Select Page

You’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t know at least the concept behind square dancing – this group activity involves four couples positioned facing one another so that they form a square while a ‘caller’ shouts out phrases that indicate specific dance moves. Square dancing is more popular in America than anywhere else, but it’s practiced internationally and has roots across Europe – once you’ve learned the calls in American square dancing, it’s generally believed that you can square dance anywhere in the world without trouble.

Humble Roots

The tradition that would evolve into square dancing began in the early 1600s in England, taking the form of something called the Morris dance – because women were restricted in their ability to dance in those times, groups of six men wearing tinkling bells performed carefully choreographed dances in villages across England. This later developed into English country dancing, a common pastime where couples spun, circled and swung one another. Many of these moves would later become components of square dancing.

Similarities also exist between the modern square dance and French dances like cotillions and quadrilles.

Coming to America

These dances made their journey to the 13 Colonies with the European settlers who arrived in the New World – English dancing became far less acceptable than French, however, after the British Revolution and the end to the dependence on European nations. It took quite some time for the “running set” to take roots in the eastern Appalachian region of the United States, but the simplification of dance moves to ones that could be indicated by a caller’s shout made them distinct from early forms.

Decreasing Influence

The introduction of jazz and swing music to the United States made dances like the polka more common, and by the 1920s, swing dancing was a thing of the past – that is, until Henry Ford funded a national program encouraging his factory employees and schoolchildren to take up the traditional pastime. It wasn’t until the 1950s that callers across the United States started to standardize their shouts, lending a great deal of interchangeability and fueling enthusiasm for square dancing.

Today, square dancing is less common but more standardized than ever before – the last few decades have eroded many American traditions, but once you learn the calls and the moves to spin your partner round and round, you’ll never forget.