Square Dancing - Across 400 Years & Around the World
Square Dances are part of a broad spectrum of dances known by various names: country dances, traditional dances, folk dances, barn dances, ceilidh dances, contra dances, Playford dances, etc. These dances appear in over 100 different formations.
If a dance has four couples arranged on the four sides of a square then it is known as a Square Dance. Square Dances were first documented around 400 years ago and have proved so popular that they occur in many different styles all around the world. Some clubs only dance Square Dances.
While a standard Square Dance is for four couples, there are many variations with extra dancers - see the formations page for examples.
This page briefly traces the history of the Square Dance, and provides examples of the many different styles through time and around the world.
Square Dances first appeared in England. The first document that I know of which contain Square Dances is the Lovelace Manuscript; the dances were hand-written sometime between 1621 and 1649. This document contains a number of Square Dances such as "St. Johns only for 8; They shall stand in a square 4".
The Lansdowne Manuscript from approximately 1648 also contained a Square Dance; the dance was unnamed, but is referred to as "Old Hunsdon House". John Playford documented Hunsdon House in The Dancing Master 3rd Edition in 1675.
It was still there in the last (18th) edition in 1728.
Hunsdon House contains a figure known as a Grand Square, which is still very popular today. This video shows a modern Square Dance with a Grand Square on the left, and an interpretation of how Hunsdon House might have been danced in the 17th century on the right.
The dancers in the faster set are dancing at around 131 bpm; the ones in the slower, historical set are walking at around 78 bpm. My belief is that they would have been dancing just as energetically in the 17th century as we do today. Cecil Sharp obviously felt the same way; his interpretation has parts of the dance executed with a "running step", hardly possible at 78 bpm! You can see the type of stepping that they might have done in the Grand Square in the first Morris dance at the bottom of this page; historical research has shown that the stepping may well have been just like this, but with 17th century styling.
In 1651 John Playford published the first edition of The English Dancing Master. It contained 105 dances, of which eight were Square Dances. An early example is Hyde Park (Hide-Park). This is described in Playford as "A square Dance for eight thus":
So, the terminology "Square Dance" really does go back to the 17th century!
Here is a modern interpretation of Hyde Park:
Another dance from 1651, that is still popular today, is Newcastle. Here is a modern interpretation:
Square Dances still appeared in The Dancing Master through to 1728, so we can possibly assume that they were still danced during the first half of the 18th century. Sadly, they seem to have fallen out of fashion in the second half of the century; all the interesting old formations gave way to a vast preponderance of Longways dances.
Square Dances reappeared in the 19th century and were known as Cotillions and Quadrilles They started appearing in the late 18th century.
Here is an 1914 video of a ragtime style of Square Dance. While much of the dancing seems improvised, there are also standard Square Dance figures such as Head Ladies Chain.
In England Cecil Sharp was researching the 17th century dances and publishing his interpretations of them in The Country Dance Book, starting in 1911. This, of course, included some of the 17th century Square Dances. He and Maud Karpeles, in 1918, also published, in Part 5, details of the Appalachian dances that they had collected in America. Whereas the Appalachian dancers had done the dances with varying numbers of couples, Cecil Sharp noted that he felt that they worked best as four couple Square Dances; he called these dances Running Set.
The Round - Cambridge University English Country Dance Club - has been dancing these dances since 1928. Here they are dancing some Running Set:
Here is another example of Running Set or Appalachian Big Set:
Note how many of the moves in thes two videos are done by couples in pairs. They are same moves just done in a different style and formation.
Around the same time, in America, Henry Ford was promoting Square Dancing. With the help of his Dancing Master, Benjamin B. Lovett, in 1926 he published Good Morning and worked to get Square Dancing into the school curriculum.
Henry Ford wasn't the only one promoting Square Dancing in America at that time. Lloyd Shaw, a superintendent of schools in Colorado Springs, was promoting the use of dance for physical exercise and fun, In 1934 he discovered Square Dancing; he created a display team and eventually took it all across the country, sparking tremendous interest in Square Dancing.
Here are a couple of his display figures being performed at a dance in Kent, England:
Meanwhile, it turned out that lots of villages around England had developed their own style of Square Dancing. Various collectors were going around the villages, searching for songs and Morris dances, and found a healthy social dance culture. Some of the dances were Square Dances, either developed separately, or simplified versions of old quadrilles. A typical example was the Cumberland Square Eight, usually danced with great exuberation and energy:
La Russe is an example of a dance, collected from a village, and initially believed to be a local traditional dance, but later discovered to be a local version of a quadrille. It was originally published in Glasgow in 1847. You can see it being danced beautifully at a 1950 EFDSS festival in this video from "Wake Up and Dance" which is on the "Here's a Health to the Barley Mow" DVD:
(Please note: The music is not synchronised with the dancing and it is not the original La Russe tune; it is a medley of traditional tunes, presumably added during the editting.)
Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were keen dancers and danced Square Dances, including in Canada in 1951; their involvement helped to popularise Square Dancing in England.
By 1970, Bill Burleson's Encyclopedia listed over 2,000 different terms in American Square dancing. It was getting confusing! Especially when the same words were used to mean different figures!
Attempts at standardisation were made, which eventually culminated in the creation of Callerlab. This group of respected callers defined a set of "Programs" which listed figures that everyone at a certain level of expertise should know. Callerlab publishes and maintains a set of manuals which define all the calls in the programs, plus a recommended style for dancing them. The current programs are:
Basic - 51 calls
Mainstream - 17 calls
Plus - 30 calls
Advanced 1 - 50 calls
Advanced 2 - 36 calls
There is an even higher level called Challenge!
This style of dancing is know as Modern Western Square Dancing (MWSD) or Club Dancing.
These programs, while losing some of the wonderful variety of calls and styles that exist across all the American versions of Square Dancing, have the major benefit that a dancer who knows Basic, Mainstream and, maybe, Plus, can go to an MWSD club anywhere in the world and join in the dancing immediately.
MWSD conventions attracted thousands of dancers; here is a video of 1,650 dancers in Ohio in 2017 dancing "Suwannee Shores":
Because of the standardisation of calls, MWSD is the same worldwide. Here are some Japanese dancers in Yokohama - notice that the first figure they dance is that Grand Square from the 1648 dance Hunsdon House!
The traditional styles of Square Dance have spread across the world as well. Here are some dancers in Argentina dancing "Double-Bow Knot":
And some Australians doing a Bush Dance:
These Columbians are dancing in a very different style, but incorporating Square Dance figures such as Dosido, Grand Chain (Grand Right & Left) and an Appalachian-style Shuck-the-Corn type of move:
While most Square Dances are danced to reels and jigs, there are also waltz-time Square Dances. Here are some French dancers in Paris dancing a French version of an English dance called Twickenham Ferry:
Check this link for some Inuit Style Square Dancing in Nunavut. It's great to see moves like Lock Chain Swing and Thar Star being done in a very different style and at 158 bpm!
Some great dancing at around 166 bpm. There is a Strip-the-Willow type figure at 3:27 (just like La Boulanger!) with lots of stepping. Then high-speed Double Bow Knot variations at around 10 minutes. And don't miss the winding-up figure at 11:26!
Meanwhile the Irish had been developing their own style of Square Dancing, known as Set Dancing:
The Scottish also have their own style of Square Dancing. Here is an example:
Although they call it Quadrilha it is actually a variation on Appalachian Big Set/Kentucky Running Set for as many as will.
Lots of well-known moves like: Big Basket - including one with the ladies facing out and the men facing in, Winding Up the Ball o' Yarn and Down the Coalmine.
There are even have Morris dances in a Square Dance style:
And here is a Garland Dance with some of the figures done as a Square Dance:
Great dancing with some familiar figures and some innovative ones, done in a very different style!
And there's that Grand Square again:
It is wonderful to see so much Square Dancing around the world, with so much commonality of figures and concepts. How much each historical style seeded other styles and how this tree grew we will never fully know. But we can all enjoy wonderful dancing. Many thanks to all those who have encouraged and promoted Square Dancing through the ages and around the world, and to those who have helped to improve this page. John Sweeney 22/3/2023.