Tucson, AZ|
|Square||Bouquet Waltz||Dave Snedden||Alisonville Hall, Wellington, Ontario|
|Square||Grapevine Twist||Kris Jensen||Albuquerque Folk Festival, NM|
|Square||Grapevine Twist, Duck for the Oyster||Fred Feild||House dance, Tucson, AZ|
|Square||Swing at the Wall, Birdie in the Cage||Portland Old-Time Music Gathering 2011, OR|
|Square||Lady Round the Lady||Gabe Strand||Folklife 2009, WA|
|Square||Take a Little Peek||Michael Ismerio||Portland Old Time Music Gathering, OR|
|Square||Grandpa's Baby||Matt Cartier||House dance, Fayetteville, AR|
|Square||Cut Away Six||Bill Martin||Dare to Be Square, Portland, OR|
|Square||Shave 'er Down (aka Lady Walk the Circle)||Matt Cartier||Fayetteville, AR|
Traditional Western Squares
The quadrille and Appalachian mountain-style square dance forms traveled with the settlers of the American West, and a new style of square dancing slowly developed combining elements of both forms. This new form of Western square dance (now named, by some, "traditional Western") eventually captured the attention of the American public, through the efforts of a young educator in Colorado named Lloyd Shaw. Motivated in part by Henry Ford's book, Good Morning — which was written to help revive the "old-fashioned" American quadrilles, contras, and couple dances that had been, by the early 20th century, largely replaced by the jazz-inspired fashions of the ballroom — Shaw set out to publish a book of traditional American square dances with a particular focus on collecting and documenting dances found in the American West. The book Cowboy Dances gave rise to Shaw's popular caller training classes, as well as his nationally-traveling teenage dance demonstration team, the Cheyenne Mountain Dancers. All of this energy and exposure led to a square dance craze in the mid-20th century, with millions of Americans participating in the activity on a regular basis.
Figures in this style of square dancing bear a resemblance to old-time mountain style because many of the early settlers of the American West came from Appalachia and brought their dance and music traditions with them. As more settlers moved West, a "new" Western square dance tradition slowly developed, combining elements of quadrille style and old-time mountain style square dance.
Some characteristics of traditional Western style:
- Danced in four-couple square sets.
- Sometimes danced in connection to the phrases of the music (as in quadrille style), sometimes danced to the beat rather than the phrase (as in old-time mountain style).
- A caller provides the directions for the figures of the dance, using the traditional old-time mountain style described above, but also incorporating quadrille style prompts and "sight timing" (watching the dancers, and delivering the next call just as the dancers are completing the previous move) to keep the dancers moving smoothly through the figures.
- The caller uses extra language to fill in the spaces between directions (often colorful rhyming language, not necessarily directive), commonly referred to as "patter."
- Choreography combines honors, some quadrille figures, and figures from old-time mountain style, as well as new choreography developed during the heyday of traditional Western style square dance (1935-1955).
- Short swings: 4 to 8 beats.
- Danced primarily to hoedowns (reels) played in the Appalachian style.
- Lest We Forget: Henry Ford and American Dancing and The Dean of American Square Dancing: A Short Sketch About Benjamin Lovett, both by Ralph Page— More information about Henry Ford and his dancing master, Benjamin Lovett
|Wagon Wheel||Ralph Sweet||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Wagon Wheel||Ralph Sweet||Powder Mill Barn, Enfield, CT|
|Texas Star||Phil Jamison||Dare to Be Square, Brasstown, NC|
|The Bachelor Mill||Nils Fredland||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Sally Goodin||Ralph Sweet||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Gents Whirligig||Matt Cartier||House dance, Fayetteville, AR|
|Bend the Line theme||Bill Litchman||FolkMADness, Soccorro, NM|
|Scoot and Swing ("Cutaway six, and swing on the corner...")||Beth Molaro||Rockbridge Music and Dance Festival, VA|
|Ends Turn In||Phil Jamison||Georgy-Alabam Square Dance Weekend, GA|
|Allemande X||Nils Fredland||Spring Breakdown Dance Weekend, Columbia, MO|
|Mow the Wheat, Bouquet Waltz||Lisa Greenleaf||Brattleboro Dawn Dance, VT|
|Pop the Line||Lisa Greenleaf||Spring Thaw Dance Weekend, Toronto, Canada|
|Allemande Thar w/ bits from Arkansas Traveler||Bob Dalsemer||Dare to Be Square, Portland, OR|
|Divide the Ring theme||House party, Bloomington, IN|
|Plow the Row||Zach Hudson||House party, Portland, OR|
Modern Western Squares
The extraordinary interest in square dancing in the mid-20th century gave birth to the branch of the activity now named "modern western." Many callers learned from Lloyd Shaw, then took their newly acquired skills and interpreted them for use in their own local communities. The 1960s and early 1970s saw a flood of new calls appearing as callers tried to outdo each other in creativity. It became difficult for dancers (and for other callers) to keep up with the vast number of new figures that were being invented; clearly, some effort at standardization was essential to support the continuing widespread growth of square dancing. As a result, the governing organization for modern western square dance leaders, CALLERLAB, was founded in 1974. The original stated goals of the charter were: "To put the dance back into square dancing; establish standardization for calls; and provide adequate training for callers."
Modern Western square dancing began in the 1940s, and overlapped in a twenty-year period of transition with traditional western squares. During this transitional time, the hybrid style of traditional Western dance began to develop, characterized by all four couples in a square moving simultaneously. This resulted in the potential for more complex patterns; since the 1960s, the modern western square dance movement has realized the full potential of that complexity by creating many new choreographic building blocks, and training callers and dancers, by way of a hierarchy of classes, to gain the knowledge necessary to navigate the ever-changing MWSD landscape.
Some characteristics of modern Western square dance:
- Danced in four-couple square sets.
- The role of the caller is more prominent than in the traditional styles described above. The caller creates the dance as it is called, and must match it to the skills of the dancers; a particular sequence of dance figures is not taught beforehand, nor can dancers anticipate the next calls.
- To help callers manage the increasing complexity in MWSD, a governing organization named CALLERLAB was founded in 1974.
- Dancers belong to clubs offering classes that allow them to progress through the various levels. Clubs also host dances that are for members only, as well as hosting larger events that are open to the public.
- In the last century a dress code was widespread, but has become less common recently. The most formal dress is known as "traditional square dance attire." For men, this used to call for western style shirts with string ties or bolos, and often cowboy boots. For women, the dress code has changed substantially over the years, but even now usually has a wide skirt, often with a full petticoat. The longer prairie skirt is becoming more popular today.
- Danced to recorded music, including both hoedowns and accompaniment for singing squares.
- History of CALLERLAB — More information about the transition from the Lloyd Shaw era to modern Western square dancing, from the organization's website
- Square Dance Foundation of New England 1960's Era Recordings — Listen to audio examples of popular callers from the early days of MWSD. Five of the callers included were charter members of CALLERLAB. These recordings made available through the meticulous work of Jim Mayo for the Square Dance Foundation of New England.
- Western Style Square Dancing Is in Trouble, by Ralph Sweet — Ruminations on the future of modern Western square dancing, excerpted from a 1965 book by Ralph Sweet (with a brief introduction by Clark Baker)
|Patter square||Ted Lizzotte||MIT Tech Squares, MA|
|Singing Square - Sweet Home Alabama||Ted Lizzotte||MIT Tech Squares, MA|
|Patter square||Pat Barbour||Bluebonnets Squares, Houston, TX|
|MWSD Patter||Kappie Kappenman||Dance with live music, The Aqua Barn, Seattle, WA|
|Another Square Dance Caller||Jim Mayo||N Waterford, ME|
|The Square Dance is On||Tony Oxendine & Jerry Story||Pride RV Resort|
|Rock Me, Mama||Jerry Story & Thomas Doug Machalik||Unknown|
A relatively modern form of square dance, found throughout the United States and Canada (except where old-time mountain style predominates) from the 1930s to the present. Singing squares use figures from quadrille, old-time mountain, and traditional Western styles; a figure is paired with a popular song, and the original lyrics are rewritten as directions for the dancers. This style has roots in 18th century European and American quadrilles, some of which were danced to the popular music of the day.
Some characteristics of singing squares:
- Danced in four-couple square sets.
- Danced to the phrases of the music.
- A caller provides the directions for the figures of the dance, sung as lyrics to the tune of the associated song. Depending on the local tradition, the caller might use prompting, sight timing, patter (within the structure of the melody of the song), or some combination of those three skills, to keep the dancers moving smoothly through the figures. It is common in traditional communities, where dancers know most of the figures by heart, for callers to simply sing the rewritten lyrics without regard to what is happening on the floor, and let the dancers adjust as necessary to keep the calls and the dancing in sync.
- Timing of swings vary: Northeastern singing squares tend towards longer swings of 8 to 16 beats; singing squares in the traditional Western style tend towards shorter swings of 4 to 8 beats; swings in modern Western singing squares tend to be only once around.
- Danced to popular songs from the late 19th century to the present.
|Trail of the Lonesome Pine||Tony Parkes||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Trail of the Lonesome Pine||Tod Whittemore||Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, Durham, NH|
|The Auctioneer||Ralph Sweet||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|The Auctioneer||Nils Fredland||Contra Dancer's Delight Holiday, Morgantown, WV|
|Listen to the Mockingbird||Lester Bradley||Wentworth, NH|
|Listen to the Mockingbird||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
|Just Because||Tod Whittemore||Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, Durham, NH|
|Just Because||David Millstone||Scout House, Concord, MA|
|Down Yonder||Bob Dalsemer||Dare to Be Square, Portland, OR|
|Marianne||Tony Parkes||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Little Red Wagon||Nils Fredland||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Shindig in the Barn||Ralph Sweet||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Comin' Round the Mountain||Lester Bradley||Wentworth, NH|
|Red River Valley||Lester Bradley||Wentworth, NH|
|Duck for the Oyster, sung to "Jingle Bells"||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
|Maple Sugar Gal||Tod Whittemore||Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, Durham, NH|
|Darling Nellie Gray||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
|Nelly Bly||Nils Fredland||Nelson Town Hall, Nelson, NH|
|First Two Gents Cross Over, sung to "Life on the Ocean Wave"||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
|My Little Girl||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
|Louisiana Swing||Nils Fredland||Contra Dancer's Delight Holiday, Morgantown, WV|
|Sioux City Sue||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
|Climbin' Up the Golden Stairs||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
|Smoke on the Water||Tod Whittemore||Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, Durham, NH|
|Forward and Six and Back||Adam Boyce||West Newbury, VT|
‘Traditional Style’ Modern Squares
In the midst of the growth of modern Western square dance, traditional dancing continues to exist in many areas. Traditional squares have lately been experiencing a surge of interest as part of contra dance events across the country, as well as in dance series devoted to old-time mountain style and traditional Western square dance. Traditional square dancing also happens spontaneously at gatherings with a music jam, eight willing dancers, and a caller to facilitate the action on the dance floor.
Ever since modern Western square dance established itself as a unique entity in square dance culture in the mid-20th century, there has been a separate category of squares developing across the United States. "Traditional style" modern squares use choreographic elements and calling skills from quadrille, old-time mountain, traditional Western, modern Western, and singing square styles. In today's community dance culture, this style is often found at dances with a mixed program of contras and squares, and can range in complexity from very simple to very challenging. Thanks to groundbreaking callers and dance writers such as Ralph Page, Ted Sannella, and Gene Hubert, and the many others who are still living and actively writing new square dances influenced by traditional styles, there will be a supply of excellent material to add to the vast and rich repertoire provided by the square dancing's long history in this country.
- The Dances in Bradford, NH (c. 1942),
- Duke Miller calling a Dance at the Peterborough NH Golf Club (August 20, 1965),
- Glenn Pease: Old-time Barn Dance Caller (c. 1973) — Three fascinating pages offering descriptions and audio examples of traditional square dances (which also include contras and couple dances) in New England in the mid-20th century, all from Walter Lenk's website
- Dare to Be Square — Blog post describing a recent (2011) old-time square dance in Hallsville, MO
- Reinventing Square Dancing — An April 2011 NPR piece on the traditional square dance scene in Washington D.C. (make sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the piece)
- A Grand Ole Time in East Nashville — YouTube clip showing a great example of a traditional square dance happening at a house party
|Grid square walk through||Can of Worms by Bob Isaacs||Bob Isaacs||The Dance Flurry, Saratoga Springs, NY|
|Grid square||Can of Worms by Bob Isaacs||Bob Isaacs||The Dance Flurry, Saratoga Springs, NY|
|Grid square||Balance the Grid by Bob Isaacs||Bob Isaacs||The Dance Flurry, Saratoga Springs, NY|
|Grid square||Maze of Heys by Bob Isaacs||Bob Isaacs||The Dance Flurry, Saratoga Springs, NY|
|Square||Do-Si-Do and Face the Sides by Ted Sannella||Tony Parkes||Guiding Star Grange, Greenfield, MA|
|Square||Ashley's Star by Bob Dalsemer||Sue Rosen||Fiddling Frog Dance Weekend, Pasadena, CA|
|Square||Shooting Stars by Tom Hinds||Beth Molaro||Contra Dancers Holiday, Morgantown, WV|
|Square||Mount Pisgah Star by Gene Hubert||Lisa Greenleaf||Fiddling Frog Dance Weekend, Pasadena, CA|
|Square||First Night Quadrille by Bob Dalsemer||Adina Gordon||Carborro Century Center, NC|
|Square||First Night Quadrille by Bob Dalsemer||Jim Thaxter||Hallsville, MO|
|Square||Kimmswick Express by Gene Hubert||Nils Fredland||Lava Meltdown, Lava Hot Springs, ID|
|Square||Variation of Deer Park Lancers||Beth Molaro||Rockbridge Music and Dance Festival, VA|
As with the US, Canada as a rich square dance history. Many regions each have their unique traditions that have evolved in their local text (e.g., Newfoundland; Cape Breton; Quebecois; the Arctic; Ontario; the Prairies).
Below are a few examples of square dances from various regions. If you would like to be involved in adding more information about Canadian squares to this page, please email email@example.com.
|Running the Goat||None||Harbour Deep, Newfoundland|
|Inverness Set - 2nd and 3rd Figures||None||Inverness County, Nova Scotia|
|A Quebecois square dance||Donald Dubus||Richmond, Quebec|
|A Quebecois square||Ghislain Jutras||Montreal, Quebec|
|An Ontario old time square dance||Unknown||Ontario|
|A Metis square dance||None||Shell River Centre, Manitoba|
|A metis square dance grand entry||None||Batoche, Saskatchewan|
|An inuq square dance||None||Rankin Inlet, Nunavut|
|An inuq square dance||None||Pond Inlet, Nunavut|