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Square Dancing

By Susan Eike Spalding

Versions of square dancing have been popular as social dances in Europe and European-influenced countries among both upper and lower classes of many ethnicities since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I. Characteristics

Square dancing is structured in two characteristic formations: a four couple square in which each couple forms one side of the square and circles for any number of couples in which subsets of two couples form the four-person square. In either formation, each couple takes a turn “visiting” or dancing figures with each of the other couples. Figures are determined by a caller or by written directions. An example of a figure for two couples is “Right Hand Star,” in which all four dancers take right hands, and walk forward in a clockwise direction around their own small circle. Most square dances have a figure-chorus structure, so that after sets of two couples perform one or more figures together, the whole group dances the chorus. A simple chorus figure is “Promenade the ring,” in which partners join hands with each other and walk counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the square or circle. Live music usually accompanies traditional square dancing. In the United States, bands may include some combination of fiddle, banjo, guitar, accordion, piano, and percussion. In other countries, other traditional instruments may also be used. Modern Western Square Dancing uses recorded music.

Square dancing has become iconic in the United States, representing a pioneer spirit and a strong sense of community. The structure of square dancing is designed to express and promote fellowship. Each individual interacts at least briefly with every other individual in the set, and each couple with all other couples. The whole group dances together for the chorus figures. Each person is responsible for the success of the dance. Square dancing has been used to represent rural communities in television, film, and musical theater, and has been the inspiration for choreography including Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo. It is identified as an important traditional dance in the Caribbean Islands .  While Modern Western Square Dancing has developed as a more formal activity with a club organization specifying the structure of the dancing, communities in many states and several countries continue to hold more informal, less structured traditional square dances.

II. History

Four couple set dances appeared, along with set dances in circles and longways formations (dancers forming two lines facing each other), in the seventeenth century dance manual, The Dancing Master, compiled by John Playford. The quadrille, for four couples, developed in France in the eighteenth century, growing rapidly in popularity in Europe over the course of several decades. European colonists carried these dances with them to the New World, where they were emulated by people of African and indigenous descent in colonies all over North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean. After the French Revolution, former French nobility expatriated to the United States made their living teaching such dances both in the eastern states and in the emerging frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains.

The four couple square became predominant in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern United States and in Caribbean countries along with longways contra dances. The circular square dance evolved in the Southeastern United States by the middle of the nineteenth century, perhaps influenced by circle set dances and play-party games and by dances of Native Americans and of African descendants. As settlers of all classes moved west during the nineteenth century, Northern and Southern regional styles blended to produce a square dance tradition specific to the Western United States.

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, these figured set dances were learned from a dancing master and performed without the aid of a dance caller. By the mid-nineteenth century the practice of calling dances had been established in the United States, probably because of the influence of the black fiddlers who played for the dances and chanted the moves along with the music. Today most square dances are led by callers.

Square dancing lost favor among the upper classes in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth century with the rise of ballroom dances such as waltz and polka, but square dance traditions were maintained in rural communities. As the jazz age blossomed in the early twentieth century, some feared the loss of the traditional dances they had known, including square dancing. Henry Ford published a book aimed at reviving “old fashioned dances” in 1926; he then published  records of dance music to accompany the traditional dances. Lloyd Shaw published Cowboy Dances in 1939 designed to preserve traditional Western square dance, and Frank Smith published The Appalachian Square Dance in 1955.

Square dancing experienced a boom after World War II, having been taught by recreation leaders on military bases and at community centers. By the 1950s, standardized Modern Western Square Dance had begun to evolve from the traditional types. Formal clubs were established in all fifty United States and twenty-seven other countries including China and the United Arab Emirates (http://www.dosado.com).Today, members proceed through several levels of training in order to become proficient, and figures and routines have become increasingly complex and intricate.  Costumes can be elaborate, with couples often wearing matching outfits, women in crinoline skirts and men in cowboy-inspired shirts. Alongside this development, numerous communities have either continued traditional square dance events or have deliberately revived them. Traditional square dances are simpler and more informal, and anyone can become comfortable with the dancing within one evening. Participants typically wear ordinary clothes rather than specific costumes. Some institutions such as John C. Campbell Folk School and the Country Dance and Song Society have sponsored workshops and dances specifically aimed at promoting traditional square dance of various types.

Traditional square dance figures formed the basis of Modern Western Square Dancing. Likewise, Modern Western Square Dancing terminology and practices have been incorporated into local traditions. Both Modern Western Square Dancing and traditional square dancing continue to use vocabulary inherited from eighteenth century French quadrilles, such as “allemande” and “sashay” (chasée). Historically, square dancing was a way for mixed-gender couples to socialize, and calls were usually directed at “gents” and “ladies.” In recent decades a number of communities have adopted the terms “lead” and “follow” when giving directions.

Traditional square dances or quadrilles are enjoyed today internationally as social dances, with variants in each region of the United States, in many South and Central American countries, in Caribbean countries, and in Europe.

Cultural Context

Dancing in square formations has been popular among all classes from the elite to the enslaved at various times during its nearly three-hundred year history. In many regions of the Americas, it remained until the mid-twentieth century a way for people in rural communities of all ethnicities to socialize on weekends, on special occasions, or after “workings” such as corn-shuckings or barn raisings. In some communities it still has this role, though workings are uncommon, while in others it has become a recreation for dance enthusiasts who travel to participate in dances in different areas, much as contra dancers do. Each dance community maintains its own particular style, structure of the dance event, and repertoire of figures, developed over decades to suit the community’s needs and interests. By contrast, Modern Western Square Dancing is standardized regardless of the geographic location of the dance. The challenge and complexity of the dancing creates an elite group of dancers, with skills developed over a period of years. Rather than being a means for a local community to socialize, Modern Western Square Dancing is itself the focal point of an international network of dance enthusiasts.

Both traditional and Modern Western Square Dancing involve contact and interaction among all the dancers in the set and require close attention to the caller, to one’s partner, and to all of the others in the set. They both enact a way of relating and a sense of community that contrasts with couple dancing such as waltz or salsa in which one relates only to one’s partner and responds to the music. Except in the case of demonstration teams, square dancing exists as a social dance, a way to interact with others, rather than being a performance for an audience outside of the dance.

Susan Eike Spalding co-edited Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America’s Southeast and Beyond and is writing a book on Appalachian dance communities. She produced a video documentary for public television on Appalachian dance, and has organized conferences and seminars on traditional dance. She holds her doctorate in Dance from Temple University and has recently retired from teaching at Berea College. 


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles


Dalsemer, Robert G. West Virginia Square Dances. Haydenville, MA: The Country Dance and Song Society, 1982. Internet version 2001.  http://www.cdss.org/elibrary/wvasquares/.

Damon, Damon, S. Foster. The History of Square Dancing. Barre, MA: Barre Gazette, 1957.

Ford, Henry and Mrs. Henry Ford. Good Morning - After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford.  Dearborn, Michigan: Dearborn Publishing, 1926.

Manual, Peter, ed. Creolizing Contra Dance in the Caribbean. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. Accompanied by Compact Disc documentation of dances, including quadrilles.

Sharp, Cecil J. The Country Dance Book Part V. London: Novello and Company, Ltd, 1918.

Shaw, Lloyd. Cowboy Dances. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, LTD, 1939.

Smith, Frank H. The Appalachian Square Dance.   Berea, Kentucky: Berea College, 1955.

Spalding, Susan and Jane Woodside, eds. Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America’s Southeast and Beyond. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995.


Jamison, Phil. “Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection.” Journal of Appalachian Studies. Vol. 9 No. 2 (Fall 2003): 387-398.

Online Resources

The Old-Time Herald: A Magazine Devoted to Old-Time Music. Published bi-monthly. Regular “Dance Beat” articles on dance, many on square dance. http://www.oldtimeherald.org/

Modern Western Square Dance UK Square and Rounds Dancing: Official Website of the British Association of American Square Dance Clubs. http://www.uksquaredancing.com/page41.htm

Western Square Dancing International Square and Round Dance resources; lists of clubs, caller training. http://www.dosado.com


Berea College Hutchins Library Special Collections

Documents, photos, and video footage of traditional square dance in Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky; Berea College Country Dancers; dance in conjunction with settlement schools and the Council of the Southern Mountains. http://www.berea.edu/hutchinslibrary/specialcollections/default.asp

Country Dance and Song Society

Connecting people who are interested in English and Anglo-American traditional dance and music. Includes traditional square dance history, documentation, and materials. http://www.cdss.org

Digital Library of Appalachia – Appalachian College Association Central Library

The Digital Library of Appalachia provides online access to archival and historical materials related to the culture of the southern and central Appalachian region. The contents of the DLA are drawn from special collections of Appalachian College Association member libraries. Includes material on African American square dancing. http://www.aca-dla.org/

East Tennessee State University Center for Appalachian Studies and Services Archives

Video footage of traditional square dance in Virginia and Tennessee; interviews with dancers, callers, and musicians; and documentation of traditional dance conferences and festivals at East Tennessee State University. http://www.etsu.edu/cass/archives/

Lloyd Shaw Foundation

Purpose "To Recall, Restore, and Teach the Folk Rhythms of the American People.” Resources for dance teachers and leaders. Link to Carson-Brierly Dance Library, University of Denver. http://www.lloydshaw.org/

Carson-Brierly Dance Library, University of Denver

Houses the Lloyd Shaw Dance Archives. http://library.du.edu/site/

Smithsonian Institution/Library of Congress

Contains video and audio documentation of square dance in social and performance settings. Contact researcher via email for assistance. http://www.folklife.si.edu

Square Dance Foundation of New England

History of square, round, and folk dancing, with special focus on documents and recordings of Ralph Page. http://sdfne.org/ArchiveCenter/tabid/98/Default.aspx


Square Dance History

Website under construction will present a history of square dancing, regional styles, and historical antecedents; will feature moving images, text, photographs, and audio recordings. http://www.SquareDanceHistory.org

Square Dance Legislation Collection

Consists of manuscript materials (1975-present) documenting the history of legislation to designate the square dance as the national or state folk dance. http://findingaids.loc.gov/db/search/xq/searchMfer02.xq?_id=loc.afc.eadafc.af010005&_faSec tion=overview&_faSubsection=did&_dmdid=

University of New Hampshire Library, New Hampshire Library of Traditional Music and Dance.

Focus is traditional English and American dance, with manuscripts from the eighteenth to twentieth century. http://www.library.unh.edu/special/index.php/category/folk-music-dance

University of North Carolina -Asheville Library

Particularly the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival established in 1928 and continuing to the present. http://toto.lib.unca.edu/findingaids/mss/mountain_dance/default_mountain_dance.htm