The History of Square Dancing – Some Surprising Facts!

Square dancing has been immensely popular for centuries now, with its origins settled in multiple countries worldwide. Nowadays, square dancing has become distinctly Americanized, with the dance now heralded as the folk dance of many US states.

The history of square dancing may surprise you. Square dancing is unmistakably multicultural, coming from European settlers and indigenous American communities. Square dancing has become one of the most popular folk dance forms, enjoyed by people of all ages. 

In the rest of this article, I will discuss the origins of square dancing, the many types of square dance, and traditional square dance dress. I’ll also go through some of the key terms you’ll need to know should you wish to try this most entertaining hobby.

Where Did Square Dancing Originate?

Square dancing has been around for a long time, albeit in many different forms. Different communities practice it in different ways, making it one of the most diversified dances today. 

Square dancing dates back to the 1600s and comes from a form of Morris dance practiced by English settlers in America. This, accompanied by a French dance called the Quadrille, was the beginning of what we now call square dancing.

Alongside these European dances, one can imagine that square dancing became quite popular when combined with the traditional dances of Native American societies in the 1600s. It was an excellent way for people of contrasting communities to come together.

Square dancing also holds a root in African American culture. In communities where slavery persisted, enslaved people would take these dances and make them their own, often performing music at events and acting as ‘callers’ for local square dances.

Square dancing has changed a lot throughout the years. While the traditional square dance is still enjoyed by many today, it has evolved into several different types of square dances. As communities joined and mixed over time, these dance forms held them together. 

What Music Is Played at a Square Dance?

The music played at a square dance is everything from ballads, rock, bluegrass bands, and solo singers. You can play music at a square dance as long as it has a distinct beat. 

Country Western music is a popular choice for square dancers, and it’s likely what comes to mind when you think of square dancing. However, you’ll find many communities that square dance to other genres. As per the rule of thumb, if you can dance to it, you can square dance to it.

Why Is It Called Square Dancing?

Most people believe that square dancing is called so because couples dance in a square. However, there are certain forms of square dance wherein couples dance in a circle, which confuses the name of the dance. 

It is called square dancing to set it apart from other dance forms. The earliest and most traditional form of square dancing was the Quadrille, a dance that included four couples who danced in a square formation. Later, the style evolved, but it still kept its roots as a couples dance.  

Types of Square Dance

There are many types of square dance. Since communities revitalize and reinvent the square dance as per their own traditions and customs, it has evolved and split into different traditional categories.

So, let’s look at these categories and talk about what makes each one unique. 

The Quadrille: A Traditional Square Dance

The Quadrille is the earliest form of square dancing. It comes primarily from England and France, with a format that King Louis XV himself sanctioned. Many of the newer forms of square dance have their roots in the Quadrille, and it is still practiced today in many places around the world. 

If you’re wondering what this looks like, check out this YouTube video that encapsulates the old-time charm of the Quadrille:

Western Square Dance

The western square dance is similar to the traditional square dance. However, there is one notable difference: the caller in a Western square dance ‘calls’ the steps in an unexpected, random way, whereas in a Quadrille, the caller has specified ‘calls’ to make that must go in a specific order.

Have a look at this YouTube video of a Western square dance:

Singing Squares: Modernizing the Square Dance

Pushing forward a couple of centuries, the singing squares are a much newer (and perhaps even more entertaining) form of square dance. These dances are formatted in much the same way as the traditional Quadrille, but the caller sings instead. 

In many ways, while the dance itself is similar to the traditional square dance, the singing square perpetuates the notion of evolution and change. Communities are constantly evolving, and, as a result, the way they perform their square dances develops as well. 

Modernizing a dance doesn’t mean changing it entirely, but it speaks to the natural progression of community life.

To get a better idea of what a singing square looks like, check out this YouTube video:

The Virginia Reel

The Virginia Reel was one of the very first forms of American square dancing. It took steps from the classic square dance (the Quadrille) and changed it to suit American communities at the time. 

One of the most significant differences between the Virginia Reel and the traditional square dance is its line format. Dancers stand in lines facing each other rather than in a square form. However, the moves remained essentially the same. 

The Virginia Reel first became popularized in America through Mormon communities – another example of change and evolution through community living. 

Have a look at this YouTube video to learn more about the Virginia Reel:

What Do Square Dancers Traditionally Wear?

Square dancers can wear whatever they like nowadays, especially in modern country bars and clubs where square dancing is a weekly ritual. However, square dancing has followed a specific dress code throughout the ages.

Square dancers traditionally wear western-style clothing. Women would wear skirts with crinolines (a garment designed to puff up a dress), and men would wear western-style shirts and western boots. Modesty was essential in traditional square dancing attire. 

Although many people in this era choose not to wear these traditional clothes, many places still uphold the dress code. These places intend to maintain the traditions and customs of their folk dances.

If you decide you’d like to try square dancing, you probably won’t have to wear these clothes. You can opt for something comfortable, as long as it’s modest. However, a fun prairie skirt wouldn’t go amiss since it gives you the full experience of a traditional square dancer.

Have a look at this Musever Pleated Vintage Skirt from Amazon.com. It comes in many styles, so you have many options if polka dots aren’t your thing. It’s also a great length for square dancing, and it’s comfortable and modest to boot.

However, the most significant piece of advice I can give you is to wear comfortable shoes. All that spinning and sliding across the floor – a pair of stilettos probably isn’t going to cut it.

Key Square Dancing Terms

If you’re going to square dance for the first time, you’ll likely be confused with all the terms. The ‘caller’ will shout out (or sing) lots of dancing orders, and you’ll have to follow them. Have a look below to learn some of the most important terms.

  • Do Si Do: This is one of the most well-known calls, and it means you have to face your dance partner, walk past them, and then step back so that your backs are touching.
  • Swing: Imagine you’re waltzing with your partner – this is the movement you’ll be imitating. Go full circle with your partner, and twirl under his arm at the end. 
  • Square: This is the most crucial step. This step is your beginning format, where you, your partner, and the other couples will be standing in a square form.
  • Promenade: Walk in a full circle with your partner holding hands until you get back to your starting position.
  • Stack the Wood: Give your partner a hug! The Stack the Wood might come at the end of the dance, and it’s an excellent way to round off the evening. 

You may have noticed that some of the terms have come from previous square dance forms. ‘Promenade,’ for example, has its roots in the original French version of square dancing. As you can see, these variations still stand out even in the most modern dance forms.

Final Thoughts

The history of square dancing is multifaceted and has a past rooted in bringing communities together. The modern versions that exist today are remnants of historical recollection and tradition. 

If you’re planning to square dance anytime soon, pick up one of those prairie skirts or a set of comfortable leather boots to get the whole experience. You’ll likely find it very easy to make friends at your local square dancing night since community spirit is deep within the square dance tradition. 

Sources

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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