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A Brief History of Square and Round Dancing

by Veronica Ann McClure 

Today's square and round dancing is a continuation of the social dance history of western civilization. This tradition emphasizes a group of dancers moving through space to make large patterns, with a steady rhythmical base supporting the melody of the music. An early form was a line of dancers who made circles, spirals, and followed-the-leader. The line could be divided for concentric circles, lines, columns, ranks, or squares. Individuals moved as a group so that it could make these patterns. Over and over, references describe a group creating a basic shape, moving through other formations, and returning to the starting shape, just as when we do some calls and then promenade home. 

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Coinciding with these group dances are couple dances in which one or a few couples separate from the group, dance for the group, and then rejoin the group. Both types are in the Italian dance manuals of the 15th and 16th centuries and appear to have been in all parts of Europe. In the 17th century, groups were abundant under the name "English country dance."  In fact, the first book about this dancing, The English Dancing Master, was published in London in 1651 while Oliver Cromwell was in power and the Puritans ruled England.  It was so popular that it continued for 17 editions and many other books of country dances were published as well.  The popularity of these books reinforces the fact that the dancing was not "hayseed" or "bumpkin."  It was danced in the cities and by the middle and upper classes.  This was also the beginning of the Baroque style of dance which reached its greatest development in the French courts. There is much documentation about how they influence one another, especially in England and France. 

Because the North American continent was colonized by Europe, especially the English and French, we inherited this dancing. During the American Revolutionary period, the formation most popular was two lines facing, then called "longways" and now "contra". In the early 19th century, the square "quadrille," (later "lancers") became very popular. All through the 19th century, it was a dominant force in the ballroom and a mainstay of the upper classes. 

In the late 18th century, a folk dance became popular in upper class ballrooms because of the same mindset that fueled the French and American Revolutions and idealized "the common man."  It was the waltz.  It was considered shocking not only because of its low-class origin, but because dancers turned their backs on the group and concentrated on themselves.  Not only that—they turned around and around together, creating the first "round dance" in the sense that we today use the term. 

For several decades "waltz" and "round dance" were equivalent—like "cars" and "automobiles."  In the 1840s, the polka arrived.  Because it was a couple dance with turns, it also was a "waltz" and a "round dance" even though it is in duple time and had some non-turning figures.  As other couple dances were introduced, including gallops and schottisches, they too were called waltzes or round dances to distinguish them from the square and line (contra) dances.  Throughout the 19th century, "ballroom dances" were a mix of group and couple dances—our "squares and rounds." 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the history of western dance was disrupted as never before by ragtime and jazz. Both have characteristics opposite to western tradition, particularly more emphasis on individual improvisation, a tendency to stay on the spot and move body parts rather than to move across space in an economical movement style, and complex or multiple rhythms. This new music and dance was brought to the forefront of popular interest by black musicians and dancers and the whites who copied them. The 19th century dances became unfashionable and were danced only by those who were either unable or uninterested in keeping up with the latest from the cities. 

Among them were rural folks in New England, Appalachia, and the American West. In the 1920s, Henry Ford of Model-T fame worried that the flamboyant popular dancing of the day might ruin forever the more elegant and genteel style of dancing his grandparents had done. He decided to revive the "old" style, including building a beautiful ballroom (now part of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan), hiring Benjamin Lovett, a dancing master from Sudbury, Massachusetts, to run classes and dances, and publishing Good Morning, in which the late 19th century squares and rounds were revived "after a sleep of twenty-five years." 

Ford's revival influenced Lloyd Shaw, a high school educator in Colorado, who decided to include dances of the American West in the physical education curriculum. The old-timers he worked with had been young people in the 19th century and told him about local variations on the usual 19th century dances. Shaw augmented this information with 19th century dance manuals and, as he explains in Cowboy Dances and The Round Dance Book, liberally edited the results according to his own needs and those of his high school dancers, who, as one might guess, were an energetic group. 

Shaw and "The Cheyenne Mountain Dancers" danced in many locations, making their version of 19th century dances particularly well-known. After World War II, the healing sense of "home" and "American folk" together with greatly increased communication and travel coincided with the growing interest in Shaw's "western" squares and rounds. Colorado became Mecca and people who went there wanted to bring this dancing to their own communities. Charlie Baldwin, the "Granddaddy of Square Dancing in New England," was one of them. 

At first, these "western" squares and the rounds tended to have short sequences with predictable repeats, rather energetic tempos, and a lively style of movement. Dancers learned by doing and usually did not need many lessons. As more people became interested, more ideas began to flow, resulting in more square dance calls and round dance steps. This, in turn, created the need for more technical understanding on the part of callers and cuers, more training for dancers, and more written materials such as round dance cue sheets and caller's note services. The information explosion of the 20th century hit the dance world.  Over time, it contributed to a slowdown of the tempo and energy level of the dancing which in turn coincided with an aging dance population. 

Today's modern western square and round dancing are so richly developed that there is more material than most dancers can or want to learn. Subgroups have formed in which dancers use certain portions of the material. An emerging question is whether these subgroups will be part of the whole, new branches on the family tree, or deadwood that withers and falls off. 

Western squares and rounds are only a part of today's total, for social dance is also fragmented according to age group and subculture. We have—and take for granted—much wider sampling of movement and musical styles from many different cultures than ever before. (Perhaps, as the globe seems to shrink, we will have to look to outer space to find those things which seem truly "outlandish.")  It is hard to imagine today's culture without the dancing derived from the jazz tradition, i.e. Broadway's show dancing, tap dancing, jitterbug-lindy-swing, and the solo dancing associated with rock, hip-hop, and related forms. We also have our square and round dancing and the dancing usually indicated today as "ballroom dancing," as well as the "traditional" squares and contras which survived through the ragtime and jazz eras. They too have changed along the way, for change is usually equivalent to survival. 

Squares and rounds (in all their forms) continue the dance tradition of western civilization as well as or better than anything else in this wide and beautiful array. We need to understand and appreciate this heritage without negating other forms or being vaguely sentimental or emotional. We need to understand that change is normal and that we are not dancing exactly as we did 50, 100, or 200 years ago. We are one of a number of forms of recreational dance and a vital part of the dance world. We have a proven vehicle for fun, fellowship, and community-building to enjoy, share, and continue. 

However, as for the nature of squares and round dancing to come—or any other dancing—only the dance historian of the future can tell us where we will go from here. 

Happy Dancing! 

Revised: October 2008


this article was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, January 2009



If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.

If you are not a member of DRDC, do consider joining. The group sponsors quarterly weekends with great dancing and teaching, and the newsletter is one of the most informative available.

Past DRDC Educational Articles by
Jim & Barbara German, ca. 2000-2001
Chris & Terri Cantrell, 2001-2005
Harold & Meredith Sears, 2005-present

Some articles and dance helps by
Sandi & Dan Finch
Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid


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