Square dance is often used as a general term for modern Western square dance. This article discusses differences between two forms of square dancing. For specific details on a particular type of square dance, see Traditional square dance or Modern Western square dance.
Square dance is a folk dance with four couples (eight dancers) arranged in a square, with one couple on each side, beginning with Couple 1 facing away from the music and going counter-clockwise until getting to Couple 4. Couples 1 and 3 are known as the head couples, while Couples 2 and 4 are the side couples. Each dance begins and ends each sequence with "sets-in-order" in the square formation. The dance was first described in 17th century England but was also quite common in France and throughout Europe and bears a marked similarity to Scottish Country Dancing. It has become associated with the United States of America due to its historic development in that country. Nineteen U.S. states have designated it as their official state dance.
The various square dance movements are based on the steps and figures used in traditional folk dances and social dances of the various people who migrated to the USA. Some of these traditional dances include Morris dance, English Country Dance, Caledonians and the quadrille. Square dancing is enjoyed by people around the world, and people around the world are involved in the continuing development of this dance.
Square dancers are prompted or cued through a sequence of steps (square dance choreography) by a square dance caller to the beat of music. The caller leads, but usually does not participate in the dance.
Two types of square dancing
There are two broad categories of square dance:
Traditional square dance, which is also called "old time square dance". Traditional square dance is not standardized and can be subdivided into regional styles. The New England and Appalachian styles have been particularly well documented; both have survived to the present time. There are several other styles; some have survived or been revived in recent years, some have not. Traditional square dance is frequently presented in alternation with contra dances or with some form of freestyle couple dancing. One ancestor of New England style square dances is the quadrille, and older New England callers occasionally refer to their squares as “quadrilles.”
Modern Western square dance, which is also called "Western square dance", "contemporary Western square dance", or "modern American square dance". The basis of modern Western square dance was established during the 1930s and 1940s by Lloyd Shaw, who solicited definitions from callers across the country in order to preserve traditional American folk dance. Since the 1970s modern Western square dance has been promoted and standardized by Callerlab, the "International Association of Square Dance Callers". Modern Western square dance is sometimes presented in alternation with round dances.
Comparing square dance calls
In this context a "call" refers to the name of a specific dance movement. It may alternatively refer to the phrase used by a caller to cue the dancers so they dance the specified movement, or to the dance movement itself. It mirrors the ambiguity of the word "dance", which may mean a dance event, the dancing of an individual to the playing of one piece of music, or dancing in general.
A square dance call may take a very short time or a very long time to execute. Most calls require between 4 and 32 "counts" (where a count is roughly one step). In traditional square dancing the timing of a call is dictated by tradition; in some regional styles, particularly that of New England, the dance movements are closely fitted to the phrases of the music. In modern Western square dancing many calls have been given formally specified durations, based partly on direct observation of how long it takes an average dancer to execute them.
Traditional and modern Western square dancing have a number of calls in common, but there are usually small differences in the way they are performed. For example, the "Allemande Left" is traditionally performed by grasping left hands with the other dancer, pulling away from each other slightly, and walking halfway around a central axis then stepping through. In modern Western dance the grip is modified so that each dancer grips the forearm of the other, and there is no pulling (that is, each dancer supports his or her own weight). These modifications make it easier to enter and exit the movement, and thus easier to incorporate into a long sequence of calls.
Traditional square dance uses a comparatively small number of calls—between about ten and thirty, depending on the region and the individual caller. (Many traditional square dance calls are similar or identical to contra dance calls, which are described at Contra dance choreography). Every dance is explained before the participants dance it, unless everyone present is familiar with it. Participants are made to feel welcome to make mistakes (within limits), and the mistakes can sometimes make the dance a lot more fun.
In modern Western square dance the participants are expected to have learned and become proficient in a particular program, a defined set of calls. Dancing modern Western square dance is constantly challenging and surprising due to the unknown or unexpected choreography of the caller (that is, the way the caller ties together the "calls" and the formations which result)—unlike traditional square dance, very rarely are two modern Western dances ever alike. Like traditional square dancing, recovering from occasional mistakes is often part of the fun, but dancers are usually encouraged to dance only those programs at which they are reasonably proficient.
The two types of square dance are accompanied by different types of music.
Traditional square dance is danced to traditional "country dance" music: Irish jigs and reels for the most part, as well as folk music from Quebec (Canada), England, Scotland, and other countries. The music is almost always performed live by a traditional dance music band, and played on acoustic instruments, such as the fiddle, banjo, guitar and double bass. "Old time music" is one form of dance music played at traditional square dances.
Modern Western square dancing is danced to a variety of music types, everything from pop to traditional country to broadway musical to contemporary country music—even rock and techno. The music is usually played from recordings; the beat is also somewhat faster, as the "perfect" modern Western square dance tempo is 120–128 bpm. At this speed dancers take one step per beat of the music.
Modern Western square dance is organized by square dance clubs. Clubs offer classes, social and dance evenings, as well as arrange for larger dances which are usually open to the general square dancing public (i.e. non-club members). Larger dances sometimes request a strict western-style dress code, which originated in the late '50s and early '60s and is known as "traditional square dance attire", although it was not traditional before that time. Clubs may choose to advertise their dances as requiring less strict dress codes known as "proper" or "casual" (no dress code). Traditional square dance groups are less structured and often have no particular dress code.