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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 2, 2010

African roots gave rise to an American form of cotillion — the square dance

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Square dancing’s draw has become a persistent undertow, as interest in joining area groups has waned in recent years.

Having had a surge in popularity in the 1950s, with standardized calls and complex techniques defining what is widely known as Western style, square dancing has lost some of its pull in the last several decades.

That’s what Tony Eldering, who tried to start a square-dance group at St. Lucy’s Parish Hall in Altamont, recently found.  Only four people were interested, he said this week, and there must be at least four couples to make a square.

“The square form comes from the French cotillions” that were popular in the late 1700s, said Philip Jamison, a professor in the music department at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.  Cotillions were danced by four couples in a square according to formal rules, which required lessons, he said.

The major change between the cotillions and the square dances in America was the calling, he said.  A typical square dance has a fiddle and a caller, who calls out the steps for the dancers to take.

Like much of American music — jazz, rock, and swing — calling likely came from African roots, Jamison said.  Africans who were brought to America would play music for each other, but “they were also calling for white audiences,” he said.  “Slaves played fiddles for white people to dance.”

By the end of the 1800s, calling had been completely adopted by white culture, Jamison said, not unlike the banjo, which also has African roots.

Before the Civil War, in the 1840s, minstrel shows, which featured white people in black make-up performing black music, became the first American stage entertainment, Jamison said.  Northern audiences were curious about black music, he said, and the shows may have begun as a portrayal of that culture, but ended up as a racist mockery. 

Regardless, banjo playing figured heavily in the performances and could have led to black culture abandoning the instrument, said Jamison, who is working on a book on the subject.  By the end of the 19th Century, the banjo had become a white country music instrument.

What is now considered traditional square dancing, as opposed the modern Western square dance, also includes elements from Scottish reels and English country dances, Jamison said.  They did not meld seamlessly with the French form, though.

When New Orleans became part of the Union after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Creoles “were spoiling for a fight with the English-speaking newcomers,” wrote Maureen Needham in her 2002 book, I See America Dancing.  “And fight they did, not on the battlefields but in the dance halls.”

The argument of whether the dance floor would accommodate a quadrille or a reel could easily become a scene and, according to Needham, prompted correspondence between Secretary of State James Madison and the governor of the territory, William Claiborne.

“Eventually the cultural clash between Creoles and Americans resulted in the first legislation enacted in the United States that ordered public ballrooms to maintain a set proportion of French quadrilles to English country dances,” Needham wrote.

Lions and tigers

Today, there are distinct types of square dancing — Western and traditional.  Jamison likened them to lions and tigers, which are both cats, but quite different from each other.

Len Houle, who lives in Massachusetts, is the director of information for the United Square Dancers of America, which began in 1981.  He credits Henry Ford, who hired tutors for French and English dance instructors to teach square dancing, with raising the level of square dancing.

The 1950s brought the Western style, he said, adding of he and his wife, “We started square dancing in 1964 and we’ve been dancing ever since.”

They’ve square danced around the world, he said, going on square-dance cruises.  “You can go to any state and square dance and it’s all done the same way,” he said of the standardized language and rules.

The music can be anything, he said, even Michael Jackson or the Rolling Stones.  “Anything that has a beat… That’s what they square dance to,” he said.

“The caller, he’s the one who makes or breaks you,” Houle said.  “You can walk two or three miles in an hour just square dancing,” he said, stressing that it provides good exercise for the body and the mind, since dancers have to listen for the calls and interpret their meaning.

He and his wife are hoping to bring the National Square Dance Convention, which attracts between 6,000 and 17,000 dancers, to Springfield, Mass. in 2015.  They will find out if they won the bid at the convention in Detroit next June.

Asked about the response to Eldering’s square dance group, Houle said, “What he ran into is a national resistance to square dancing,” a phenomenon that, he reasoned, is due to the perceived cost of the apparel.

“Today, a man can wear a good pair of overalls or jeans,” he said, stressing that people don’t have to spend a lot of money on the clothes.

“You should be fresh and crisp,” he said, and men must wear a long-sleeved shirt, since they have a tendency to sweat and many of the moves require an embrace.  “With a long-sleeved shirt, that eliminates that problem,” he said.

Women don’t have to wear the elaborately skirted outfits often seen, which require undergarments that could cost as must as $150, he said.  Rather, they can just wear a prairie skirt, which is “fashionable and cheap,” he said, adding that the reason they can’t wear pants is for “identification purposes.”  In the fast-paced swirl of movement, male and female dancers must be easily distinguishable.

The 1950s, Western style of square dance is “definitely declining in numbers,” Jamison said.  The traditional style that he calls is “simpler, but more accessible to everybody,” he said.  He likened the Western style, which originated in post World War II California, to bowling clubs and bridge clubs, which were also popular at the time.  In order to have a “living dance community,” he said, it’s vital to have young people.

Dancing naturally has an element that will attract young people since it involves both sexes, Jamison said, concluding, “I’m sure that has helped drive dancing through the ages.”

This particular kind of dance, Jamison said, also has community.  At weddings, he sees the square dances bring people together, so they are unified around the same thing, and, at the dance halls, he sees people who share a common interest meet and enjoy each other.

As the caller, he said, “You’re sort of the link between the music and the dancers.”  It’s satisfying to bring them together.

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In Asheville, N.C., where Jamison lives, dancing is part of the culture and there are regional, even local, differences in the calls and steps in a square dance.  He will sometimes see three generations of a family on the dance floor.