A Brief History of Square Dance | The Evolution of an Old Tradition in America

Traditional British dances transformed in America over time to become various forms of folk dancing, including square dancing.

 Like many things called "modern" today, Modern Western Square Dancing has a long, fascinating, and circuitous history. Think of English Morris Dance of the 15th century with its 2 rows of 3 men each. Then 17th century English Country Dances; the French Quadrille, and the French Cotillion with 4 couples dancing in a square formation. Next the arrival in 18th century America of Dancing Masters from Europe, with their compilation books such as John Playford’s, which set forth close to 1,000 country dances, each with its own accompanying music. These dance forms spread westward and transformed over time in the different regions of the country. In Appalachia, for example, the "Kentucky running set" employed a "caller" who directed the dancers in much the same way a caller is  today in Modern Western Square Dance.

With the rise of industrial society, there was a general decline in "folk dancing" in America during the first half of the 20th century. But then our story takes an interesting twist through the activities of no less an industrialist than Henry Ford. Vacationing in Massachusetts, Ford was intrigued by the dance program there directed by one Benjamin Lovett, including a variety of square and round dances. Ford brought Lovett back to Michigan, built the grand Lovett Hall in Greenfield Village, and included his executives and employees in the twice weekly dance program, as well as developing dance programs for schools.

"The old American dancing was clean and healthful. In the square dances . . . one finds rhythm and grace of motion, and people are thrown together and have to know one another. The old dances were social . . . [they] gave one a dozen partners in an evening."  — H. Ford

In 1926 Ford and Lovett wrote a reference book, Good Morning, and the revival of "old American dancing" continued to spread.

Lloyd Shaw, a school superintendent in Colorado Springs, collected the dances and music of the small towns of the west to supplement the material presented by Ford and Lovett, and in 1939 published Cowboy Dances, the first definitive book on western square dancing.

The square dance continued to evolve in the 1950s as "calls" or dance movements were codified, then grew in number till today there are 69 calls that make up the Basic and Mainstream, or entry levels, of dancing. Sound like a lot to learn? "It’s easy," says square dance caller Robin Ragen, "If you can walk, you can Square Dance."

Learn more about Fairfield’s Square Dance Revival

David Fleming lives in Fairfield and has been square dancing since March 2013.