by Bob Osgood,
"Sets in Order - The official Magazine of Square Dancing"
Everyone yearns to know more about his ancestors. Even the simplest American feels a thrill when a researcher digs up his "family tree" and unearths his "coat of arms", and finds far back along the line, perhaps, a king! The farther back he goes the more exciting it becomes. Here is a small, not-to-far-back study of the family tree of our American Square Dance.
Dancing is the oldest of the arts. Only one other art, the art of architecture, goes back nearly so far into man's past. And dancing is probably older than his attempt to build a shelter for his family, for we know that primitive tribes have become expert dancers long before they have bothered to build what we would call houses. Dancing was a fine art before it was a folk art, and a religious and ritualistic performance long before it became a recreational art. It is only quite recently in the history of mankind that all of the people, if they chose, could join in the dance. And, as for women, there was a vast majority of dances in which they might not join at all, and there were some that they might not even see. Historically, dance seems to have reached its low point during the days of the classical Greece. There it was looked upon as an ignoble activity. Aristotle was supposed to have said: "No citizen shall be active in these arts (music and dancing), but shall leave it to the slaves, the released slaves and the strangers". The great Roman Cicero said : "No one shall dance, except he might be drunken or mentally disorientated". 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, in square dancing too. Calls like dos-a-dos, which can be described as back-to-back, and allemand can't hide their French origin. In a little study like this one, we cannot take time nor space to go back very far into the past. Let us decide that we shall travel back about 500 years. And let us prune out, before we start, the many tiny twigs that clutter the remote branches of the family tree. Let us reduce our story to approximations! First something about the main author. There is no one we know is better qualified to take you on a guided tour through the fascinating past of square dancing than the author Dorothy Stott Shaw. Mrs. Shaw and her husband, Dr. Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw, became the centre of the rebirth of the great square dance movement in the 1930's. For many years the leaders in square dancing have sought out the Shaws at their home in Colorado Springs for guidance, philosophy, history and encouragement. From their great storehouse of information, Mrs. Shaw has gathered the special gems that fill these pages. It is her hope, and ours too, that they will serve to enrich your enjoyment of this great activity.
THE MODERN SQUARE DANCE
Text by Dorothy Shaw
During the half century that bracketed the American Revolution and the War of 1812, this was a more dancing nation than it is today. Everybody danced, and continued to dance during the decades to follow. Everybody grew up dancing, for those were the days when the babies went in baskets, and the small fry formed a set in the corner and stomped away, until a dancing master got hold of them and polished up their steps. (Dancing masters were a dime a dozen.) And an "ordination ball" was held when the new minister was installed! Where did they dance? In taverns, in town halls, in barns, at husking bees, roof-raisings, sheepshearings. Don't think, when you build a hall in your basement or your garage, or a "slab" in your yard, that you are doing something new and unusual. They did that, too. They built dance halls right onto their houses. If they didn't have anything better, they danced in the kitchen, and Ralph Page describes the fiddler sitting in the kitchen sink in order to leave room for the dancers on the floor.
Don't think, when you get a "Knothead" badge for travelling in a set-size group for a hundred miles or more to a square dance, that you are "modern". More than a century ago they were doing that too. They went in a sleigh or a hayrack instead of a 1975 Buick, but the objective was the same. I have no doubt that there were "idiots" who wakened their caller in the wee small hours, and demanded a dance.
There is really nothing essentially modern about the behaviour of the current caller, who works at a job all day and calls square dances half the night, burning his candle so hard at both ends that it is a bit hot in the middle. They did that, too! Many men, especially teachers and, occasionally, ministers, both of whom were underpaid then as now, augmented their salaries by teaching or prompting dancing - square dancing in its broad sense. Some even fiddled. They did it economically, by having a two-hour teaching session followed by a three-, or four-, or even fivehour dance.
They called to their dancers to line up for a grand march. The instrumentalist tuned up. The dancers marched, elegantly, joyously, delightedly onto the floor until finally the line of couples found itself in a circle around the hall.
"Hold your places for 'Sicilian Circle'" The fiddler swung into A Hundred Pipers but he didn't stay with it long - he kept happily changing tunes. Round and round they went, in the patterns you do at every square dance. "Promenade off the floor" And then, they formed sets for a plain quadrille: "First four, right and left through - and right and left back" The great American square dance was in motion.
THE HENRY FORD ERA
Text by Dorothy Shaw & Kenny Reese
And then, in the first part of the 20th century, came a decadence in American dancing like nothing ever seen before. Quadrilles died, contras died, people two-stepped their waltz and forgot their polka. The schottische lived on at high-school hops as a rather rowdy thing called a "barn dance". The true square dance, amalgamated variety, all but disappeared. In rural communities, in farming areas where there were active granges, square dances were still held; but the callers, who were remembering what their daddies had done, and remembering rather inaccurately, had a more and more limited repertory. They forgot how to prompt, also, and caught themselves calling with the action instead of ahead of it. The music became more and more forlorn, the caller less understandable. Style was lost - the lift and lightness of Kentucky; the prideful bounce of New Hampshire. Henry Ford era - 1920's © CHD
Henry Ford era group - 1920's © CHD
In the couple dance field, people tried desperately to do something about the situation, with some alarming results; but scarcely anyone seemed interested in picking up the square dance out of the gutter where it was literally sinking into oblivion. And, alas-in some areas, it had acquired a reputation that it has never quite lived down with nice people. Still - in some serene little corners, like New Hampshire and bits of Texas, the light burned on without too much flickering.
Mr. Henry Ford used to vacation at Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. There he became interested in the dance program conducted by a dancing master named Benjamin Lovett, an outstanding research man. 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 multi-millionaire Ford, who simply bought the Inn and Mr. Lovetts 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. Mr. and Mrs. Ford built a fine dance hall with a teakwood floor and crystal chandeliers in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, and named it Lovett Hall. It is still in use.
In 1926 the Fords and Mr. Lovett published a book which provided inspiration and material for many people who had wanted such a reference. On the cover of this edition of their book, it says
After a Sleep of Twenty-Five Years,
Old Fashioned Dancing is being revived,
by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford
Here was a public service of inestimable value. Read the Table of Contents of the third edition of "Good Morning" (1931). Everything is here, beautifully described, and the music scored: 4 quadrilles and the Five-part Singing Quadrille, the Standard Lancers, 13 singing squares, 3 circle mixers, 6 contras, 11 rounds, including a minuet, a waltz-minuet and a gavotte. It is a superb collection, chosen with great attention to quality. The only thing that was missing was the great "western" square dance, with its single-visitor figures, its do-si-do chorus and its wonderful patter call.
This little book was an inspiration to many people who had desperately wanted this material. They pounced on it. One of the people who pounced was a young Colorado school superintendent named Lloyd Shaw.
SQUARE DANCE CLOTHING
Reprint from USDA News, Oct./Dec. 1993
Research and text by Cathy Burdick and Becky Osgood
How did we get where we are today?
Old square dance dresses of today can trace their history back to the elegant ballrooms of France and the grand manors of England. In those countries, the minuet, polka, waltz and quadrille were danced. As people emigrated to America they brought their customs, dress and dances with them. Gowns were made from damask, taffeta, silk or fine muslin. The fullness in the skirt was obtained by wearing a hoop skirt underneath. Coiffures were often high and possible powdered. It was an era of stately music, stately dances and stately dress.
We move forward a hundred years and hope to open the West in on. Days are long and hard with both men and women settling the land, working in the fields, and tending the livestock. Women grow their own flax to make linen, use wool from their sheep to spin yarn, weave their own material and dye it with dyes made from roots and berries. There is not much time for gaiety so every occasion is used for socializing. Barn-raisings, weddings and holidays were prime examples when gatherings were held. Often people came from miles around to see their neighbours, catch up on the news and dance the night away. These dances were held in kitchens, barns, out-of-doors, even in the saloons. Women's dresses were long, starched petticoats and floor length pantaloons were worn underneath. The costuming allowed free and exuberant movements in the square, circles and couple dances.
We move forward to the 20th century, the 1920's in particular and we find Henry Ford endorsing and sponsoring early American Square Dancing in Lovett Hall, in Detroit, Michigan. Lovett Hall was complete with teakwood floor, crystal chandeliers and formal straight chairs on either side of the ballroom. A live orchestra and a dancing master were on hand to teach and prompt the evening's dances, which consisted of waltzes, two-steps, early squares and contras. In the beginning formal attire was mandatory with the ladies in long gowns and white gloves.
Following World War II, there was a resurgence in square dancing. In choosing their costumes, ladies remembered the long dresses of the early years. At first, these dresses were straight and worn without a petticoat. It wasn't long before the length came up to just above the ankles and starched petticoats and pantalettes were added. Cotton was the fabric used which ment hours of ironing, not only for the dress but the petticoat as well.
By the early 1950's, squaw dresses were "discovered". Some of the newer cottons could be washed, crushed together while wet, and pulled through something tubular, like a stocking, or tied at intervals. When dry, a three or four tiered skirt would present a pleated look, much like the skirt worn by Indian women. Miles and miles of ric-rac were used as trim, which made these dresses weight eight or nine pounds. Imagine dancing all night in a dress weighing eight or nine pounds. Talk about your aerobic exercise! Many a lady remembers repleating one of these skirts, either by hand or with clothespins, or even with a contraption where the material was woven in and out of metal ribs. Square dance hemlines had gone up to ankle or calf length, and pantalettes to below-the-knee bloomers. By the late 1950's some of the embossed cottons could be washed carefully and be presentable without ironing.
In the 1960's came the nylon, nylon net, dracon, polyester and novelty blends that did not have to be ironed. The "drip-dry" era was in full swing. So were the petticoats. Layers of nylon net were used for the petticoats which held the dresses out beautifully. The hemlines were rising and now we had fancipants with row after row of lace trickling down the leg. How far the fancipants extended up the thigh was a personal choice.
Along with the 1970's came the border prints. These prints can be used not only with the print providing the decoration around the bottom of the skirt, but working the design into the bodice and sleeves. Skirt length got shorter and it became a matter of personal choice as to the length. Petticoats also got fuller and with the hemline creeping up the thigh, the look began to be more like that of a tu-tu skirted ballerina. Many young girls and exhibition groups have kept the tu-tu look.
The 1980's gave us a return to a fancier dress. Most of the patterns feature rows of ruffles, lace and ribbons with very full skirts and petticoats. The colours are bright and eye catching. Border prints are still going strong. Many women now wear colour coordinated dresses, petticoats and pettipants. The length of the dress and the pettipant is left to your good taste. They can range from knee-length to the "sissy britches" style. Thanks to continuing modern technology in materials, most are still permanent press or "drip dry", and require little, if any touch-up with the iron.
Modern square dance clothes are no longer "Authentic Covered Wagon" type. Men wear well-fitting western shirts, western pants or jeans, and boots or comfortable shoes. Women may be as individual as they like in their dress, letting their imagination run free. Sleeves, necklines, skirts, trims, colours, combinations, there was no limit! Some of the choices that we have today include denim western dresses, prairie skirts, belts, accessories to change and mix and match outfits. Dance shoes are available in many styles, heel heights and colours.
The choice is yours. Good taste in underpinnings, in skirt lengths and necklines should always be considered. What looks well on the wearer and to the beholder is the criteria.
We have a wonderful heritage to look back on in square dance dresses, who can tell what the future will bring.
Text by Dorothy Shaw & Kenny Reese
There have been great changes since 1951, not all reassuring. The fantastic prestige of "name callers"; a willingness to dance to calling that disregards the 8-count phrase; monotonous repetition of grill-type figures; the vast size of the whole activity -these could be dangerous. Most alarming is the tendency to conformity. We have become as uniform as soup cans on a super-market shelf. Do not be disturbed. Last week we saw a "do-ci-do"! Contras are coming back. Every day another maverick sneaks out of the corral, sniffs the air, senses a good rain, and settles down to graze on the old pasture. The dance goes on, down the worn path taken by the first ancestor. We shall never lock it up in any man's stable. It has wings, and it is ever so much bigger than we are.
Square Dancing had 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 dancers 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 organization CALLERLAB was able to bring order to the new-call confusion by establishing standard dancing programs - Basic, Mainstream, Plus, etc... CALLERLAB also provided standard call definitions, timing and styling.