Dance – History

A Very Short History of Square Dancing

 “America’s Dance”

 Although square dancing is a uniquely American form of folk dancing, it traces its roots to the revival of social dancing in 15th century England and France. Dancing has not always been acceptable or popular in Western culture.  Prior to the 15th century, attitudes inherited from the classical Greeks and Romans relegated dance to the status of an ignoble and unsuitable activity. With the dawning of the Renaissance, social dancing experienced a revival across much of western Europe.  In particular, the English and the French began to embrace various forms of social dancing which became the basis for our modern form of square dancing.

In England during the 16th century, the Morris dance became widely popular. The Morris dance probably descended from a combination of ancient English dances and dances brought to England from Moorish Spain.  As this form of dance evolved over the next hundred years or so, the form of the dance – two opposing or “contrary” lines of dancers – gave rise to the name “contra dance.” Contra dances are still popular today.

The French adopted the contra dance, which they called the “contredanse Anglais” or English contra dance. Since dance forms constantly evolve, it’s not surprising that the French soon modified this English dance to involve four couples dancing in a square formation instead of the facing lines formation of the Morris dance.  They called this dance the “contredanse Francais.” This was the forerunner of the very popular French dance called the Quadrille, where four couples in a square formation execute various dance figures devised by a dancing master.

The Quadrille is considered to be the direct forerunner of the modern square dance.  In fact, some of the terms we use today in square dancing (e.g., do sa do), are derived from French phrases that describe the form of these dance figures.  Across the Channel, the English were adopting similar forms of dance, which they called country dances.  By the 1700s, English dancing masters had developed more than a thousand specific dance figures and sequences.

All this set the stage for our modern square dance activity.  As people began to migrate to America, they brought with them memories of these dances.  As the pioneers moved westward, many of the specific steps were forgotten, but the form of the dances survived.  After a hard week of carving farms and towns out of the wilderness in Ohio and Kentucky, people would gather at someone’s home or barn for an evening of dancing and socializing.  All they needed was someone who could play a rousing tune on the guitar or the fiddle, and someone who could prompt or call out directions to the dancers.  The prompter was very important because dancers did not learn the dance steps or “figures” beforehand from a dance master, as was the case in Europe.  In America, the dancers executed a sequence of figures as the prompter called them out during the dance – and the square dance “caller” was born.  The barn dance or “hoedown” with a square dance caller is America’s unique contribution to the square dance – “America’s Dance.”

As the country became more urbanized in the late 1800s and more immigrants came to America from places with different traditions, square dancing gave way to newer dances and newer kinds of music popular in the big cities.  By around 1900, square dancing had nearly died out except in rural areas.  The unlikely savior of square dancing was Henry Ford of automobile fame.  In the 1920s, Mr. Ford discovered square dancing while on vacation in Massachusetts.  He became convinced that square dancing was the antidote to the jazz and flapper culture of the “Roaring Twenties,” which he saw as detrimental to the moral fiber of America.  He engaged the services of a dancing master named Benjamin Lovett, and over the next twenty-five years, he used his enormous wealth and Mr. Lovett’s skill as a caller and dance master to revitalize square dancing.  He supported educational programs in the schools to teach square dancing.  In the early 1940s, he sponsored Mr. Lovett and other callers on a weekly radio show where they called square dances over the radio to the nation.

Mr. Ford’s efforts inspired a young school superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colorado, named Lloyd Shaw. Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw realized that Ford’s work was admirable, but that there was a lot more to learn about square dancing as it existed in towns across the country. He began to collect information on dances and dance music, and in 1939 he published the first definitive book on what we call western square dancing – “Cowboy Dances.”  He also trained teams of dancers and took them around the country exhibiting and teaching.  Thanks to his work, and the efforts of Henry Ford, square dancing enjoyed a resurgence in popularity that grew even more as soldiers returned from WW II looking for fun social activities.

Square dancing continued to grow through the 1950s and 1960s.  Callers began to use a wide variety of music, from country and western to show tunes, and to develop more and more complex figures to interest the dancers.  In general, the increase in the number of figures available to the caller was a positive development, but it had a downside because the figures were not standardized.  Square dancers are gregarious people and they like to dance with new friends, but it became harder and harder for people to dance to anyone but their regular caller.

In 1974, callers around the country got together to create a national caller association, CALLERLAB, along with a standard list of square dance figures (or “calls”). This giant step has resulted in standard square dance figures that are used not only in the US but also around the world, so that any square dancer can dance to any caller anywhere.  Today, there are thousands of square dance clubs across the United States and in many foreign countries.

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