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Forms of traditional square dance have existed for most of American history, but the modern styles that you are probably most familiar with—Northeastern, Southeastern, and Western—began gaining popularity in the early 1950s. To some outside the country community, square dancing might seem a tad outdated. But this style of dance has stood the test of time and continues to be a very popular pastime for individuals in virtually every region of the United States.
Traditional square dancing is different from modern Western square dancing in a few different ways. The number of basic movements used in a traditional square dance is highly limited, making it a very inclusive and community-oriented dance that essentially anyone can jump into at the right moment. The nice thing about square dancing is that the basic movements, also known colloquially as “calls,” are simple enough to learn on the spot. You don’t need to take lessons to be an expert square dancer; you only need to follow some basic instructions.
If you’ve ever took part in a square dance event, chances are you noticed the spontaneity of the order of movements. “Callers” have a repertoire of at least a dozen movements at their disposal, but they call them out randomly, in any order they like, in order to keep dancers on their toes. Since this is a very casual and informal style of dance, participants’ interpretations of the movements might be very unique. Hand and arm motions vary depending on everyone’s individual style of dancing.
In most regions of the U.S., there is no governing body and no rules that demand that square dances are done a certain way. Instead, regions and communities develop their own unspoken rules that become commonplace. The same people might go to a dance event every weekend where they participate in dances like waltzing, foxtrotting, two-stepping, or flatfooting. They will likely begin to see patterns and learn to anticipate certain movements that are “called” quite often.
To an outsider, the rules might seem confusing and the dance style might look scattered and disorganized. But to people familiar with their community’s style of square dance—and their caller’s preferred movements—it’s just another great night at the local dance hall. The blend of familiarity and spontaneity guarantees that no square dance event will be exactly the same. This is one of the main reasons that square dancing has maintained a surprisingly long history in the U.S. Square dancing is undeniably exciting—and with the right soundtrack, it can keep people entertained at a neighborhood barn raising or moonlit hoedown all night long.
Regional Forms of Dance
Does your community have its own form of square dance? If you grew up in the Southeast, you’re probably familiar with the “couples” square dance—wherein a single couple visits each of the other couples in the circle in turn. This laidback and fun structure is best done in a very large circle.
States where this form of dance is typically done include Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky. Its humble beginnings remain unclear, but experts state that it is very likely that it originated in the Appalachian Mountains.
In the Northeast, where country culture is less prominent, square dancers have still created their own unique style, originating from the fancy cotillions of the 18th century. Some Northeastern communities choose to dance without the aid of calls, and synchronize their movements, so the structure of the dance is more formal and organized than its Southeastern counterpart.
Northeastern square dancing has been found in upstate New York, Massachussetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Newfoundland, and Quebec.