How are Line Dancing & Square Dancing Different?

From the Author: I live in Southern California and have been country dancing for over 6 years. I have spent countless nights out both line dancing and partner dancing and have traveled around to see firsthand almost all the places on my list. Please comment below! I generally respond quickly!

I’ve been line dancing for a few years now and over that time naturally, I tell people about it. Lately, some have remarked something like “How’s the square dancing going?” To which I strongly react:
“I don’t square dance! – I line dance… it’s not the same!” I find that it is a common misconception. So, I guess there are some people who think country line dancing and square dancing are the same thing–not so!

Hopefully, this post can help dispel this error and clear things up a bit by explaining the basic difference and then even going a little deeper. Line dancing and square dancing are very different.

Line Dancing vs. Square Dancing…the main difference.

The difference between line dancing and square dancing is that line dancing is memorized and square dancing is a “called” dance. Square dancing has a “caller” giving instructions for what to do. Line dancing requires memorizing choreography and then is danced with others in unison as the song plays.

This is the very basic distinction but falls short of really painting the picture of all the differences between line dancing and square dancing. Following is a deeper dive into the two kinds of dancing that will show fully how they are not the same thing! But since square dancing was first, we’ll start there!


How Square Dancing is Unique from Line Dancing

Square dancing, as already mentioned is a “called” dance. It is performed by the dancers as a “caller” calls out or gives instruction for the dancers to move in a certain way or perform a certain kind of routine. Furthermore here are some specifics about square dancing–this is what square dancing is and what line dancing is not!

Square dancing is…

…danced always with a “caller” calling out the next move
…danced as a group (8 people, consisting of 4 couples)
…danced in square patterns
…danced to traditional music
…danced mostly to live music
…danced to instrumental music
…danced, following a fairly strict dress code

Just to go into even more detail…

Square Dancing is comprised of dance for four couples, eight dancers in total. The dancing begins with 2 sets of couples (4 people) facing each other, hence the “square.” In a typical night of square dancing, there can be several of these groups of 8 dancing together in the dance hall. Each of these sets of dancers work together as a team.

A “caller” stands off to the side or end of the hall and calls a sequence of instructions for the dancers to follow. Each of these “calls” or instructions requires that some or all of the dancers in the square perform the moves called.

It’s important to know that, while line dancers memorize choreography and square dancers are told what to do a caller does not tell everyone exactly what to do! They call out “swing your partner” etc. and the dancers will respond and move and flow in the correct way on time only because they’ve taken lessons and/or gained experience on the square dance floor. In other words, square dancing has its own learning curve and levels of skills like any other dance genre.

Also besides the original beginning square formation, as the dancers progress through the calls, this formation will change to diamonds, columns, waves, etc. One thing that is very cool about these patterns that the group dances together is that at times the calls eventually place everyone with the partner and in the place where they started! (See video below!)

How Line Dancing is Unique from Square Dancing

To continue exploring how these dances are different, now let’s check out what makes line dancing unique! Listed below are aspects of line dancing that are unique to it. This is what line dancing is and what square dancing is not!

Line dancing is….

…danced as individuals
…danced in lines or in a grid
…danced to pre-memorized choreography
…danced to either pre-recorded or live music
…danced to popular songs that include lyrics
…danced as a DJ decides the music and dance
…danced, following a fairly casual dress code

These are unique things about line dancing and also things that give it some of its appeal. For one, some like that it’s dancing you can go out to do alone. One doesn’t need to come with a partner or try to connect with anyone when there. This is helpful for someone that in introverted, shy, etc. But there’s two sides of this coin!

The focus of square dancing is that while people have their own individual styles, some are awkward or slow, but in your team of 8 people everyone is accommodating and accommodated, and all have fun together. If you check out the video below this is what you’ll see. In contrast to this dancing alone has another opportunity; one of individual expression and being able to show off one’s skill level.

Besides following the set choreography of a line dance there’s also styling to add in. Recently I was involved in a dance competition for line dancers and it was great fun to see really great dancers add their own personality and stamp on well know line dances.

Another appeal is that you don’t need to try to come up with your own moves. Line dance choreography is your safety net. And while everyone dancing a line dance is dancing in unison together to memorized choreography, there’s obviously needed lessons to get to that point. This might be the main thing where for a moment line dancing does resemble square dancing.

As you are learning a dance the instructor is leading and telling you what to do next. The main difference is that this is a “teaching a man to fish” scenario. After even 20 minutes and with a little review you can possibly know that line dance choreography and never need another lesson for it again. Square dancing is defined by a leader forever calling out the next thing to do.

The History of Square Dancing

We’ll begin first with the history of square dancing because it came first! Square dancing, even though it is basically an American folk-dance, has its history in England. In Europe, there were dances like the Jigs, Reels, Minuette, Schottische and the Quadrille (which is where specifically square dancing really came out of).

Settlers brought these dances to the new world. As the different cultures of settlers to America intermingled their dances began to also mix and morph into new dances.

The problem was that no one could remember all the dance steps to some of these new routines that developed. Enter the “Caller” or “Prompter!” The person who had a good memory and knew what the steps were would help everyone out and shout to the dancers what to do next!

Over time some of the callers developed their own dance routines involving groups of 4 couples! Viola! Square dancing was born. Over time, though as our world grew and new fashions and new music came to be, new dance styles also replaced square dancing. It did survive though, albeit in smaller isolated communities.

Square dancing, you could say was on life support once upon a time. But then, enter, believe it or not…Henry Ford. Yes, it is said that Henry Ford saved Square Dancing! Apparently, he launched a campaign to revive it once again. People interested then began to modernize square dancing and new square dancing groups emerged. By the late 40s, it had emerged again as a popular social activity.

It is worth noting though that many believe Ford’s motives for doing what he did to be less than admirable. Some say he did this out of fear of Jazz music stemming from racism.

The History of Line Dancing

Line dancing has its origin in folk dance. One kind of American folk dancing was “Contra.” In Contra dancing, dancers lined up in parallel lines that face each other (not too unlike the beginning of a night of square dancing).

The real emergence of line dancing seems to have occurred through a confluence of several things. First, in the early 60s people started doing “the Twist.” Here was a partner dance that separated the couple! Albeit, they still danced with each other, just now without the connection. But it was in the late ’70s or early 80’s that line dancing as we know it really emerged.

It is said to have begun with disco music first before really being picked up and dominated by country-western music. The transition really happened with Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart. A line dance was choreographed as a marketing ploy to sell the single. Line dancing to country music took off.

YouTube Video Side-by-Side Comparison of Square Dancing and Line Dancing

If you didn’t read the above explanation but have just skipped to these videos, that’s okay! Really just watching these videos is going to show you quickly at a glance what line dancing and square dancing are and how they are different.

Typical square dancing with a “caller” and a dance hall with several eager sets of 4 couples participating.

This is a great example of a small group of line dancers all well acquainted with the dance and dancing well together.
Here’s an extra example of some classic line dancing–the Watermelon Crawl. But warning–it becomes pretty ridiculous and comedic with over-the-top styling and competition!

Similarities between Line Dancing and Square Dancing!

What!?-You say? I know! I just built this whole big case for how line dancing and square dancing aren’t the same thing, and yet as I took a deeper dive into these two different worlds of dance and also drew from my own experience I couldn’t help but laugh at how they actually share some things in common!

What people wear when line dancing or square dancing.

Firstly people in both arenas have a way of dressing for it. Yes, it’s different, but I think it’s something to take note of for square dancing, there’s a lot of traditional folk & country western look to the clothes, but in line dancing, there’s also a common way people look to go out. Of course, there are cowboy boots and hats, and common jeans and plaid shirts still dominate even though many, especially the younger crowd wear whatever they want!

Line dances with some connection.

The other similarity that I see is that the togetherness of square dancing and the isolation or loneliness of line dancing isn’t always the rule. There are several line dances nowadays that very much have a togetherness in their participation. I think it largely depends on the bar, the crowd, and the night. If there’s a great rowdy group of friends at a country bar line dancing there is connection and a lot of smiles!

Going even further, some line dances are “Contra” dances. The Black Velvet line dance which is super popular is a good example. It is a contra dance in that half the dancers face the other half and as you do the steps you pass by (or cross paths with) the other people. There will even be some high-fives as you pass your friends going in the opposite direction. I’ve included Black Velvet in my list of 20 Beginner Line Dances You Need to Know! post Click here and click on #8 in the list to learn Black Velvet!

Another dance that connects people a little more is House Party. There’s a moment where it is just a lot of fun to slap hands with the person you’re next to. I’ve also included House Party in my list of 20 Beginner Line Dances You Need to Know! post Click here and click on #6 in the list to learn House Party!

Brian Sheridan

I'm the owner of CDT. I live in Fullerton, California, and enjoy country dancing with my friends at least once a week.

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