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Square Dancing is Uniquely American

Like the culture it came from, square dance has roots in European, Native American and African practices

A square dance on Skyline Farms in Alabama, circa 1937. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

Square dancing sounds like something out of Little House on the Prairie, but in truth, square dancing has been a part of American entertainment for centuries.

According to the Square Dance History Project, square dance was "vital" for generations of Americans up to the late 1800s. It fell out of favor then, but was revived after World War II, when it “enjoyed participants numbering in the millions.” But where did it come from?

Several European dances are thought to have influenced the formation of square dance, writes History.com: Morris dance, a form which dates back to the 1600s in England; dances like the quadrille and the cotillion, which 18th-century French couples performed in squares;  and “folk dances in Scotland, Scandinavia and Spain.” This influence is easy to see, the website writes: "When Europeans began settling England’s 13 North American colonies, they brought both folk and popular dance traditions with them. French dancing styles in particular came into favor in the years following the American Revolution, when many former colonists snubbed all things British. A number of the terms used in modern square dancing come from France, including 'promenade,' 'allemande' and the indispensable 'do-si-do'–a corruption of 'dos-à-dos,' meaning 'back-to-back.'”

But it wasn't just European dances that contributed to square dance. Phil Jamison, a well-known square dance caller today and a square dance historian who runs the Square Dance History project, writes in his book that in addition to European dances, African American and Native American dance forms contributed to the development of square dance.

The African and Native American influence has largely been erased from the popular understanding of square dance. “Designated as the official state folk dance of 31 states, square dancing is not exactly revered for its racial diversity—and pop culture portrayals lean heavily on a mythology of reeling white farmers, not people of color,” writes Erin Blakemore for JStor Daily. But square dancing was also shaped by black Americans, she writes, in ways that were “rooted in the legacy of slavery.”  

In the nineteenth century, enslaved people were often used as the “‘callers’ who prompt dancers to adopt different figures like the do-si-do and allemande,” she writes. Black musicians also performed (and at times likely created) the music that dancers moved to. Among themselves, enslaved people “also started to adapt these popular dances,” she writes.

Over time, calling–which was not a part of square dancing before the nineteenth century– “became an art form in its own right, humor and entertainment,” writes History.com. Black callers and musicians “contributed their own steps and songs to the tradition.”

Native American influence on the culture of American social dance dates back to the 1600s, Jamison writes in his book, when a Native American fiddler–the only fiddler  in Maine–provided music for social dances.  At the same time, cultural mixing meant that “by the early 1800s European social dances were being danced alongside the ceremonial dances in Native American communities.” These influences also went the other way, he writes.

Square dancing, like more or less everything else in American history, is a product of multiple cultures and pasts.

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