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Square Dance

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Square Dance, Photo courtesy of New York Public Library


Square dance is considered the archetypal American traditional dance, embracing three separate styles that are characterized by local figures and variations. Distinctive national patterns emerged from European cultures that were shared in the New World by immigrants in frontier communities. The Northeastern type was based on the French cotillion and quadrille and spread westward, at least as far as Michigan. The Southeastern version developed in the Appalachian mountains and is actually danced in a circle, with squares formed along the perimeter as single and multiple couples visit each other and travel around the circumference. Popularized as authentic cowboy culture, the Western rendition is performed in separate four-couple sets, rather than in a circle, and features single-couple visitation. Easy to execute, square dance figures and steps are ordered by a caller who announces the sequence and encourages participants. Until the late nineteenth century, dances were preserved by oral tradition, but subsequent collections have been recorded. During the 1920s and 1930s, radio "barn dance" programs brought square dancing to a mass market, further extended by local clubs that continue to thrive.

Pictured left: The "right hand star" for two couples is a classic figure in square dancing. Susan Eike Spalding writes, "The structure of square dancing is designed to express and promote fellowship." (Photograph from the Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)


Read an an essay by Susan Eike Spalding -- Selected Resources